They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray / U.S., 1949):

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. The Depression-era setting crystallizes a specifically American sensitivity to transience, to makeshift sanctuaries scattered amid open spaces filled with shabby chapels, cafes, bus stops, neon signs and disembodied hotel cabins. (When the boy crawls out from behind a giant billboard, it’s an image that could make the very young Godard decide on his aesthetic right there and then.) A jailbird (Farley Granger) and a wallflower (Cathy O’Donnell) comprise the wounded couple at the center, half-bright kids tentatively blooming while discovering intimacy, emotion, life’s many shadowy grids. The dream of domesticity is a dead end and the outlaw alternative family (Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva, "thieves like us") is rejected, the dark open road is the only option for the reluctant criminal and his beloved. "Someday I’d like to see some of this country we’ve been traveling through." "By daylight? That’d be nice..." A cinema of anxiety and sensuality, with a streak of instability (the Christmas bauble that shatters in the delinquent’s hand, the crowbar that narrowly misses the boy’s head but seems to crack the lens) and a peculiar combination of the folksy and the Cocteau-abstract (Helen Craig suggests a fleshier, wearier María Casares). 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. And yet, there are moments when Granger and O’Donnell appear so achingly naked that you could reach into the screen and touch them. A watershed noir tragedy, reflected laterally by the rest of Ray’s work and variously worked by Bergman (Summer with Monika), Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and Altman (Thieves Like Us). Cinematography by George Diskant. With Will Wright, William Phipps, Ian Wolfe, and Will Lee. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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