There’s something elusive and mystical about confronting a cinematic stand-by, a work read and tweaked and revisited by directors across decades and nations. The post-They Live By Night world was ushered in almost immediately by the psychotic, sexually-charged thrust of Gun Crazy, which toyed with many of Night’s themes, but it wouldn’t be for another decade until director Nicholas Ray’s contrarian style would emerge as canonical in the minds of the French New Wave. Watching The Live By Night, you can practically imagine the entire Cahiers crowd almost asphyxiating on autoerotic fantasies of their own cinematic futures. This imaginative hyperbole is entirely fitting for a work like They Live By Night, too, since it is at once latently sexual and surrounded by violent hairline fractures that strut into the cinema and threaten its very being.
The French were not the only Ray enthusiasts though. On the American side, Scorsese was a huge fan, but Arthur Penn, Terrence Malick, and Robert Altman would provide the New Hollywood with its most indelible reworkings of the “lovers on the run” myth established by this 1947 film (not released until 1949, the first of many incisions into Ray’s frail heart by an outside world that never really had much use for him). Each of those directors, incidentally, latched on to different shards entangled in Ray’s vision. In Thieves Like Us, Altman immersed himself in the bath of earthen place introduced in Ray’s Depression-literate helicopter shots. Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was attracted to the bubbling romance and bruised, subcutaneous violence of lovers who never really found a home in the world. For Badlands (another of the great directorial debuts), Malick cut through the harsh B-movie trappings to luxuriate in the demented innocence of the tale and the gliding, impressionistic camera movements (borrowed by Ray in the film’s trees-in-the-wind nighttime scenes from Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s seminal midnight-howl horrors Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie).
All different interpretations of the same tale, and yet all are invited by the multitextured They Live By Night, a primeval Ray film, his first, and one that finds the director grappling with, if not perfecting or transcending, the deceptive outlaw innocence of mid-century Americana he would pursue throughout his untimely, short career. At the heart of all of Ray’s films lies an unstated need to get away from society, to escape and run hoping that the world doesn’t catch up with you. This hope is embodied in Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, two young actors playing two outlaw youths whose stubbornly earnest and underformed performances evoke children with failing ideas of society they cling to like dreams. There’s nothing realistic about the acting on display here, but the almost accidental beauty of the two roles is that their artificiality functions like a self-imposed shell they deploy to keep themselves at arm’s reach from the real world.
Ray’s film empathizes with the two youths, but it also allows the violence and the alienation to seep in around them, threatening the diaphanous romantic loneliness they use like an opaque shield for their souls. The two threads, of empathy with this romantic vision and slash-and-burn acknowledgment of its fantasy, intertwine throughout the film. The viscosity of the black-and-white cinematography serves both purposes: enveloping the two figures in the romantic vision of the world they fancy for themselves, as well as strangling them like a slate grey wire around their minds.
Despite the wringing-that-neck alertness of the ruthlessly tight, Fulleresque 90 minute feature, Ray finds time for surprising lyricism and visual poetry swimming across rural American in the Depression, a time when just about every American felt like an outsider abandoned by a nonexistent nation. Leigh Harline’s dreamy score corroborates a vision of romantic criminality embodied in the two characters.
Yet it’s a romance of delusion, an imposition of a dream to mask the social ennui invoked in the lonely frames devoid of human life except the two insulated protagonists. They put it best, in fact: “Someday I’d like to see some of this country we’ve been traveling through”. Uprooted and unkempt, they romantically wander the landscape embodying the American Dream of upheaval and Bohemian anti-stagnancy, with people always on the move to new locations to conquer them and find a little patch of life all their own. Ray’s film questions the internal contradictions in this whimsical vision of Americana; the two characters, as they say, peruse the open roads of the country on the run, but they never have any time to really see anything.
The encroaching reality breaking through their facade like piercing sunlight returns throughout. In the vituperative, violent shot where a gun smashes a car window in front of the frame and seems to break the lens of the camera itself, the film throttles the fragmented, unthreading glass pane of romantic outsider life we as audience members have all entertained at various points in our lives. They Live By Night lacks the expressionist, bold-faced twinges of color as prism and prison invoked by Ray’s best, later works, but what emerges even this early is the sense of Hollywood style being turned inside out on itself, being broken up into pieces by Ray even as he acknowledges the ways we shield ourselves in the cloak of Hollywood romance and style in the first place.
It’s all in the opening, a beautifully luscious shot of the two lovers who were “never properly introduced to the world we live in”, according to on-screen text, suddenly interjected by a brash helicopter shot from overhead following a cadre of criminals on the run in the flatlands of the American outback. The innocent singularity of the opening, the two lovers betwixt in their stable togetherness, is threshed by the roving motion of the camera’s sudden movement, disrupting their domesticity for a life on the run. It’s a dynamite gesture, and also one that would prefigure Ray’s career and life: on the run from Hollywood style to style, never afforded assurance or the safety of true success, and ultimately struggling to fit into whichever dreamlike identity he’d adopt for the moment. He was never properly introduced to the world we live in, but in this scene, and in this film, he announces his presence with a shout.