Three violent convicts escape from hard labor, their morality chained to the selfish impulse of profit at any cost: each knows the evil which lurks in the hearts of men. Bowie is the protagonist, the youngest of the three criminals who is doing a life sentence for the murder of a clerk during a robbery: he offers no excuse or apology for this act, only cold and emotionless acceptance. But Bowie is still a boy, a follower who is mixed up with Chicamaw and T-Dub, two career bank robbers and believes there is still honor among thieves. When Chicamaw murders two police officers, Bowie accepts responsibility (transference of guilt) because he was present and did nothing to stop it, and he understands that his desire to be free outweighs the harm and injury to others. After T-Dub is killed and Chicamaw is captured, Bowie settles down with Keechie who soon becomes pregnant; a new life is possible for these two lovers…but Bowie’s criminal intent is like part of his DNA and he soon devises a plan to free his “friend”.
Director Robert Altman focuses his camera in long gentle pans and zooms upon the young couple, a slow dance macabre whose volatile climax ends in staccato gunshots. The soundtrack is composed of programs and music of this Depression era, often diegetic sound crackling through Zenith radios and phonographs, adding an immersive realism to the narrative. Based upon a novel of the same title, Nicholas Ray made the film THEY LIVE BY NIGHT from the same source material but presented a less ambiguous morality play, showing Bowie and Keechie as victims of their dire circumstances. Instead, Altman impels the audience to understand their complex relationship and circuitous mistakes, and this multi-layered personification makes the couple into desperate but real people: we are both repelled and sympathetic to their situation. We empathize for them like we would a trapped man-eating tiger; content that others are safe but sad that this creature’s true nature has damned him. Keith Carradine and Shelly Duval imbue their characters with naïveté, unable (or unwilling) to understand that there is no future for them together, and the final shot of Keechie disappearing into the crowd, climbing towards a road to nowhere, is heartbreaking.
Final Grade: (B+)