In the '30s, three prisoners flee from a state prison farm in Mississippi. Among them is 23-years-young Bowie, who spent the last seven years in prison and now hopes to be able to prove his innocence or retire to a home in the mountains and live in peace together with his new love, Kitty. But his criminal companions persuade him to participate in several heists, and soon the police believe him to be their leader and go after "Bowie the Kid" harder than ever..
"They Live By Night" joins "Gun Crazy" (1949) and "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) to form a little trilogy of remarkable films in the "lovers-on-the-lam" sub-genre. Nicholas Ray's film has much in common with "Gun Crazy," both in look and theme, but it's a much warmer and more emotionally effective piece of film-making. Peggy Cummins gave a fascinating performance in "Gun Crazy" as a flinty, unbelievably callous femme fatale; Cathy O'Donnell in "They Live By Night" will break your heart.
Indeed, the acting is probably this film's greatest asset, and it enables what in all respects is a B movie to feel like an A one. Farley Granger and O'Donnell bring wonderful nuances to their roles, and they have a naturalistic style of acting that feels ahead of its time when compared to other films from the same period. Howard da Silva is also tremendous in the supporting role of Chickamaw, managing to create a grotesque character who nevertheless feels at home in the very human world created by Ray. And Helen Craig shines in a small but vital role as Mattie, who may be the most heartless character in the film.
At a time when America most likely just wanted to hurry up and get everything back to normal, how shocking that a film like this would emerge. The domestic contentment that Granger and O'Donnell establish for themselves is a sham; they know it and we know it. They're living on borrowed time, and the things that the average American strived for in a booming post-war climate--loving spouse, children, safe and secure home--exist in this film as taunting reminders of blessings this couple can never have.
And the ending---that could have been so sentimental and is instead in Ray's hands so spare and sad---just may well take your breath away.
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Cathy O'Donnell .... Catherine 'Keechie' Mobley
Farley Granger .... Arthur 'Bowie' Bowers
Howard Da Silva .... Chicamaw 'One-Eye' Mobley
Jay C. Flippen .... Henry 'T-Dub' Mansfield
Helen Craig .... Mattie Mansfield
Will Wright .... Mobley
Marie Bryant .... Nightclub Singer
Ian Wolfe .... Mr. Hawkins, Wedding Chapel Proprietor
William Phipps .... Young Farmer
Harry Harvey .... Hagenheimer, Banker
Also Known As:The Twisted Road (UK)
Your Red Wagon (USA) (working title)
Runtime: 95 min
Color: Black and White
Sound Mix: Mono (RCA Sound System)