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USA 1948
Directed by
Nicholas Ray
95 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

They Live By Night

Although on the surface of it Nicholas Ray’s debut feature looks like a standard B-grade crime movie it is in fact, as its very unusual prologue indicates, a boy-girl love story steeped in a sense of romantic fatalism.

Based on a novel ‘Thieves Like Us’ by Edward Anderson and a screenplay by Charles Schnee adapted by Ray it tells the story of Bowie (Farley Granger) a young man who escapes a prison in Texas with two hardened crooks, Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub ( Jay C. Flippen). They flee to the farm of Chickamaw‘s brother (Will Wright) where Bowie meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). The two immediately click but despite Keechie’s imploring him to take control of his life Bowie feels obligated to join the older men in a bank robbery. They get away with the loot but Bowie and Keechie’s dreams of living an ordinary life together will always be beyond their reach.

Loosely based on the legend of Depression-era criminals Clive Barrow and Bonnie Parker well-known to most modern audiences from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)  Ray’s film nicely brackets most of the crime action elements to concentrate on the relationship between the two young people both of whom have never had the chance to live “like us”. Bowie has been in jail since he was sixteen and the motherless Keechie has grown up on her alcoholic father’s run-down farm. In outstanding performances both O’Donnell and Granger capture the youthful optimism and desire for a normal life that drive the young couple much as events conspire to accentuate the naiveté of their dreams.

Cinematographer George Diskant captures the Depression-era setting well using what for was the time the innovative technique of aerial photography to give us a sense of life on the run whilst the support cast are all excellent in creating the seediness that chokes any chance that Bowie and Keechie will ever have a happy life together.

FYI: The version I saw was titled Your Red Wagon which is also the title of a song catchily sung in the film by former Josephine Baker-style “exotic dancer” Marie Bryant. The film was remade by Robert Altman in 1974 as Thieves Like Us




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