The greats have to get their start somewhere. Before Nicholas Ray was collaborating with Humphrey Bogart or James Dean, he got his start with a quiet little crime picture for RKO Studios with They Live by Night. Based upon the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson (which was later remade by Robert Altman), They Live by Night not only established Ray as a vital voice in American cinema but laid the groundwork for an entire subgenre of young lovers on the lam. Now Ray’s directorial debut has joined the Criterion Collection in another expansive set that features a pristine transfer of the film and a robust roster of special features that takes the viewer behind the scenes and deep into the frames.
The film opens with a shot from a helicopter following a car full of bandits speeding away. Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) have just broken Bowie (Farley Granger) out of prison, where the young man has been serving time for a murder that he swears he didn’t commit. After an injury, Bowie and his cohorts take refuge in a gas station where the young man makes the acquaintance of Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). Both young people have led different lives and have each been sheltered in their own ways. The two quickly fall in love and hit the road together in the hopes of living an honest life. However, those who broke Bowie out of prison want him to assist in their robberies and the police have their eyes out for the fugitive. Though they tie the knot and scheme to escape south of the border, it’s easy to elope but not so easy to escape.
They Live by Night is a movie with two distinct personalities that intertwine but never step over each other. There’s the disillusioned aspects of film noir and post-war America with Bowie as an escaped convict. Then there’s the tender love story of these star-crossed lovers searching for freedom on the highways. At first, Nicholas Ray establishes the film as a crime picture, robbers and an escaped prisoner on the run. It doesn’t take long for Ray to shift gears and the take the film towards its love story, with Bowie and Keechie quickly hitting it off and running away together. Ray finds himself more interested in the inner-workings of the hearts and minds of these two young lover rather than focusing solely on the seedy criminal underworld or the police on their backs. The story is able to give Bowie a reason to want to escape a life of crime and he finds it in the young woman he loves, but there’s always that looming threat of his past and the unresolved aspects of his fugitive status and the criminals who broke him out. Can a low class boy with a checkered past get a fair shake? Not in this world, buster.
Since this is an edition from the Criterion Collection, there’s no shortage of special features that dive into the film, its place in history, and its unusual path to the screen. One featurette featuring critic Imogen Sara Smith dives deep into the history of the film as well its role in the broader history of American cinema. One of her more interesting factoids involves mogul Howard Hughes, who purchased RKO shortly after the film was completed only to allow Ray’s debut feature to sit on the shelf without the famed eccentric altering the finished film. There are a few special features from a 2007 edition of They Live by Night, including one featurette with critic Molly Haskell that features interviews with Oliver Stone and other filmmakers and historians. Finally, there’s an audio commentary from 2007 featuring Eddie Muller, a noir historian, and They Live by Night star Farley Granger. Anyone looking to understand where Nicholas Ray and his directorial debut factor into American cinema will find no shortage of insight from these special features.
Later in his career, Nicholas Ray would bring to the screen one of the most iconic portraits of teenage angst in Rebel Without a Cause. His understanding of teenage issues and that feeling of being lost was present in the origins of filmmaking career with They Live by Night. Many film lovers love to try and categorize films into genres as a means to make their discussion somewhat easier, yet this is a movie that doesn’t allow that. It’s not quite a film noir. It’s not quite a teenage romance. It’s not quite a crime picture. It’s not quite like anything to come before it.
They Live by Night
- Overall Score
The directorial debut of the legendary Nicholas Ray, They Live by Night enters the Criterion Collection with another impressive special edition that presents a glorious transfer of the classic film and plenty of fantastic special features.