They Live by Night

Nicholas Ray, Etats Unis, 1944

Comment

In this opening sequence, Nicholas Ray throws us at the heart of a situation we know nothing about. Who are these men? What is their link to one another? Where are they going? He shows us actions without giving us any information before which would help us understand. We realise the emergency and the restlessness of these men who seem to be running away, but we don’t know the reason. What is at first an indistinct group of four men will nevertheless become clearer. The driver does not belong to the group of the other three and a move from the one who appear to be the chief makes us think that he is about to execute him because, he says, “he speaks too much” and they apparently hold him responsible of the tyre burst. It’s up to us, spectators, to make a link, little by little, between the stray pieces of information to try to decipher what goes on: these men are probably on the run and forced the car owner to take them to their destination.

The film-maker want to indicate to us, straight from the first scene, the violence of these men who are about to knock the driver about. But he doesn’t want to show this violence directly. The action takes place on the ground, hidden by the car, and we can only see the body top of the aggressors. We can hear hits without seeing the victim receiving them, and Ray only shows us the result when two of his aggressors pick his body up to put him, lifeless, in the car. He applies the principle of the direction which consists in showing the effects but not the cause, leaving the spectator to imagine what wasn’t seen.

A strange shot isolate one man from the rest the group, the one who stayed in the car, leaning over to see the others hitting the driver. This type of shot calls for a matching eyeline where we would see what he sees, but Nicholas Ray doesn’t because of his morale as a film-maker.