They Live by Night (1949)

“They Live by Night” (1949)


get outside

There seems to be a unique thing about Ray’s career, in its time and context. He was an interesting director who worked inside the Hollywood system, and indeed obeyed to their rules, give or take, and was able to produce some films that people still remember today, so called classics. Yet something in each one of his films, even the more studio tailored ones, seem to constantly pull the films away from the norm. The man had a visual imagination, and an experimental attitude. Much has been said about how he handled colour, but i think it’s in these black and white first phase films that Ray shines brighter. That’s because black and white film technology was already advanced enough to allow him to do things such as shooting on real locations, while coloured films made his camera work and groundbreaking visual presentations more stiff, less fluid.

This film has very interesting bits. The aerial shots of cars along the road, loose and free. The disembodied camera that appears on some cleverly conceived crane shots, and the general cinematography whenever we are clearly outside the studio. That’s where Ray’s mind was, clearly. Whenever we are on sets, well, plain old classical illumination, which doesn’t even borrow from Toland/Welles, who had by than created a whole new set of light codes. But in the outside shots, he does things that hadn’t been done, some of which do work even today, in terms of our modern ability to understand framing.

So the road trip genre suits perfectly Ray’s intentions. The mere physical description of the sequences made his mind figure what he might get out of it. This isn’t visually as ground breaking as On a dangerous ground, or even Knock on any door, but the guy was just starting.

Other than that, this is melodrama. Characters caught by hard backgrounds, forced to struggle, unable to fight whatever burdens society and their shortcomings as people placed upon them. It’s a very dear theme of Nicholas Ray, the misfits, the outcast, ennobled by how they assume their faults and try to get out of that world, but ultimately pushed down by the weight of their mistakes, and the cruelty of people around them. How Ray formulates this makes it a very American theme in its core, and very unique in its approach. I think no one has ever formulated this bonnie/clyde runaway type like this ever again, less adventurous, but deeper. No wonder Wenders, in his fascination with America, came to admire Ray so much.

Cathy O’Donnell has a great face, her character’s looks evolution is well thought, she shines when her face is allowed to act, which Ray does a lot.

My opinion: 4/5 this is a worthy effort, which you should watch only if you’re interested in Ray’s best works. This will give you insight.

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