Greatest movies about lovers on the run

James Oliver

Anyone fancy a crimewave? After the last couple of months, it has never been more tempting to hit the road with your beloved on your arm and stick two fingers up at the law...

But since that's currently neither safe nor practical (STAY INDOORS!), you're going to have to make other arrangements. Happily, the movies can help: cinema loves a good fugitive couple which at least allows the vicarious thrill of a life on the run. (Plus, it spares you the faff and bother of being chased by the police and a long time in jail when they catch you.) 

Anyway, here are some of the best films about lovers on the lam.  

 

You Only Live Once 

Not to be mistaken for the "YOLO" that the young people are always going on about, this is a fatalistic romance from the depression years—Henry Fonda is the ex-con who's sent back down for a crime he (probably) didn't commit; Sylvia Sidney is the gal who believes in him so much that she sticks by his side even after he escapes from the Big House to start committing crime for real. 

Loosely inspired by the real-life exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow whose joint enterprise had been terminated by the Feds only a couple of years before this film was made, this was director Fritz Lang's second American film, a tragic tale of doomed devotion and the unfairness of life. “Yolo” indeed. 

 

They Live By Night 

If the name Nicholas Ray means anything to you, you'll know him as the auteur behind Rebel Without a Cause, In A Lonely Place, Wind Across the Everglades and Knock On Any Door, a man much interested in America's outsiders and in titles with four words in them 

They Live By Night was his first film and established his abiding concerns, right down to the length of the title. It's about Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) who meet when he joins her uncle's gang and who fall in love. They try running away but that was never going to work and it builds to an ending that's no less tragic for being inevitable. It's one of the very greatest American films, heartfelt and passionate in a way that too few production line movies ever were. If you need further encouragement, it's just been released by the Criterion Collection in a sumptuous special edition that would be an asset to any shelf.  

 

Gun Crazy 

What was it they said about the female of the species...? Well, Pistol Packing Momma Peggy Cummins seems determined to prove it right in this film. She's a sharpshooter in a carnival sideshow who suckers weak-willed John Dall with her womanly wiles and leads him to bank robbery and worse. 

Again inspired by the real life Bonnie and Clyde, it anticipates the film Bonnie and Clyde too, being filled with some outrageous symbolism: Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with the depiction of guns here. 

 

Pierrot Le Fou 

Film critic turned director Jean-Luc Godard was a great admirer of Nicholas Ray (q.v.) and, like Ray, made his own debut (A bout de souffle/ Breathless) with a film about lovers on the lam. Five years later, he used the same star (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to have another crack at the same subject with Pierrot Le Fou

Anyone who expects a standard plot will be disappointed; the gist of it is that Belmondo takes off with a young woman played by Anna Karina. But when was Godard interested in “story”? Rather, this is a diary of the director's despair—his marriage was collapsing, global violence was rising and the French New Wave which had promised so much (and which he was such a crucial part of) had failed. From this darkness, he made one of his very best films. 

"If you're of the generation that says “YOLO!!!!!” un-ironically, you might find it hard to believe that there was a time when Nicolas Cage was the unparalleled prince of cool"

 

Badlands 

If every film above was influenced (either directly or indirectly) by the true story of Bonnie and Clyde, then every film that follows was influenced (to a greater or lesser degree) by Badlands

It's another debut, this one by Terrence Malick. But don't worry: although there's all the stuff you expect from Malick, like shots of the natural world and slack-jawed narration, there's a bit more plot here than, say, Tree of Life. The slack-jawed narration is supplied by Sissy Spacek, who plays the lovelorn teenage girl who either hasn't noticed or doesn't care that the older man she's run away with—played by Martin Sheen—is actually a mass-murdering psycho. Oddly, the law is less relaxed about this. 

 

Wild At Heart 

Now, at the risk of going on and on about directors, Wild at Heart was made by David Lynch and is full of the skew-whiff stuff that he is so celebrated for (for instance, he was heavily influenced by The Wizard of Oz for this film, to the extent that he even included the good witch). But for modern viewers, the weirdest thing might be seeing Nicolas Cage in his prime. 

If you're of the generation that says “YOLO!!!!!” un-ironically, you might find it hard to believe that there was a time when Nicolas Cage was the unparalleled prince of cool (this was before The Wicker Man remake, obviously). But stick this film on and here he is, ice-cold in a snakeskin jacket, playing the ex-con who takes to the road with Laura Dern, both of them trying to avoid the cruel wrath of her wicked mother. This is why so many of us still love him. Is it too much to hope Lynch will find him another role to remind the rest of the world of how great he can be? 

(Dern is characteristically good too, of course, but that will come as less of a surprise, given that she had the good sense not to appear in The Wicker Man remake.) 

 

True Romance 

Back in the day, when The Wicker Man remake was decades in the future, when Nicolas Cage was super-cool and no-one had the faintest clue what ''YOLO!!!!!” meant, a young man who worked at a video store in Los Angeles wrote a script called The Open Road. Since it came in at about a thousand pages, it was never going to get made so the young man—his name was Quentin Tarantino—carved it up. Part of it would become Reservoir Dogs, part became Natural Born Killers and the rest became True Romance

Ultimately directed by Tony Scott (who borrows both music and slack jawed narration from Badlands), it's about an Elvis obsessed geek played by Christian Slater and his sweetheart (Patricia Arquette) who decamps with her to Los Angeles with a car load of stolen cocaine, to the irritation of the cocaine's rightful owners. It's the breeziest, sweetest thing Tarantino has been involved with—despite the bloodshed and “strong language”, it's almost a family film by his standards. 

 

Moonrise Kingdom 

This list has already been auteur heavy, so there's no reason to stop now, especially when the auteur in question is one of the most distinctive directors around. Wes Anderson's films have been (accurately) compared to carefully curated dolls houses and Moonrise Kingdom is the purest expression of that. 

It concerns Sam and Suzy, a pair of 12-year-olds who just want to be together and so run away from the grown-ups to do just that, proving that it is possible to go on the lam without committing any crime and thus making them the best role models on this list. 

Incidentally, if you wonder what happened to Sam and Suzy once the film is over, take a look at Jim Jarmusch's excellent Patterson. It's not about lovers on the run but there's a pair of bus passengers who sure do look familiar... 

Badlands and Moonrise Kingdom are also available in super-duper editions from The Criterion Collection

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