They Live by Night Screen 9 articles

They Live by Night


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  • A key film noir of the 40s, this was Nicholas Ray's first film as a director (1949), and the freshness of his expressionist-documentary style is still apparent and gripping... Much of Wim Wenders's romantic despair can be found here in its original, more extravagant form.

  • Passionate, lyrical, and imaginative, it's a remarkably assured debut, from the astonishing opening helicopter shot that follows the escaped convicts' car to freedom, to the final, inexorably tragic climax.

  • The opening image in Nicholas Ray’s debut feature is a bravura aerial shot – a speeding car cutting an urgent swathe across a barren rural landscape. It was a risky choice for the first time director, a choice that both redefined the lexicon of action imagery and foreshadowed the development of Ray’s intrepid and idiosyncratic visual style.

  • For me, the ending of They Live by Night is one of the most beautiful sequences in all cinema... The close-up of [O'Donnell's] face melts into the blackness of the final fade-out. These are the most extraordinary moments in what is, throughout the film, a magnificent performance by Cathy O’Donnell.

  • Nicholas Ray arrives: Luminous lyricism (lovers in close-up, twined) promptly invaded by kinetic despair (the camera descends from above as it rushes along with a trio of fugitives), a continuous dance... A wealth of volatile filmmaking coups: The camera lies in the backseat as the protagonist drives up to the bank, a sudden black screen states a car crash, an off-screen gun blast and a puff of smoke sum up a policeman’s shooting, and that’s just the robbery.

  • The film shares with Citizen Kane the sense of a born director reinventing the medium on the fly, with reckless, thrilling disregard for its established conventions. Basic close-ups are frequently shot at slightly odd angles that emphasize the characters’ emotional fragility, and both Granger and O’Donnell give heavily stylized performances that don’t resemble what any other actor was doing in the 1940s—O’Donnell’s spacey demeanor, in particular, seems to anticipate Sissy Spacek.

  • They Live by Night stands out from most films of its time through its tight merging of sounds and images. George Diskant’s moody, low-key photography favors faces up close and bodies, as witnessed by the five characters’ first reunion in Mobley’s cabin. Lighting combines with an equally moody sound design carefully devised like a jazz score: internal rhymes, object tracks, song lyrics commenting on the story become instead of mere devices the very fabric of the film.

  • A remarkable debut as well as an agonizingly pure love story — the most lyrical film of the director’s career... “They Live by Night” was a favorite of my college film professor, and as a class projectionist I saw it many times — running scenes in slow motion or playing only the soundtrack. As a result, I know the movie nearly by heart. And its emotional power is undiminished. I may be recalling my own youth (as well as Ray’s), but just thinking about this film can choke me up.

  • François Truffaut called They Live by Night “the most Bressonian of American films,” and while his characterization was overzealous, there’s more than just these performer resemblances to link the two directorial sensibilities... Like many Bresson films, Ray’s debut is a genre movie featuring only the bare minimum of generic trappings, one that favors the quiet dramas of decision-making and one-on-one commiseration to the louder spectacles that occur, often unseen, to push the plot along.

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