||One of director Nicholas Ray's favourite of his own works was also his first at the helm: They Live By Night. A protégé of Elia Kazan, he was attracted to the loner in his fiction, detailing the isolation of those who do not, or cannot, fit in with society and every so often finding someone who can soothe their troubled minds, though that was not always the case with all his protagonists. The loner is played by Farley Granger in this 1948 film, actually completed the year before, but thanks to new studio owner Howard Hughes' meddling at RKO, held up for release.
Granger was Bowie (pronounced "Boo-ee") who has been in prison for murder since he was a teenager; he is barely out of his teens when we catch up with him, having broken out with the help of two older criminals who exploited him and his desire to be free again. They were played by Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen, the former of whom threatens to steal the movie from the central couple we are supposed to be concentrating on (soon to be blacklisted in the anti-Communist witch hunts, this was one of the highlights of a career that should have been bigger).
Bowie's romantic partner was Keechie, played by Cathy O'Donnell, a major figure in the film noir movement as far as acting went, though her biggest movie would be her last, Ben Hur in 1959. She commonly played the “good girl” who offered the path to redemption for the hero, but here it is debatable whether Keechie is encouraging Bowie or whether she is trying to guide him to the straight and narrow. They are very much partners in crime, as the original novel's inspiration were: the infamous real-life 1930s gangsters Bonnie and Clyde.
Now, Parker and Barrow were the inspiration for many a picture, including the Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway-starring classic Bonnie and Clyde of 1967 which changed the course of popular filmmaking forever, but it did not exist in a vacuum, and They Live By Night could legitimately be said to have influenced a whole genre of crime movies. Sure, there had been lovers on the run stories before this one - Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once is often cited as a jumping off point - but the romance of Ray's vision here affected many who saw it.
That said, they probably saw it on television rather than originally in the cinema, though Joseph H. Lewis's cult classic Gun Crazy seems to have been prompted by it (compare the on-location robbery sequences in both), but Ray's efforts and depiction of what can best be described as the innocence of the naïve combined with the grimmer side of violence was so potent that many have tried to capture that particular mood ever since. You can see it in anything from Terence Malick's Badlands to David Lynch's Wild at Heart to Melina Matsoukas' Queen and Slim.
Basically, the haunting romance of the doomed lovers is irresistible to many a filmmaker, and the unironic devotion Bowie and Keechie enjoy in their comparatively brief time together in the middle of nowhere, in between spaces of Texas hold a power that appeals equally to the young, who enjoy the youthful demeanour of the couple struggling to get by in a world they have not quite grown into, and the more mature, who can relate to the dreams the tragic pair have that will never be fulfilled, as well as the mistakes they make which damn them so poetically.
You can bet Quentin Tarantino had seen They Live By Night before he wrote True Romance (or Natural Born Killers, for that matter), or Steven Spielberg appreciated Ray's endeavours when he directed The Sugarland Express, even a lesser cult movie like aloha bobby and rose owes a huge debt to the sweet, but corrupted lovers of this movie. That they have each other in a location which offers no hope for either of them apart definitely tugs at the heartstrings, and Granger and O'Donnell's untutored performances contain that poignancy throughout. Both stars had their issues with Hollywood and were never entirely at home there; Granger would be proud of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, however. Meanwhile Ray would continue with his obsession with outsiders, culminating in James Dean's best film, Rebel without a Cause, far indebted to this.
[The Criterion Collection release They Live By Night on Blu-ray, a great way to discover - or rediscover - the film, with the following features:
New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary featuring film historian Eddie Muller and actor Farley Granger
New video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith
Short piece from 2007 with film critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
Illustrated audio interview excerpts from 1956 with producer John Houseman
PLUS: A new essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.]