It's hard to believe that THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) was director Nicholas Ray's first film. It's so assured and accomplished you'd think it was the work of a veteran filmmaker. Ray's masterful film noir took a twisted path to the screen and this masterpiece almost never saw the light of day.
Edward Anderson's novel, THIEVES LIKE US, was purchased by RKO in 1941 from an independent producer (who had bought the rights for $500) for $10,000. But no one knew what to do with it or how to develop the material about two young lovers on the run in Depression era rural America, until producer John Houseman found it. He thought it would be a perfect project for Nicholas Ray whom he had worked with in the theater. Houseman and Ray went to work on the material with several treatments being written but the top brass at RKO were reluctant to let a novice director handle the film. It wasn't until June, 1947 that production finally began. Production wrapped in October 1947 but RKO (specifically new studio owner Howard Hughes) didn't know how to promote the film so, instead of releasing it domestically, it was sent overseas where it played in a single theater in the UK to enthusiastic reviews. The film underwent several title changes from THIEVES LIKE US to THE TWISTED ROAD, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF and YOUR RED WAGON before finally being released in the United States in November 1949 as THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. It was a long and twisted journey but it was worth the wait.
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is the story of two young lovers Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) who are forced to become fugitives because of Bowie's criminal career. The story starts when Bowie, imprisoned for killing a man, escapes from jail with two hardened convicts, the one-eyed and malevolent Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen). The trio seeks refuge with Mobley (Will Wright) and his daughter, Keechie. While they hole up, they plot a bank robbery and Bowie and Keechie begin a tenuous relationship. The trio rob the bank and go their separate ways, each with a sizable amount of money. Bowie and Keechie set out on their own, eventually marrying but never able to permanently settle down. Bowie crosses paths again with Chicamaw and T-Dub with both men ending up dead. Bowie becomes a most wanted man and he and Keechie must keep constantly moving, living in fear of the next knock on the door. But while they're on the run, they develop a tender, albeit doomed relationship, taking some small measure of joy and warmth from each other in the short time they have together.
Ray masterfully orchestrates the action using several impressive helicopter shots (rare for the time). The bank robbery is shot with a hand held camera from within a moving vehicle which adds tension and excitement to the sequence. Bowie is regularly placed behind barriers that resemble prison bars (bed posts, lattice work on a billboard, broken windows, etc). Granger and O'Donnell (who were friends in real life), have a genuine chemistry with O'Donnell's understated beauty a nice contrast to Granger's traditional good looks. Da Silva and Flippen are excellent, both oozing hard boiled menace and the supporting cast is full of familiar faces including Will Wright (Ben Weaver on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and Ian Wolfe (from the STAR TREK episode ALL OUR YESTERDAYS).
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT's thematic concerns would be explored in several similar films over the years including GUN CRAZY (1950), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), BADLANDS (1973) and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). The film was remade by Robert Altman under it's original title, THIEVES LIKE US in 1974. While I haven't seen that one, I have seen the others and recommend all of them except for BADLANDS.
Nicholas Ray would go on to make such other film noir classics as IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), THE RACKET (1951), and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952). His biggest film by far was REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), the film that made James Dean an icon. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is a first rate piece of film making by an important American director. Highest recommendation.