They Live by Night

They Live by Night (1949 USA 95 mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Prod: John Houseman Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: Charles Schnee Phot: George E. Diskant Ed: Sherman Todd Art Dir: Albert D’Agostino, Al Herman Mus: Leigh Harline

Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright

The opening image in Nicholas Ray’s debut feature is a bravura aerial shot – a speeding car cutting an urgent swathe across a barren rural landscape. It was a risky choice for the first time director, a choice that both redefined the lexicon of action imagery and foreshadowed the development of Ray’s intrepid and idiosyncratic visual style. Ray cut his cinematic teeth working with Elia Kazan on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). When producer John Houseman suggested Ray adapt Edward Anderson’s Depression era novel Thieves Like Us for the screen, the fledgling director’s film career was born.

Several versions of Anderson’s novel had already done the rounds of RKO studios before Ray tackled what he described as “a Morality story – in the tempo of our time.” (1) The tale of a young couple on the run in the impoverished 1930s American South struck an immediate chord. Ray’s affinity with the dominant themes and social milieu of Thieves Like Us made him determined to honour both the intimate love story and serious social commentary that characterised Anderson’s novel. His film, eventually retitled They Live By Night, was not an “underworld movie – no lurid tale of blood or squalor. It is tender, not cynical; tragic, not brutal.” (2)

They Live By Night details the exploits of three prison escapees, hardened older criminals T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chicamaw (Howard da Silva) and their naive, young offsider Bowie (Farley Granger). On the run, the three men hide out with Chicamaw’s small-time criminal brother Mobley (Will Wright) and his recalcitrant daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). The instant, if unacknowledged, attraction between Bowie and Keechie is put on hold while the three criminals plan and stage a daring daylight robbery. Their luck runs out when a car crash injures Bowie and necessitates his return to Mobley’s farmhouse, while the two older men go their separate ways.

As Keechie ministers to the ailing Bowie, romance is kindled and the two decide to flee the farmhouse. Wanted by the police, the young couple avoid detection by travelling across country at night, sealing their love along the way with a tacky $20.00 wedding ceremony. But Bowie’s visions of marital bliss in Mexico are never fulfilled, as the lives of all three prison escapees eventually end in violent, and in Bowie’s case, tragic circumstances.

They Live By Night has been described as arguably “the most sentimental and soft hearted entry in the classic noir canon.” (3) Ray’s first film is in fact an interesting, if contradictory take on the noir form. While adhering to certain stylistic conventions – high contrast lighting, tight framing suggesting entrapment and atmospheric night locations – the film is equally characterised by non-noir elements. The noir genre is defined by its predominantly urban settings. The protagonists in They Live By Night traverse the bleak rural environs of the American South. The most representative locations in the film are pastoral – Mobley’s rundown farmhouse, the rustic cabin where the fugitive lovers set up house, and most significantly, the long expanses of open road, the countryside that Keechie wishes she could see ‘by daylight.’

Even more paradoxically, for a notoriously tough, unsentimental genre, Ray’s film presents a sympathetic portrait of the doomed outlaw lovers, who, as the opening credits affirm, “were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Fundamentally structured by the flight of the prison escapees, They Live By Night progressively coheres around the developing romance between Keechie and Bowie. Unlike the sexually charged and self-serving couplings typical of noirDouble Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) is emblematic – the partnership in They Live By Night is characterised by tenderness and a romantic idealism more commonly associated with melodrama.

Where the standard noir protagonists are worldly, cynical characters, Keechie and Bowie are relative innocents abroad. Wrongfully jailed at the age of 16, Bowie “doesn’t know how to talk to a woman” and yearns to simply “hold hands with a girl in a movie.” Unsophisticated and unattached, Keechie admits to Bowie, she is “not like other girls.” A shared naiveté and desire for a ‘normal’ existence distinguish Keechie and Bowie from the typical noir couple, and equally, foreshadow the similarly idealistic but doomed young couple in Ray’s most revered work, Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Conversely, Keechie does in some respects, conform to an enduring noir character type – the redemptive woman. If the femme fatale is the defining female archetype of noir, her counterpart is the nurturing woman. Often associated with nature and/or the past, her alliance with the ‘hero,’ however desperate the circumstances, offers the possibility of transcendence. (4) O’Donnell makes Keechie a classic nurturing type, a solitary farm girl whose love for Bowie and resilience in the face of hardship ultimately redeems both characters. The moving final moments of the film, where O’Donnell’s expressive face registers a complex set of reactions to Bowie’s violent death, is a powerful manifestation of this transcendental imperative.

If Ray was committed to foregrounding the love story between Bowie and Keechie, he was equally interested in underscoring the social and economic circumstances that led to their downfall. Charles Schnee’s screenplay, which Ray consistently tweaked during the shooting process, is a fascinating mix of terse, brutal exchanges between the criminal characters, “It’s business son, you’re an investment and you’ll pay” and the impassioned interactions between the lovers. The pithy dialogue is characterised by a wry humour (the analogy between women and dogs is a little hard to swallow, some 50 years on!) and underpinned by a strong social critique.

A series of minor characters including the disreputable Justice of the Peace who marries the couple, and Chicamaw’s duplicitous sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) are tagged as ‘thieves like us,’ implying that all levels of society, not just hardened criminals like Chicamaw and T-Dub, are potentially corrupt. And while Chicamaw and T-Dub are presented as unambiguously bad, Bowie’s background of social disadvantage and wrongful imprisonment suggests he is a victim of circumstances, a point which a police officer tacitly acknowledges.

It is precisely this sympathetic depiction of the grim, Depression-era conditions constitutive of acts of criminal desperation that contributed to RKO’s in-house censors critiquing the film during the script development process. Noting the “objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society,” the censors labelled the film “enormously dangerous from the standpoint of political censorship, generally,” and demanded changes. (5) While Ray concurred, toning down some of the violence, ultimately, he managed to remain faithful to the social critique implicit in Anderson’s novel that had originally attracted him to the project.

If They Live By Night is a ‘romantic noir,’ it is also a road movie that simultaneously doubles as a paean to the power and dynamism of the automobile. From the opening scene, with the black ‘A model’ careering across the dusty landscape, cars dominate the iconography of Ray’s film. An indispensable part of the escapees’ criminal modus operandi, they are equally the means of flight and pursuit. At various points in the narrative, the car offers both the criminals and lovers safe haven, while it also ultimately proves to be the former’s downfall.

Ray makes effective use of the car not merely as an object in space, but as a powerful framing device. The tight compositions and oppressive framings typical of film noir – interiors dominated by the constrictive delineations of doors, windows, lighting and staircases – are translated to the attenuated space of the car interior. The daylight robbery is shot almost entirely from Bowie’s perspective through the windscreen of the escape car, eliding the actual robbery but effectively rendering the suspense of the scene through the small ‘screen.’ The three escapees are consistently framed hunched within their various getaway cars, the tight triangular compositions suggestive of the escalating tensions within the gang. Bowie’s increasingly hunted expression in latter parts of the film is most tellingly rendered in a reverse view through the windscreen.

Ray’s innovative visual style in They Live By Night is enhanced by an equally imaginative approach to sound. With his experience in radio, theatre and sound design, Ray had very specific ideas about the soundtrack for his first feature, as indicated by the unusually large number of references to sound included in his original script treatment. (6) His emphasis on ambient sound, selections of folk music representative of Southern traditions, in addition to the full length nightclub number “Your Red Wagon” sung by black chanteuse Marie Bryant, gave added resonance to the emotional and psychological dimensions of the film.

They Live By Night is regularly cited as the most significant progenitor of the ‘outlaw lovers on the run’ narrative. Succeeded by films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), Ray’s film remains the standard bearer for the genre. With its dynamic visual style, acute observation of a specific social milieu and powerful emotional pull, the film signalled the emergence, virtually fully formed, of a distinctive authorial vision. For the influential Cahiers du cinéma critics, They Live By Night represented an even more momentous milestone, “the first shock intimation of what was happening to American movies. The classical cinema was going out the window, a new cinema was being born.” (7)


  1. Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1990) 90
  2. Bernard Eisenschitz, 90
  3. Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight Editions, 1999) 262
  4. Janey Place, “Women in film noir,” Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: BFI, 1980) 52
  5. Bernard Eisenschitz, 93
  6. Foster Hirsch, 101
  7. Bernard Eisenschitz, 104

About The Author

Rose Capp is Vice-President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia and a freelance writer on film.

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