“This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in…” – opening credits
Nicholas Ray lived through the Depression, which isn’t the reason he wore an eye-patch later in life, but it was the reason he was asked to adapt the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson. Ray found the project to be a very personal one and although RKO producer John Houseman had minor issues with his script, the final result is pretty much what Ray was aiming for. They Live by Night is a blazing debut, nurtured by Houseman, who allowed Ray the creative freedom to experiment. There’s a fairy tale feel to the film that subverts the social realism, as the star-crossed lovers attempt to find happiness in an insensitive world populated with ogres with names like Chicamaw and T-Dub.
Farley Granger stars as Bowie, a young man who escapes from a prison farm where he was doing time for a murder beef. He escapes with one-eyed bank robber Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and burly T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen). Bowie naively goes along with a bank robbing scheme the other two propose. He figures if he gets a big enough cut, he can hire a hotshot lawyer to prove he’s innocent. It’s such a stupid plan, but, as the opening credits state, Bowie doesn’t understand how the world works. Later on he explains how his father was shot and his mother married the dude who shot him. The cards were stacked against Bowie from childhood.
They manage to pull off the bank robbery, but Bowie’s back is injured during the getaway. The three men flee to a grungy gas station where T-Dub’s sister-in-law, Mattie, lets them hide out. Mattie’s daughter Keechie (the stunning natural beauty Cathy O’Donnell) helps take care of Bowie and soon the two become lovers. Once Bowie is well enough, the two take off on their own in search of an honest, normal life.
The world beyond the gas station strengthens the fairy tale vibe – it sorta resembles the world outside the children’s home in Night of the Hunter. As the title suggests, Bowie and Keechie do most of their traveling at night, so the world they see is one of shadows completely cut off from normal society. When they do interact with society, it is a cheap facsimile that offers them nothing but tactless bullshit. Even when they get hitched, the happiest day of their lives, the little chapel’s doorbell plays an off-key version of the wedding march and the proprietor pushes “the deluxe package” on them like any other retail vulture.
The star-crossed lovers in the film become outlaws not so much because of the crimes Bowie has committed, rather because they wanna be happy and live a simple life in a world that won’t allow it. The only refuge they find is in a backwoods bungalow they rent to spend their honeymoon in. It’s cold and drafty, but at least they’re together. Soon it’s Christmas time and the newlyweds decorate the shit outta their little cabin. Keechie goes into town to buy a gift for Bowie and while she’s gone, Chicamaw (the “one-eyed lush,” as Mattie affectionately refers to him) rolls into the cabin. The past has got up with Bowie.
He’s got a job proposal for Bowie – another bank heist with T-Dub. He’s basically bullied into it by Chicamaw, who loafs around the cabin, breaking Christmas ornaments until Bowie gives in. Again, outside forces refuse Bowie a normal life. The law is still after him, so pulling another job might not be the best idea, but he figures (again) that if he does just one last job (again) they can move on to the straight-and-narrow. Bowie and Keechie are forced to leave behind their Christmas presents (she gets him a watch) and go on the lam (again).
Christmas is ruined.
The film reaches a powerful conclusion that’s such a bummer to witness. Back then, movie studios wouldn’t let a killer go free, they had to be punished, So Bowie’s gotta go. He gets ambushed and Keechie is left with nothing but a devastating farewell note that she reads aloud. The film ends with a close-up of her face, which fades out in two parts: first around just her face, which gives her head a symbolic halo of light, then the lights go out completely.
Granger couldn’t play a better victim. He moves around the film in this naive daze as he constantly finds himself digging his own grave. O’Donnell, who first appears androgynous in overalls with her hair up, is terribly vulnerable, but has more of a realistic viewpoint of the world than Bowie.
They certainly don’t make love stories like this anymore. They Live by Night is a lyrical, bittersweet tale devoid of any cliches. Despite being full of noir sensibilities, particularly in the visual department, Ray tells the story with a level of compassion and sensitivity you don’t really see in this cynical genre.