Combustible Celluloid
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With: Cathy O'Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, Marie Bryant, Ian Wolfe, William Phipps, Harry Harvey
Written by: Nicholas Ray, Charles Schnee, based on the novel by Edward Anderson
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 95
Date: 08/01/1948

They Live by Night (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Thieves Dropping

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949) is one of the greatest debut features in movie history. Ray's extraordinary use of physical space as a representation of the characters' emotional state is already fully in place, as if he were born to moviemaking. Farley Granger plays Bowie, a young escaped convict accompanied by two veterans. When he's wounded, he's taken to a safe house where he meets and falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). Neither Bowie nor Keechie have much experience in the ways of romance, but they decide to run away together. Unfortunately, the gang presses Bowie into one last job, which goes horribly wrong and Bowie becomes a hot target.

Ray concentrates mainly on the relationships in this film, and his greatest achievement is transforming O'Donnell from a tired, haggard outcast to a warmly sexy woman -- though she retains just a hint of weariness. In one scene, the couple wakes up together in a hotel room, and she stretches and sighs in such a way that the screen practically sighs with her. Ray's use of close-ups here -- used only when necessary and for emotional effect -- should be studied. John Houseman was a producer. The film was completed in 1948, but not released in the U.S. until 1949, after a successful European run. Robert Altman later adapted the same novel for his 1974 film Thieves Like Us.

The Criterion Collection released a great 2017 Blu-ray edition that captures the film in all its lowdown glory. It includes a commentary track by Mr. Granger and writer/film noir expert Eddie Muller that was recorded for the 2007 Warner Home Video DVD. A short featurette from 2007 is also included, as well as archival audio interviews with John Houseman. New extras include a video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith. Film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz provides the liner notes essay.

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