When I watched this film for the first time recently, it wasn't at all what I expected. I had heard many categorize this film as one of the great film noirs. For some reason, They Live By Night didn't seem to fit for me as a film noir. Yes it has plot elements that are film noir-like (heist, blackmail) but it doesn’t really fit my definition of film noir as the style is more focused on elevating romantic relationship dynamics and less on atmospherics and the darker, more oblique emotions typically found in film noir. There’s not enough seedyness or darkness to the protagonist, and there are too many stretches of the film that just don’t work for me as film noir. This doesn’t make the film inferior, but actually more mis-labeled perhaps. However, this doesn't change the fact that it’s one of Nicholas Ray’s best works. This is his first great masterpiece and is also a pre-curser to his later films that would explore the dilemmas at play in the
Farley Granger plays Bowie, a 23-year old escaped murder convict who, along with two other escapees, Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), and T Dub (Jay C. Flippen), find themselves holed up at Chickamaw’s house. It’s there that
interacts with Chickamaw’s niece, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). They develop a bond based upon attraction and mutual inexperience with the opposite sex. Bowie has been in jail since age 16. Keechie looks and acts as if she’s never had a boyfriend. They are timid but they are instinctively drawn toward one another. The three men begin a plan for a bank heist, which they execute, but Bowie ends up on the run from authorities when his gun is found in the getaway car. He brings along Keechie, and this is where the film turns away from noir and focuses more on the love story, which drives the plot through the rest of the film. Bowie
Bowie and Keechie’s love story is the main and central reason for why the film works and what makes it essential for me. Their entire relationship feels very forward thinking in that it’s self-aware, open to awkwardness and to the moments where sexuality in a relationship is burgeoning but not yet understood. Ray’s film allows these two to just “be together” in several scenes that presage the dynamics that would be explored in the French New Wave films like Breathless (1959). Furthermore, the love story here captures an essence that would become the basis of Ray's masterpiece on youthful rebellion, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). James Dean's and Natalie Wood’s teenage projection of love, awkwardness and honesty in that film seems to have a genesis in the relationship at the heart of They Live By Night. In each film, there’s a similar quality to the onscreen kisses, to the dialogue, to the way the characters look at each other, to the way the camera regards them. Both films also speak to an eternally youthful spirit of spontaneity and, although to different degrees, rebellion. Ray also allows for an identification with a certain feeling of disenchantment, as both Bowie and Keechie are outsiders looking for some sort of comfort to hold on to. This would of course come to a head most notably Rebel.
Ray’s concern with the family unit circa 1950 is also on display here. Keechie’s poor relationship with her Uncle echoes the strained relationships between father and son in both Rebel and Bigger Than Life (1956), and perhaps most importantly, is echoed in Natalie Wood’s painful relationship with an abusive father in Rebel. Once Bowie and Keechie get married, they also go through some tribulations and difficult domesticity issues. They are not able to grasp the rosy portrait of married life that they had aspired to have. These themes are also explored in Rebel and to a further extent in Bigger Than Life. I praise both Granger and O’Donnell for their natural and emotionally open performances, which for this era, was just beginning to occur with the new method style of acting. They have wonderful chemistry and their love story is one of the most electric I've seen from this era. Taken together, Ray’s films regarding youth, familial relationships, and married life from this period are some of the most sincere portraits surviving today. Watching them now still brings a refreshing spirit of honesty to the fore, leaving one to feel that nothing is hidden from the camera and these films can still play as remarkably insightful.