Bowie (Farley Granger) has just been released from prison after spending seven years there for accidentally killing a man when he was sixteen, but those who know him, chiefly the ne'erdowell Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva), want to make sure he follows them into their career of crime. Today they are driving him to a location where they can get their hands on a lot of none-too-legally gathered money, but after their car's front tire blows they are forced to continue on foot. Or Bowie does until he twists his ankle and the other two are forced to leave him behind, promising to return for him once they have the cash. It takes till that night, but the person who does arrive to pick him up will be very influential...
That is because Bowie will fall in love with her, for this, the first of Nicholas Ray's distinctive melodramas which made it appear that he started as he meant to go on, sympathising with the outsiders in as a romantic though ironically clear-eyed manner as possible. Ray still has a cult following that lasts to this day, and in spite of some of the trappings of his films which could be viewed as dated, there was a modernity to his approach; indeed, They Live By Night was praised for its realism around the time it was released, even if now it has been claimed by the more powerful film noir movement which commands a following yet greater than Ray's.
However, the affair at the heart of the story is somewhat hamstrung by its casting. Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, playing female half of the couple Keechie, were curiously colourless and passionless for a pair who were supposed to be consumed with desire for each other to the extent that they barely understood the emotions they were feeling. Not that there's anything especially awful in their performances, it's simply that we have trouble accepting the amount of worth the film places on their relationship, and they come across as so chaste other than a few kisses and cuddles that it's more of a surprise to us than it is to them when Keechie announces she is pregnant.
But that could have been the spirit of the times, as more convincing for a thriller is the way in which Bowie is landed with trouble at every turn, as if he were in an inescapable maze. We recognise he is more sinned against that sinning, with Chicamaw forcing him into these criminal situations and he initially going along with them out of misplaced loyalty, but they could not have predicted that Bowie would become a celebrity. Once the gang get away with quite a subsantial sum of money from a bank raid, the press latches onto the young man as the mastermind, much to Chicamaw's disdain (Da Silva easily steals the acting honours as the menacing evildoer), though they agree to split the profits and go their separate ways.
Not that we are convinced we've seen the last of the baddies, but for a while Bowie and Keechie have a chance at happiness, and rather quaintly go and get married at a seedy justice of the peace, to cement their love in legal terms and presumably make the plot point of the baby on the way more acceptable to the censors. The sense of doom closing in on this couple is not so much made apparent by the lawmen, who are notable in their absence for much of the time, but by their criminality catching up with them which in turn will have the police on their heels by and by. Funnily enough, the lack of worldliness on the part of Bowie and Keechie, or perhaps the actors playing them, has the themes of the film in its best interests, and if the performances don't bring out the tragedy then good writing on the part of Ray does. This was remade by Robert Altman as Thieves Like Us, the title of the original book, but crucially did not overshadow it. Music by Leigh Harline.