Saturday, August 20, 2011

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (Nicholas Ray, 1949, USA)

Bowie and Keechie inhabit the world’s umbra, concealed in the murk of a fugitive life while dreaming of an ordinary existence, to feel the warming embrace of the sun instead of the cold sterile touch of the dark side. Nicolas Ray transforms film noir into human melodrama, creating a hybrid of violence and romance among thieves, where justice exists in some nebulous boundary unexplored by zealous moralists.

Ray’s film is an anti-Bonnie and Clyde tale of life on the run, portraying Bowie as a boy led astray and Keechie as his first love whose wish is to live like ordinary people. Bowie was incarcerated for murder as a teenager and seeks a new attorney to file an appeal while Keechie tries to straighten his crooked desires. Farley Granger's clean-cut and precious features reflect a boy incarcerated in a man's body, a man now at the mercy of more powerful cohorts. Cathy O'Donnell infuses Keechie with a pure and innocent aura, her maternal instinct superseding his fraternal morality. These two young lovers are hiding from the Law, not running from accountability, searching for Justice. But there is no honor among thieves where selfishness betrays honor at the cost of conscience, and Judas leads her savior to certain doom.

Nicolas Ray begins the film with a magnificent aerial shot as the three escapees race across barren fields, like an impotent god watching a human tragedy from above. Bowie, T-Dub, and Chicamaw stop a passing motorist and Ray shows the brutal action like a flashpoint, gone as quickly as it happened. This scene establishes Bowie opposed to violence while his compatriots relish in the bloodshed, career criminals whose end will be justified. Ray captures the lovelorn characters in mostly medium close-ups, allowing them to dominate the screen, revealing their emotional epiphany.

Bowie is forced into one last bank robbery and Keechie, pregnant with more than fear and doubt, silently awaits his return. But judgment is imposed by police who shoot first and never ask questions.

Final Grade: (B)

4 comments:

Andy 7 said...

Cathy O'Donnell precedes Natalie Wood's character in "Rebel Without A Cause" to such a degree that both films could be shown back to back. I think Nicholas Ray noticed the similarities, too.

Caftan Woman said...

Cathy O'Donnell becomes prettier and more luminous as the couple's love grows. It's a lovely touch.

I like the use of the song "I Know Where I'm Going" in the score. Do they know where they are going?

Alex DeLarge said...

Good point about Cathy O'Donnell! I agree that the two films would make an excellent double feature, sharing theme of frustrated outsiders victimized by authority. I suppose the difference is in TLBN the characters wish to be like everyone else, while in RWAC they rage against their parents horrid routine.

Chase Kahn said...

I actually think this is pretty much a masterpiece, such a touching, unusually palpable romance - it's almost heartbreaking.