They Live By Night opens with the iconic shot of a convertible car speeding down an empty highway at top speed, while a man in the backseat tears off his prison fatigues and throws them away into the wind. From this, one might expect a hot-blooded chase film, but the story turns quickly to romance and loyalty as its primary sources of conflict. The biggest problem with this film is its pacing. And, while the characters are compelling enough, they really don’t surprise the audience too much.
The film also doesn’t know what should and shouldn’t be shown. In the beginning, when Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) and Bowie (Farley Granger) first meet each other, we see very little that actually draws them together. Their love is inferred, not proven. Later in the movie, as the authorities close in on our heroes, we expect to see drawn-out conflicts where the police nearly catch them. Yet, all we see are discussions by the police, save for the moment when Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) shoots a nosy cop in the chest. During the climax of the film–the bank robbery–we actually skip over the entire process of robbing the bank! A lot could have been improved about this film simply by exploring certain ideas further.
Despite some of the story problems, I enjoyed Nicholas Ray’s direction. He favors the foreground and likes his characters to face the camera during moments of uncertainty. He also knows exactly when to shoot in the close-up, creating a sense of intimacy between the characters at just the right moments. The film’s finale is its most poignant scene. It takes place in silence; no words are spoken and there is no score. Instead, we see shots of Bowie walking toward the cabin, alone, intercut with shots of police in the shadows with guns. All is still.
It’s a shame that the rest of the movie isn’t as good as the ending. They Live By Night is a film with a lot of potential. The story of a duo on the run from the law ending in tragedy would later be used by many others, most notably Bonnie and Clyde(1967). However, for a debut film, it goes a long way on the strength of its direction and acting and I’m looking forward to seeing more movies from Ray’s catalogue. Hopefully, the next one will do a better job of expanding on its groundwork.
3 out of 5 stars