Man, they really don’t make them like they used to. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is perfect cinema that works in every way. A new all-time favorite for me that I can’t wait to own on Blu-Ray, and show it to everyone I know. It wasn't released for two years because of the chaotic conditions surrounding Howard Hughes' takeover of RKO Pictures. Before BADLANDS and BONNIE & CLYDE, there was THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, which I sincerely feel is one of the strongest examples of a love story between two people from opposite sides of the tracks. The first scene shot was the opening scene, a tracking shot of Bowie, T-Dub and Chickamaw escaping from prison in a stolen car. Ray decided to use a helicopter, which had previously been used for establishing shots of landscapes but never before had it been used to shoot action. It also establishes the conflicting dilemmas at play in the domestic underbelly of the 1950’s. A brooding sense of foreboding permeates throughout and this ends up as a stunning examination of intimacy mixed with apprehension that showcases why Nicholas Ray is one of the all-time greats.
Granger and O’Donnell is the main reason for why the film works and what makes it essential for me. It’s a love story that I was fully invested in right from the start. Their entire relationship feels very forward thinking in that it’s self-aware, open to awkwardness and to the moments where sexuality in a relationship is not yet understood. Ray’s film allows these two to just “be together” in several scenes that presage the dynamics that would be explored in the French New Wave films like BREATHLESS. Ray also allows for an identification with a certain feeling of disenchantment, as both of these two are outsiders looking for some sort of comfort to hold on to. This seems to be a recurring theme: criminals or rebels trying to affirm a relationship with someone or something, but have difficulty maintaining it.
I praise both leads here for their natural and emotionally open performances, which for this era, was just beginning to occur with the new method style of acting. They have wonderful chemistry and their love story is one of the most electric I've seen from this era. Like many of Ray’s films, the sympathy lies with those living outside of society, outlaws doomed to a tragic end. Everything Ray directed seems to ooze intensity, whether it is a passionate relationship, a boiling anger, or an unbridled obsession. Nearly all of his films feature characters that openly display this type of raw emotion, which Ray would expertly balance with moments of compassion. He’s a true actor’s director to be certain, but he was able to tap deeply into the psychological turmoil that very few were exploring back then. He took a sincere approach, allowing vulnerability and chaos to creep in unexpectedly to really put these characters in an uncomfortable position. And we, as the audience, feel it to a tremendous degree having spent so much time getting to know this couple as they evolve, devolve and try to come to terms with their place in the world. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is a masterpiece on par with BRIEF ENCOUNTER as one of the all-time great love stories that blind-sighted me with how much I identified with the dynamic these two share. It’s the blueprint for many films to come, and yet this somehow remains the purest example of how perfect storytelling can remain timeless in the viewer’s mind. As a result of seeing this for the first time, along with other Ray films, he’s become one of my all-time favorite directors who clearly had a tumultuous life but triumphed nonetheless by channeling his emotions into pure artistic expression of the highest caliber.