Nicholas Ray’s astonishingly self-assured, lyrical directorial debut opens with title cards and lush orchestrations over shots of a boy and a girl in rapturous mutual absorption: “This boy … and this girl … were never properly introduced … to the world we live in …” A shriek of horns suddenly obliterates all other sound – their shocked faces both turn toward the camera, and the title appears: They Live by Night.
Meet 23-year-old escaped killer Bowie Bowers and his farm-girl sweetheart Keechie Mobley (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell), in an imaginary idyll of peace and contentment that will never come true for them.
Bowie, jailed at 16 for killing his father’s murderer, has known nothing but jail, and is still a boy.
Having escaped the prison farm with two older bank robbers – T-Dub and the psychotic Indian Chicamaw “One-Eye” Mobley (Jay C Flippen, Howard da Silva) – he feels loyalty-bound to tag along on their crime spree.
Keechie is Chicamaw’s niece, and soon circumstances force them to lam it cross-country at the same time as they tremblingly discover love for the first time.
Somehow all the planets aligned for Ray, a novice director with an achingly poetic-realist vision of Depression-era Texas and the determination to implement it wholesale: a perfect source novel, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us; and exactly the right combination of producer (John Houseman), studio (RKO) and sympathetic studio head (Dore Schary).
The result is luminous in its imagery and highly sophisticated in its musical choices.