The movie is the prototype for the "couple on the run" genre, and is generally seen as the forerunner to the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Robert Altman directed a version using the original title of the novel, Thieves Like Us (1974).
Bowie (Granger) escapes from prison with bank robbers Chicamaw (DaSilva) and T-Dub (Flippen). Bowie was unfairly convicted of murder. The three plan to rob a bank. Bowie needs the money to hire a lawyer to prove he is innocent. Bowie, injured in an auto accident, finds refuge with the daughter of the owner of a gas station, Keechie (O'Donnell). They fall in love with each other, flee and plan to live an honest life.
On the run, they get married and Keechie gets pregnant. But then Chicamaw and T-Dub return and demand that Bowie come with them for one more job. Bowie is forced to accept but the heist gone wrong: T-Dub ends up dead and Bowie, after a violent argument in the getaway car, leaves Chicamaw stranded. Bowie soon finds that he is unable to escape being hunted by the law and meets a tragic end.Cathy O'Donnell as Catherine "Keechie" Mobley
Farley Granger as Arthur "Bowie" Bowers
Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley
Jay C. Flippen as Henry "T-Dub" Mansfield
Helen Craig as Mattie
Will Wright as Mobley
William Phipps as Young Farmer
Ian Wolfe as Hawkins
Harry Harvey as Hagenheimer
Marie Bryant as Singer
Will Lee as Jeweler
James Nolan as Schreiber
Charles Meredith as Comm. Hubbell
Teddy Infuhr as Alvin
Byron Foulger as Lambert
Guy Beach as Plumber
The novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson had been bought by RKO in 1941 for $10,000. After numerous writers tried to make a screenplay out of it, nothing became of it. According to producer John Houseman, "I found the book and gave it to Nick to read, and he fell madly in love with it–as indeed I did, but Nick particularly was very familiar with that territory. He'd been there when he worked with the Lomaxes, he'd been there when he worked for the Department of Agriculture, and so on. And that whole Depression stuff was terribly his stuff. So he sat down and wrote the treatment. I'd come home at night and we'd go over it; I'd edit it a little, that's all, and it was very, very good." Houseman would repeatedly send in treatments, fronting for the novice Ray. Houseman, who had considerable authority as a producer, was aware of Ray's passion for the project and there was never any doubt that Ray would direct the film.
Much to the dismay of Ray and Houseman, RKO saw no commercial value in the story, especially because Ray had had no film directing experience. In early 1947, producer Dore Schary became Production Chief over RKO with hopes of turning it into Hollywood's most adventurous studio. Schary became known for his liberal values and for giving novice directors the chance to make their debuts. Schary read Ray's treatment and on February 10, Ray signed a contract to RKO with a note by Schary specifying that "It is the intention to have him direct his first project Thieves Like Us."
Houseman hired Charles Schnee to write the screenplay but he was concerned that he wouldn't alter Ray's treatment. Ray and Schnee worked together to make the treatment into a true script without any problems and a completed script was submitted to RKO in May 1947.
On June 23, 1947, Ray began shooting his first film. The first scene shot was the opening scene, a tracking shot of Bowie, T-Dub and Chickamaw escaping from prison in a stolen car. Ray decided to use a helicopter, which had previously been used for establishing shots of landscapes but never before had it been used to shoot action. This film is sometimes considered the first to use a helicopter for this purpose and predates James Wong Howe's celebrated final shot for Picnic by eight years. Four takes were required, with the second one being in the final cut.
For the rest of the day Ray used the helicopter for other scenes of the movie. Making They Live by Night under Houseman and Schary's guidance remained probably the only time in Ray's career when he had complete creative control and not unlike Orson Welles's debut Citizen Kane (1941), also made at RKO for Houseman, Ray experimented with sound and cinematography. Ray's biographer notes that "Only Welles similarly tried to define acoustic and even verbal textures as much as the visual." Renowned film editor Sherman Todd also urged Ray to experiment and break rules. Exteriors were filmed both on location and at RKO's movie ranch in Encino but Todd blended sequences so well together that audiences didn't notice the difference.
Filming completed in October 1947. Despite an excellent preview, the studio didn't know how to market the film and Howard Hughes's takeover of RKO exacerbated the situation. Hughes shelved the film for two years, before releasing it to a single theater in the UK to enthusiastic reviews (one such rave review came from Gavin Lambert, who eventually became a screenwriter for Ray) and it was finally released in the US in November 1949 under the title They Live by Night, after being changed from Thieves Like Us (the source novel's name), The Twisted Road, I'm a Stranger Here Myself and Your Red Wagon. The title, chosen from an audience poll, was favored by Hughes.
During those two years, many wealthy persons involved in the entertainment industry of Hollywood had screening rooms and viewed the film, which led to further employment of its cast and crew, Alfred Hitchcock cast Farley Granger in Rope (1948) upon seeing this film and Humphrey Bogart, greatly impressed by Ray's direction, hired him to direct his independent production Knock on Any Door (1949) at Columbia Pictures.
Farley Granger recounted that he was at Saul and Ethel Chaplin's house for a party. Ray had also been invited and just sat and drank and stared at Granger. Granger asked Ethel Chaplin about Ray's behavior, and she replied that Ray was in the middle of casting his first movie and had taken a professional interest in Granger. Houseman arranged to have Granger test for RKO, which went very well; Ray was determined that he had found his Bowie and then asked Granger if there was an actress whom he felt comfortable with. Granger replied with Cathy O'Donnell, who was also brought in to make a test.
Both Granger and O'Donnell were under contract to Samuel Goldwyn and had limited acting experience behind them, Granger had been in two films before being drafted for World War II while O'Donnell had just made the classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but Ray was fiercely loyal and fought for both of them. Granger later said that "[Ray] and John Houseman were among the few people who fought for me in my career. They said no, we will not make the film without him. When Nick believed in you, he was very loyal." In his autobiography, Granger lists They Live by Night as one of his two or three favorite films.
Many of the supporting cast and minor characters were played by friends of Houseman and Ray, although RKO contract player Robert Mitchum expressed interest in playing Chicamaw, saying that like Ray he knew all about the Depression-era South and had once been in a chain gang. Mitchum went so far as to shave his head and dye it black for the role (in the original novel Chicamaw is an Indian), but because Mitchum was a rising star and had recently received an Oscar nomination, the role of a bank robber was deemed unfit for him. He and Ray did end up working together on projects, including The Lusty Men. The role of Chicamaw went to Howard Da Silva, who had made an impression in Marc Blitzstein's musical The Cradle Will Rock (1937), produced by Houseman. Other minor roles were played by people Ray knew from his time in the New York theater, including Marie Bryant from Beggar's Holiday (the nightclub singer), Curt Conway (the man in the tuxedo at the night club) and Will Lee (the jeweler). Byron Foulger appears as the owner of the cabin where the couple try to hide out.
When the film was released, film critic Bosley Crowther gave the film a positive review, writing, "A commonplace little story about a young escaped convict 'on the lam' and his romance with a nice girl whom he picks up and marries is told with pictorial sincerity and uncommon emotional thrust in RKO's latest item, They Live by Night, at the Criterion. Although it—like others—is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook, this crime-and-compassion melodrama has the virtues of vigor and restraint ... They Live by Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime, but it manages to generate interest with its crisp dramatic movement and clear-cut types."
The film recorded a loss of $445,000. The same source text was used for Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974).