Notes on Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night
(1949), mostly cribbed from e-mail to handful_ofdust
, because I am slammed with work and don't want to forget all the interesting things about it.
Along with examples of the genre I have been calling housewife noir and Jake Hinkson in his introduction to my reprint double of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's Kill Joy
(1942) and The Virgin Huntress
(1951) describes less gender-specifically as domestic noir, I seem to have been inadvertently collecting non-urban noirs—just to name some I've actually managed to write up, The Reckless Moment
(1949), Act of Violence
(1948), The Prowler
(1951), and Detour
(1945) constitute some of the most interesting entries I've encountered since I started paying attention to film noir. As well as adding to their number, They Live by Night
offers another slant on the genre I have not often seen: it's a romantic noir. I am drawing a distinction here with noir romance, as the latter tends to lean more in the direction of folie à deux, self-delusion, or just cosmic bad timing.1
Or maybe I mean it with a capital R. The protagonists of They Live by Night
are sweet people, loving, faithful, heartbreakingly earnest, neither of them dumb. They just also happen to be doomed, as we're warned straight off by the pre-credits subtitles that run like the tagline of a trailer beneath a dreamy, intimate close-up of two young people kissing blissfully, all unawares: "This boy . . . and this girl . . . were never properly introduced to the world we live in . . ." Belonging only contingently, they can be snatched away at any time.
The thing is, it's painfully true. Bowie (Farley Granger) was sixteen when he was convicted of murder and now he's twenty-three; when he breaks out from a prison farm with a pair of small-time career criminals, he knows nothing about life on the outside, not how to talk to strangers, not how money really works, definitely not how to hold or even conceive of a job. Tomboyish Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) has spent her equally young life running her alcoholic father's gas station and garage in the Midwestern middle of nowhere and she understands money, strangers, and hard work, but nothing about relationships. She's never had a boyfriend or even wanted one. She's not even interested in Bowie when they meet for the first time, though he has Granger's lanky, wistful face and almost flinchingly sensitive body; she disapproves of her no-good uncle Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) claiming the garage as a hideout for himself, Bowie, and fellow escapee T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and she's not amused by the other men joshing about the inevitable attraction between the virginal boy and the lonesome girl. When he does try to talk to her, tentatively offering his damaged history and his hopeful dreams, she listens with an indifferent irritation, long inured to the sob stories of men. Hearing that he plans to raise the money for an appeal by going in on a bank job with Chickamaw and T-Dub, she responds with typical bluntness: "You'll get in so deep trying to get squared they'll have enough for two lifetimes." They bond only after Chickamaw in a characteristic moment of success-flushed recklessness involves himself and Bowie in a road accident, dumps the stunned, bruised, but not permanently injured kid on his niece, and hightails it into the night, leaving the two of them really alone for the very first time—and then it's instant, permanent, like imprinting, sealing themselves to one another with a shock that's half undiscovered physical awareness and half absolute emotional honesty, like they're the only two people in a deserted world and they've just discovered one another. They run away that night. They board a bus together. They get married for twenty dollars plus tip by the blinking neon advertisement of an all-night justice of the peace and buy a hot clunker of a Plymouth Deluxe for a price so extortionate, they have obviously been clocked as "Bowie the Kid, the Zelton Bandit" and his moll, but the "Kid" doesn't hesitate to lay down all thirty-two hundred dollars in pocket-wadded bills because how should he know what a car costs? They are not profligate, nor do they throw themselves into the consumer frenzy of the postwar boom; they rent a resort cabin in the mountains and buy each other Christmas presents. Neither derspatchel
nor I thought guests were allowed to repaint as well as redecorate the interior of a rental cabin, but they do it anyway.
And the audience knows they can't last forever, living in the seams and cracks of the American dream with Keechie unable to go into town because her picture's the one that ended up in the papers and Bowie knowing no line of work that isn't a stickup, but you want them to make it somehow. You want Bowie to be able to afford that lawyer in Tulsa he's always talking about hiring to reopen his conviction. You want Keechie to feel safe having the baby she confirmed was on the way while Bowie was out of town pulling another job. You want them to get the chance to hold hands in a darkened movie theater like they've heard couples in love do. "Someday I'd like to see some of this country we've been traveling through." They make wonderful ethnographers of the alien culture that is mainstream America, gravely looking in at it from the outside without shame but without all that much longing, either. Golf confuses both of them. Neither of them knows how to dance and neither evinces much inclination to learn. Riding on horseback would be fun if you were going someplace, but just trotting round and round a track? They speak a language of evasions and equivocations, never asserting anything too definitely in case it doesn't come true: could be
, suppose so
. On the other hand, they live in a world that by grace of its un-socialization is strikingly absent almost all of the toxic dynamics that characterize male-female relationships in this genre. Keechie is a capable mechanic, Bowie has a strong nesting instinct. As they drive aimlessly across the country to which they never quite belong, they take turns behind the wheel. They fight like people who don't really understand arguments; they check in carefully with one another's happiness. "If you want me to" is always answered by "If you want to." Tragedy comes in part because Bowie makes a solo decision for them both.
It is an incredibly outsider
film, which is the strongest reason besides the fatalism and the cinematography that They Live by Night
reads to me as noir; it is an incredibly sympathetic
outsider film. It felt telling to both me and Rob that the criminal world never betrays the fugitive lovers—it takes someone deeply invested in the image of themselves as an honest, law-abiding citizen to do that.2
The title of Edward Anderson's 1937 source novel was Thieves Like Us
and I am sorry RKO did not permit Ray to keep it, because it is thematically echoed throughout the script; it was restored by Robert Altman's 1974 adaptation which I have not seen. I suppose I could compare-and-contrast the two, though at the moment I am still in the spell of moments like the opening helicopter shot tracking the three convicts' stolen jalopy as it corners a dust-bowl crossroads and peels out onto the highway or the way the last words of the film become an affirmation between the living and the dead, impossibly speaking for two people at once. This getaway brought to you by my unworldly backers at Patreon
1. Bogart and Bacall are the reliable exception.
2. One of the film's few purely funny moments occurs when Bowie is confronted in the men's room of a nightclub where he and Keechie have taken the risk of dining out: the dinner-jacketed stranger who effortlessly disarms him and orders him out of town is not a representative of the law but the local syndicate. "Nothing against you, you understand?" he explains, man-to-man. "We don't want a lot of trigger-happy hillbillies around here. This is a nice cool town. Business is good." He gives an astonished Bowie back his gun and hands him a wad of traveling cash besides.