Film Review: They Live by Night (1948)

Release Date: August, 1948 (London)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take steps a block long. Anyone gets in my way, I’ll stomp ’em!” – Chickamaw

While They Live by Night isn’t my favorite Nicholas Ray picture, it was the start of his career and was a much better film than most director’s first efforts.

The film is also a sort of prototype to Bonnie and Clyde, not officially, but it shares a very similar narrative about two lovers on the run from the law. However, the original novel could have been inspired by the real life Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in 1934, just three years before the novel Thieves Like Us was published.

The story starts with some prison escapees fleeing towards freedom in 1930s Mississippi. The men decided to rob a bank. One of them, a young man named Bowie, was wrongfully convicted of murder and feels that he can use the money from the bank heist to pay for a lawyer that can prove his innocence.

Things go sideways, Bowie is hurt and finds refuge with the daughter of a gas station owner. The two fall in love and plan to live an honest life away from all the crime and violence. Keechie, the girl, gets pregnant but at the same time, the two men from Bowie’s gang return, demanding his help. Of course, things go sideways again.

The film was well shot and very well directed and it even featured some innovations. For instance, the helicopter shot during the opening credits was pretty unique for 1948 and it kicked this film off with a lot of energy. Also, being a mostly noir picture, it leaves behind the genre’s typical tight interior sets and spends a good amount of time in the wide open spaces of the rural Mid-South, the same geographical region where Bonnie and Clyde committed their robbery spree. They Live by Night is a wide open picture compared to most of the films like it.

The starring duo of Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger were pretty much newcomers to the big screen but they held their own and their love for one another seemed genuine. O’Donnell was especially good and you feel nothing but sadness for her, as she is thrown into a heartbreaking and perilous situation.

They Live by Night is a very well made motion picture. There isn’t a whole lot that you can say about it that could be negative. It has a good director, nice cinematography, treads some original ground and has good acting. If you like Bonnie and Clyde, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Nicholas Ray would go on to make some better movies but this one still holds a special place.

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