Gun Crazy/They Live by Night
These two classic "love-on-the-run" crime thrillers have more in common than their near-identical release dates of November 1949 (They Live by Night) and January 1950 (Gun Crazy). (Night was actually shot in 1947, but its release was held up by the new Howard Hughes regime at RKO; its existence helped inspire the making of Gun Crazy.) Both films are passionate stories of young love on the wrong side of the law; as such, the young couple is doomed, and the smarter member of each couple knows it. The difference between the films is not so much in their sensitive-gangster male leads (Farley Granger of Night and John Dall of Gun were enough alike to have been teamed by Hitchcock in Rope in 1948) as in their female leads: Cathy O'Donnell in They Live by Night is as sensitive as Gun's Peggy Cummins is brash. Directorially each film takes its cue from its actresses (or more likely vice versa): Gun Crazy is directed with tremendous drive by Joseph H. Lewis, its middle third a sustained adrenaline high of criminality and gonzo, low-budget cinema. (Most famously, there's a bank robbery shot in one take from the back seat of a car.) Cummins' Annie Laurie Star -- one of the iconic performances of world cinema -- makes her entrance with her guns ablaze, and (until an imposed moralistic ending) never looks back.
Nicholas Ray's first feature, meanwhile, is almost agonizingly careful in its delicate handling of the young lovers, who, an opening title tells us, "were never properly introduced to the world we live in." This couple indeed lives by night, Ray masterfully situating them in a Depression Era landscape not without its own directorial coups (its opening, first-in-history helicopter shot, for one). Gun Crazy embodies the spirit of noir, while They Live by Night drives through it en route to a perhaps nobler destiny as a spiritual gangster film. Yet of course it is Gun Crazy that thrills young filmmakers today, who try to copy it, and fail.
Gun Crazy screens at 7:30 p.m., and They Live by Night screens at 5:40 and 9:10 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 30-Feb. 2, at the Stanford, 221 University (at Emerson) in Palo Alto. Tickets are $6; call 324-3700.