Best known among cinephiles for directing James Dean in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause, They Live by Night was Nicholas Ray’s first film. Released in 1948, the film has gone down as the template for the couples-on-the-run film genre, which has given us treats such as Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Wild at Heart (which gifted the world with Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru), and Terence Malick’s gorgeously shot Badlands. Unrequited love mixed with lawlessness—yeah, I’m there. That’s my fucking jam.
They Live by Night is a surprisingly affecting film. Starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, the film continually captures their undeniable on-screen chemistry; Ray did a fine job of capturing it with some choice lighting and close-up shots that make Cathy O’Donnell (in particular) as pretty and dreamy as possible—and it worked quite effectively on me. Although Granger and O’Donnell were born well before my time, I now have an eternal crush on her. Honestly, this could have been a crap film and I could have watched it from beginning to end and happily basked every single time she is up on the screen. She was that gorgeous.
Anyway, Bowie (played by Granger) and Keechie (O’Donnell) are young, naïve innocents, which made it difficult to impossible not to want to root for them. Their couply-affection and struggle to attain a peaceful, law-abiding life is even more palpably felt because we know—since it’s a film noir, which operated under the Motion Picture Production Code in which characters who break society’s rule must pay for their crimes by the end of the film—that shit will end badly for Bowie, the ex-con. With no femme fatale and few ominous shots cast in stark pools of shadow, They Live by Night is not a super noir-y film. However, Ray did a fantastic job of foreshadowing Bowie’s inevitable doom early on in a car crash scene, then with the composition of Bowie and Keechie as they take their walk down a dark aisle to a late night hotel where they spontaneously get hitched.
(Fun fact about the film: the villain, a one-eyed man named Chicamaw portrayed admirably by Howard DaSilva was almost played by Robert Mitchum; this would have made the film that much cooler.)
Verdict: Far from a flawless film, They Live by Night is nevertheless well worth watching. To boot, it can easily lead one down a cinematic rabbit hole to follow with films such as Anthony Mann’s Side Street, which also stars O’Donnell and Granger, or the classic Bonnie and Clyde.