Nicholas Ray's energetic first feature, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT tells the tragic story of two doomed lovers and of their short, fast life together before they are torn apart by the criminal world.
As the film opens, Granger and O'Donnell are shown kissing. A title is superimposed: "This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in." In this manner, the young lovers' saga hits the screen. Granger, a decent enough fellow whose greatest fault is his naivete, joins a
prison break engineered by da Silva and Flippen, two callous criminals who spare no sentimental thought for Granger's innocence, but simply take him along because they need a third hand for a bank job. An auto accident caused by da Silva injures Granger, who recovers in a dark hideout. He is
nursed to health by O'Donnell, a young woman who quickly falls in love with Granger, sensing that he is not like his two partners. Granger returns O'Donnell's affections and the two are soon involved in passionate romance. Soon they make it legal, marrying in the dilapidated office of a justice of
the peace. When da Silva asks him to join another bank job, Granger is not strong enough to say no, but it's not long before Flippen is killed and da Silva has angrily gone off on his own. Soon da Silva, too, is killed, leaving Granger the last of the gang and still sought by the police. The young
fugitive wants nothing more than a quiet home for himself and his wife, but his fate has been sealed.
More than a standard cops-and-robbers tale, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is a Depression-era saga about lovers on the run. Entangled in a fate they cannot escape, and over which they have absolutely no control, they love to the fullest before they are inevitably, tragically separated. Though based on the
novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson (later filmed by Robert Altman under Anderson's title), THEY LIVE BY NIGHT owes an equal debt to the Bonnie and Clyde myth, which, while it bears no resemblance to this film in plot, has permeated the cinema's image of lovers on the run. (It's an image that
can also be seen in 1949's GUN CRAZY and the 1937 Fritz Lang picture YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.) Ray undertook the project enthusiastically, bringing to his film a personal style and vision evident from its beginning. After Granger and O'Donnell's kiss at the opening, a getaway car carrying the three
criminals is seen traveling down a dusty road, pursued by police. Rather than shoot with a standard camera set-up, Ray demanded that the scene be photographed from a helicopter, a highly unorthodox idea that has now become a standard element of the cinematic lexicon. Not only did this sequence
open the film with a burst of unharnessed energy, it also conveyed a sense of godlike fate, looking down on Granger and relentlessly pursuing him. Beautifully acted, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT stands today as one of the most poignant and unforgettable noirs ever made.
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