They Live by Night (1948)

They Live by Night is one of several crime noir films Criterion is streaming this year for the holidays. It tells the story of young lovers on the run from the law. I was on the fence about writing this up. Because the movie's timeline is fairly nebulous, it's not at all clear what portion is set around Christmas. A fourteen or fifteen-minute section starting just after the middle definitely is and you could interpret the entirety of what comes before as being in December, but you could just as easily assume the earlier scenes are in October or November. It just isn't clear. The tie-breaker, of course, came down to some thematic connections, but even these aren't clear-cut. More on all that later.

The main characters are Bowie (played by Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). Bowie just broke out of prison with the help of two older criminals, T-Dub and Chicamaw. They're staying at a service station run by Keechie's father, who's assisting them in exchange for cash. They're also getting help from a woman named Mattie, who's conspiring with the thieves to rob a bank in part to get money to bail out her husband (who's also T-Dub's brother, hence the connection).

The robbery goes well, and the criminals split the take. Bowie plans to use his portion to hire a lawyer to help him wipe his record clean - because he'd originally been imprisoned as a minor, he believes he has a case. Whether he's right or not is academic. Chicamaw shoots a cop after a traffic accident, and Bowie is implicated. He decides to go on the run, and Keechie agrees to go with him.

Bowie has a substantial amount of cash, so the two of them are in relatively good shape, so long as they're not caught. They elope and head to some secluded rental cabins Chicamaw suggested earlier. Here's where we jump ahead to just before Christmas, when Chicamaw reemerges and demands Bowie join him and T-Dub on a job. Bowie reluctantly goes along after his partners make it clear he doesn't have much choice. This one goes poorly - T-Dub is shot and killed, and Chicamaw suffers a similar fate soon after. Once again, Bowie is in the crosshairs of the law.

He returns to the cabin on Christmas to find the building is flooding due to a burst pipe. He and Keechie bicker, and she reveals she's pregnant. The plumber sees something that tips him off as to the identities of Bowie and Keechie, and they go on the run once more, though shelter seems impossible to come by.

When Keechie grows ill, Bowie brings her to a motel owned by Mattie, whose husband is still in jail (she and T-Dub never managed to get him out). She initially refuses to help, but relents when Bowie threatens her. She gives them a place to stay but turns them in to the police in exchange for her husband's release. The police show up and shoot Bowie. Keechie runs to him and recovers a letter revealing he was going to leave her in order to ensure her and the baby's safety, which is ultimately what's occurred, albeit not the way he intended.

I found the movie quite effective for the most part. The depiction of the criminals, particularly the older ones, feels grounded and believable. These aren't madmen a hair's breadth from violence - there's a sort of desperation to them that's highlighted by the direction and performances. Same goes for Mattie, who's shown to be deeply conflicted by her decision to betray Bowie. She does it out of love for her husband, but the movie lets us know she's aware that her actions will hurt two people who remind her of herself and the same husband. This is all communicated pretty subtly, without resorting to monologues or anything of the sort.

Likewise, I was impressed with how suspenseful this is, particularly in the first half. Stylistically this is more realistic than most crime stories I've come across from the decade, and as a result, you feel more of the weight the characters are bearing. Some of that gets lost towards the ending as the movie leans into the drama a bit, but it's still well done.

The section set explicitly during the holidays mostly uses them in the obvious ways. Chicamaw's interruption as the couple prepares to celebrate serves as a reminder that Bowie's past will never allow him to find peace (an idea spoken aloud by one of the men chasing him, in a notably melancholy tone). Likewise, the revelation that Keechie is pregnant coinciding with the holiday isn't a coincidence - we're supposed to contrast a time associated with a baby with the shadow this casts over them (at first, she implies she might get an abortion before deciding to keep the child).

Prior to that, there's not much of an indication when the movie's set, aside from the reveal that it's cold outside. My general impression is that everything happening prior to Christmas is taking place in a condensed span of time, but it's very ambiguous.

While I enjoyed and respect this, I'd hesitate to recommend it anyone who isn't a fan of the era and genre. It's certainly well done, but I'm not convinced this is so much better than the average '40s noir to justify placing it near the top of your watchlist.