Nobody in postwar Hollywood called the crime genre “film noir”; that was a later French appellation. A visual and emotional mood more than a genre, noir wreathed its characters in misty doom, none more seductively than the star-crossed lovers in Nicholas Ray’s first feature. Based on the Edward Anderson novel Thieves Like Us (remade in the ’70s by Robert Altman), the movie fictionalized the story of real-life outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and glamorized them as almost-innocents speeding away from an unjust society toward a doom they don’t deserve.
Bowie (Farley Granger), a 23-year-old who’s spent the past seven years behind bars, has just broken out with two other cons; hoping to go straight, he falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), daughter of one of the gang’s confederates. Granger, who would star as weak-willed playboys in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train, looks more prep school than prison-bred, but his sullen, saturnine aspect makes an ideal complement to O’Donnell’s pale sweetness, especially as captured in Ray’s gigantic close-ups. Though Bowie is the ex-con and Keechie his loyal helpmeet, she is often the dominant figure: driving their car, for instance, and patting his head as he rests on her shoulder. Keechie will be Bowie’s lover, his mother and, if she can, his savior. Good luck with that dream: in the noir cosmos, nobody lives forever.
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