Nicholas Ray has, in many ways, invented modern American filmmaking. From film noir on, everything changed, and many different routes were taken: while the Italians experimented with the gritty realism of film noir, the French brought the stylization of black and white to its extremes. And Nicholas Ray? Nicholas Ray simply reinvented the way one can hold a camera filming people acting out a script.
It all shows here, in his directorial debut. There was everything in They Live By Night that would make American filmmaking what it is today. And the funny thing is, it was so ahead of its time that all the innovations brought by Ray were never quite understood until the revolution of the ’60s. From aerial shots to extreme close-ups, Ray’s camera moves effortlessly to capture the heart of whatever scene it is filming – the fast-paced, dangerous rhythm of an action scene, or the languid intimacy of a love scene. Everything is studied to get the audience into the picture, sometimes rather violently, with the ferocious desire of a filmmaker who wants to entangle the audience in his web of intricate emotional connections.
While stylistically Ray is able to construct the most elaborate and technically impressive images with ease, he also conveys his themes in an equally effortless way, themes and situations that will continue to be present for the rest of his career. Saying that Ray single-handedly reinvented the way to look at youth in films is perhaps too easy, but not far from the truth. Casting two actors who were actually in their early twenties to play characters of that same age was not something as obvious as it may seem today, and fleshing out complex characters out of such young people was even more provocative. It was the age of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland happily singing their joy to America, carefree teenagers oblivious to the tragedy that was devastating the world. With Ray, teenagers and young adults become for the first time fully accomplished characters with issues and feelings, sorrowful lost souls delicately balancing between childhood and adulthood. Rebel Without a Cause would be the film to have a stronger impact in that sense, but there’s all of James Dean’s angst and sense of inadequacy also in Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, playing two kids swept away by their violent environment.
Bowie and Keechie are described as basically two children playing with something much bigger than they are. They Live By Night‘s mix of action thriller and the blossoming of young love is enchanting and tragic at the same time, with the characters going back and forth between the tension of two criminals on the run and the sweet, sugary courtship of kids falling in love (a memorable sequence includes Farley Granger asking Cathy O’Donnell if she’s “got a fella” while they’re both listening carefully for sounds of police cars approaching).
Fully realizing that sense of impending doom that is the dark heart of any true film noir, the characters finally become adults only when they’re able to see that there’s no happy ending for their fleeting romance. No matter what they have dreamed, no matter what they have hoped for (with Mexico being, once again, the dreamland on the horizon where everything can be alright – and that was decades before Brokeback Mountain), they’re brought back to bitter reality with the brutal realization that there’s no place for the two of them (“You’re saying that there’s no place for me and her?” “I don’t know of any, son”). Society has made them what they are and now society kicks them out.
And finally, in what might seem a side note but is actually essential to the understanding of Ray’s oeuvre, the film is saturated with low-key but still incredibly risky sensuality that sets Ray apart from any major American director working at the time. In one sequence, Cathy O’Donnell massages Farley Granger’s shirtless back in what is probably one of the most risqué scenes from the ’40s – a scene filled with sweetness and youthful awkwardness, yet still able to deliver the latent sensuality of a demure country girl who is facing love and desire for the first time. Love and desire that so obviously explode off screen, when we see Bowie and Keechie lying on the floor close to each other, and unseen lovemaking under the blinking lights of the Christmas tree is strongly hinted at. Part of the film’s sensuality also comes from Ray’s use of the camera as a means to express the obvious love and passion he feels for his actors – it is something that only Hitchcock with his blondes and maybe Almodóvar were able to accomplish after Ray. The director uses the camera to explore the bodies and movements of his actors in a way that is truly carnal, and the objectively handsome Farley Granger becomes the focus of the picture, thus making the relationship with the female lead even stronger – we’re forced to look at Granger in the same way Cathy O’Donnell looks at him in her growing affection for him. An affection that is even more eloquent when, after reaching such high levels of erotic tension, Ray delivers the denouement of the two characters’ love story in little details – a playful ride in the car, with Bowie and Keechie joking around and looking at each other with tenderness, each grateful for those brief moments of true happiness, and with tragedy waiting around the corner.