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Opening Shots: They Live By Night

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Nicholas Ray's directorial debut, "They Live By Night" (1949), begins like a trailer and then slams us right into the opening titles of the feature. An attractive young couple (Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell) are nestling in close-up by the flickering light of a fireplace. They smile, they kiss, and then something off-screen (and unheard on the soundtrack, though signaled by an jarring shift in the musical score) causes them to react with fear and alarm.

"They Live By Night" is a prototypical young-couple-on-the-run movie ("You Only Live Once," "Gun Crazy," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands"), and this tabloid-style opening sets it up breathlessly. The shot seems to exist out of time -- perhaps an idealized moment they once shared, or would never have. The man who would later direct "Rebel Without a Cause" establishes them as innocents and outsiders, star-crossed lovers who "were never properly introduced to the world we live in..." Dissolve to an aerial shot of a truck barreling through a dusty wasteland.

We soon discover that, at the point the title appears, the boy and the girl have yet to meet. So, the whole film could be seen as a flashback -- a noir convention that emphasizes the forces of fate, since the ending of "their story" (even if we don't know what it is) has already been determined from the opening shot. Or perhaps it's a flash-forward to a memory they'll cling to for the rest of their lives. Or an imprint of their fugitive state of mind...

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