Nicholas Ray's debut film, 1948's They Live By Night, is as impressive as his other features and likely the most assured first film by an American director since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, and Ray didn't have the benefit of having Gregg Toland on hand to teach him the ropes. As the precursor to the "lovers on the lam" picture that influenced not only the French New Wave but New Hollywood, They Live By Night certainly stakes a key place in film history merely from its setup.
What makes it so memorable, though, is a sense of melancholy and regret that drapes over the film like a funeral pall. Noirs contained feelings of loss and pain, but usually only in isolated moments building to a climax, rarely from the outset, rarely for the entire running length. A young man, Bowie (Farley Granger), falsely imprisoned for murder, escapes with the help of two older cons, and he meets Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell), the daughter of a gas station attendant, and the two kids soon fall in love. It's a story familiar to all of us in the current era, yet neither time nor mass appropriation has diluted the film's lingering power.
Just look at Ray's visuals. It may seem simple to comment upon the use of darkness in a monochrome film, what with the only possibilities on the screen being either black, white or something in-between, but Ray's use of shadow is not merely mysterious but oppressive. As Bowie rides with T-Dub and Chickamaw (a deliciously unsettling Howard Da Silva, playing a hardened but reckless criminal both figuratively and literally one-eyed) to the bank, the interior of the car is so dark you'd be forgiven for thinking Ray had employed an iris effect around the actors. Even when the two lovers head out on the lam, Ray compresses the world around them. His use of helicopter shots of distant overhead shots ironically serves to enhance this claustrophobia: from above, they resemble rats in a maze, scurrying to and fro, futilely looking for a way out when the observer will eventually pluck them out and do with couple as they please.
They Live By Night also introduces the complex sexual politics that would define many of Ray's films, albeit in an amorphous blob, yet to gel into a solid shape. We meet Keechie in greasy overalls with her hair done up. She works in her father's garage, capably doing a job stereotypically reserved for men. Bowie, an orphan who would up in prison through hanging with the wrong crowd and finds himself roped into another such group with Chickamaw and T-Dub, is sensitive and as innocent as Keechie. In the same way that the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause formed a makeshift family with each other, Bowie and Keechie so instantly spark off a relationship that their decision to elope and start a new family on the run appears natural instead of impulsive. In an amusing Chickamaw and T-Dub, bad influences that they are, become something approximating cantankerous, indecorous uncles of the pair.
For all of Ray's visual gloominess, he does not taint this view of young love, and he even injects a great deal of visual and written humor. At a bus stop, Ray tips the inevitability of the lovers' marriage by placing a glowing neon sign announcing quick marriage ceremonies run by an avaricious old man, who finds a way to keep tacking on further services and costs to his "hefty" $20 wedding fee. Preceding this moment of ultimately sweet love (following the wrangling of the ceremony is a touching, sentimental depiction of the couple's honeymoon) is a broadly comic reminder of what's in store for these two as what appears to be a single mother rides on the bus with Bowie and Keechie; she's been riding for so long that she doesn't care about her child shrieking with sobs, to the misery of everyone else on-board. Ray further comments wryly on their relationship with a cut back to Keechie's father, brought in for questioning concerning Bowie and Keechie's disappearance until authorities release him out of boredom over his enraged, possessive paternal ranting. "I'd wring his neck like a chicken!" he thunders several times, and when he finally leaves the chief deadpans to his subordinate, "I'd bet on the chicken."
This lighter middle section does not clash with the somber mood that still runs under the surface and fills the screen to either side, instead giving that darkness dimension. Ray wants these doomed lovers to make it though he knows they can't. The couple approximate a normal life of marital bliss -- including a shockingly dated speech from Keechie in which she compares her role as a loyal wife to that of a subservient dog (read: bitch) that stands in sharp contrast to the spunky and strong-willed girl from the start of the movie -- but they can never nail down the particulars. Before they can figure it out, Chickamaw returns to ruin their stab at happiness because he and T-Dub pissed away their cash and need to rob another bank with Bowie's help. Everything soon spirals out of control, to the point that, when Bowie returns to the old wedding parlor owner for help getting to Mexico, not even this greedy bastard can take the boy's money. "I won't sell you hope when there ain't any," says the man morosely, and Bowie can only stand numbly as the weight of the moment bears down on him.
Ray somehow restricts the frame even further after this, and the rest of the film plays out in pitch-black shadows and sideways glances. It's hard to look a dead man in the eyes, even -- especially -- when he's still walking around. The characters in Ray's films are typically hopeless, yet he never dilutes that feeling though he presents a doomed relationship or life as inevitable. As a club singer croons as she wades past Keechie and Bowie's table, "You're gonna get burned if you play with fire," and Bowie simply got in too deep, something he'd been doing all his life. Watch the way Bowie wrestles with himself when he decides to leave his bride for a while in an attempt to keep her safe, and how it almost seems a kindness when Ray has him murdered when he walks out the door. He's spared the two, and us, the false hope that the old man denies Bowie, preferring to end it suddenly rather than wither both characters through a separation that would begin as a temporary measure and evolve into permanence.
What makes Ray's film so striking is the raw energy that would infuse his future work, not fully integrated into this debut but nevertheless confidently handled. The acting is far from naturalistic, and O'Donnell spends at least one scene blatantly staring off-screen reading lines, but the two leads have great chemistry. Indeed, They Live By Night succeeds on the believable love of its two main characters, stripping away the already spare cast before the halfway mark to focus almost exclusively on the amorous pair. Ray turns around the regressive wife type that Keechie becomes when she announces her pregnancy -- moving her closer to becoming that miserable, lonely mother on the bus -- and she instantly shuts down Bowie's aired frustrations with the news with a simple line: "You don't see me knittin' anything, do you?" The man can only think how her pregnancy impacts his life, but Ray knows full-well that Keechie is the one who has to carry this burden. The director then juxtaposes Keechie with yet another female character, Mattie, the wife of another inmate who eventually rats on the young couple in order to lessen her own lover's sentence. Her act seals the fate of the protagonists, yet Mattie has her own complexity and her own deep and doomed love that she wants to experience again. Ray does not condemn her for this; that fairness, plus a final shot of Keechie framed in a halo as the sound of cops on a crime scene fades into silence, marks the emergence of cinema's great Romantic, a poet of melancholy who would not be equaled in his complex, sad look at doomed love until Wong Kar-wai emerged a half century later.