Part of the appeal of the “romantic” film noir, was it tapped into the feeling that most people have at one time or another that they are outcasts. Even though our circumstances are rarely as bleak or hopeless as the characters in They Live by Night, their feelings of loneliness and isolation are universal. Whereas the gangster films of the early 1930s created cult heroes of criminals, the criminals of film noir are often aimless, even pathetic. Their struggle against the world, that in a way is responsible for their situation, is often fruitless, and is at best a break from the monotony of modern life. Based on the novel by Edward Anderson called Thieves Like Us (also adapted as a slightly better Altman film), which likens every member of society as a thief in one way or another. Though it does somewhat undermine the gravity of some of the acts committed by the characters, it also reveals how easily one can slip across the line of “respectability”.
Ray’s film though, is not a brutal social film, it is a love story. Establishing the despair early on, Ray soon moves into the relationship between the leads. Their love blossoms quickly, though it is at first met with fear and resentment. A life of being beaten down on makes you wary of others, and for these two in particular, the psychological walls are well earned. Part of their bond though, is linked through the abuse they suffer at the hands of others, especially by those who were supposed to have their best interest at heart. The enduring appeal of their romance though, is that even though these two kids are lost in every way imaginable, they were able to find each other. We can never undermine the importance of feeling wanted and loved, and though the film takes life’s and love’s impermanence to literal extremes, it is still a touching tribute to what most people attempt to achieve in their lives.
It’s difficult to believe this is Ray’s first film, from the first shot, which is done with a helicopter one feels an artist at peace with his medium. The film’s first half is particularly potent, relying on limited space and plot as a force of forging emotions, character and relationships. The cast is wonderful, even Farley Granger who I usually cannot stand, but Cathy O’Donnell is the true standout. Not a classical beauty, there is a freshness in her face that is endlessly appealing. She looks picked off the street, pretty in a way that you could imagine any boy falling in love with, but not pretty enough that she’d ever have to beat them off. She looks fresh and clean without make-up, and her performance is tender and worn. One can only imagine what she has seen and experienced, but her resignation to Arthur is true and vulnerable.
I’m not sure where I’d rank this in Ray’s filmography, but it is certainly a hit as far as I’m concerned. I love the raw emotion that is display in almost all his films, and this one is no exception. Beautiful stuff.