They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

These two magnificently framed and lit shots are telling of “They Live By Night”’s two protagonists, Keechie and Bowie, at least from the outset.  Bowie, an escaped convict whose youthful exuberance/optimism and good-naturedness puts him at odds with his more vicious fellow escapees Chicamaw and T-Dub, was imprisoned at 16 and thus has never been able to live and love as a normal young man can.  Keechie, the daughter of Chicamaw’s brother, who takes the men in when they’re on the run, is a hardened tomboy when we meet her, and later admits to Bowie that she’s never been in a relationship, and indeed it’s rather apparent that she’s rarely, if ever, really opened herself up to anybody before.  The first time we meet Keechie is in that outstanding shot, as she’s concealed by the shadows when she meets Bowie, and later we see Bowie’s obscured reflection in that store window as he ponders buying Keechie a present – while his accomplices are planning a bank robbery right next door.  These images of the two, concealed by shadows or what-not, are indicative of how they see themselves, and each other.  They’re enigmas, totally beguiling and mysterious, and made for each other. 

Neither has had an opportunity to interact with or relate to the opposite sex, hence Keechie’s ambiguous and mysterious appearance at the outset, so that when the lightbulb goes on that they might just fit together like a glove, they’re of such a similar mindset that that lightbulb goes on in both their heads at once – it’s such a new experience for them that their romance feels that more genuine despite an otherwise outwardly fictitious crime tale.  It not only works because the prospect of romance is so new for both of them that they’re both in the same boat, but because Nicholas Ray doesn’t treat it from beginning to end like they’re on cloud 9, doesn’t treat it like the ultimate allegory of true, limitless love.  That would be shameless, unrealistic romantic drama.  True, the actual implications of Bowie resorting to bank robberies and being on the lam with Keechie are rather glossed over from time to time – there are times when they’re living happily and comfortably off of stolen money, as if that’s completely well and good – but the entirety of their relationship is far from happy.  There’s an incredible scene where one night they just up and decide to get married in a 24 hour chapel; as they slowly make their way across the street towards the chapel, arm in arm, there’s dead silence – maybe some of the most deafening silence I’ve heard in a film in some time.  Suddenly, a wedding, what should be the happiest moment in the lives of two people, becomes SO ominous, like Keechie and Bowie are walking towards their doom.  It reminded me of the scene in “My Darling Clementine” where Wyatt Earp and Clementine Carter are walking to the church service, slowly and arm in arm, while “Shall We Gather at the River?” is sung softly and slowly in the background like a funeral dirge, making this stroll between the kindly Clementine and the smitten Earp into something very eerie and foreboding.  Keechie and Bowie are smitten with each other, and their romance is very, very endearing, but boy is that silent march a portent of their difficulties to come, and of the very, very impressive direction by Ray.  I could’ve done without the abundance of helicopter shots following the convicts in their speeding getaway car or Bowie on the run – the first shots of action scenes of their kind, but relied on too heavily to the point of becoming a distraction – but moments like that wedding march in the dark, of the sultry nightclub singer regaling the happy couple in that cigarette smoke-filled lounge, of Keechie watching with a beaming smile of amusement as Bowie tries to quiet a screaming baby on the bus, of the two of them simply holding each other in their car, driving at night, make this a very moody, very atmospheric experience, and showed that even at the beginning of his directorial career, Ray was one of the best in the business.

By the time you figure out the ominously foreshadowing nature of that wedding scene, after all the strife and arguments they have due to the stress of being on the run from the law and from the alcoholic, one-eyed, and wildly unpredictable Chicamaw, a late scene shows Bowie, alone, walking out of that same wedding chapel after unsuccessfully lobbying the heavily-connected proprietor for passage to Mexico, this time with the organ and the “Here Comes the Bride” at full blast, as if mocking this sudden unfortunate situation he and his bride find themselves in.  Powerful stuff.  I criticized this film before for failing to take into account the full implications of Bowie being a full-blown criminal, and that for much of the duration he fails to appreciate the consequences of such, but really, that could also be a strength, that what begins as a heist caper a la Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” soon abandons that narrative frame to focus on a young man and a young woman discovering love for the first time, in most unusual circumstances, where outside influences like Chicamaw and the law feel like invading forces.  As with the likes of “Johnny Guitar” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray subverts some gender roles in this, his first feature, at least from the outset as the tomboyish Keechie runs her father’s gas station and doesn’t glamorize herself in the least, and Farley Granger’s Bowie isn’t exactly, shall we say, the manliest of escaped convicts and bank robbers, and certainly not the hardened criminal the papers make him out to be.  Despite that, though, the moment where Keechie lets her hair down and combs it and rubs all that grime off her face, seemingly for the first time, is so great, and Cathy O’Donnell’s smile conveys Keechie’s excited feeling of discovering a new world and a new purpose in life so magnificently – subdued, but bubbling just beneath the surface.  Their courtship is hasty, filled with passion, and utterly charming and endearing, but it’s precisely that haste, in a rather dire on-the-run predicament, that causes all the worry and disagreement between the two – in other words, exactly what you’d expect from such a sudden courtship between two people who’ve known each other for so short a time.  It all leads to a predictable but still somewhat poignant conclusion – Keechie and Bowie’s story, in this quasi-noir, crime-ridden world couldn’t end any other way than it does – that shows not that the problems of a not-well-thought-out marriage and life on the run won out, but that they always loved each other regardless, and that ‘s what really makes their relationship so endearing.  A film that begins as an adventure for escaped convicts becomes a journey of romantic discovery for two sheltered youths, and maybe one of the most compelling depictions of a spur-of-the-moment lifestyle you’ll see, and their gradual discovery of what it means to devote yourself to another is the ultimate adventure.  It’s rough around the edges, but boy, what a debut for Nicholas Ray.

8.5/10

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3 comments so far

  1. RobD on

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. There are some good points here. 🙂

  2. core trainer on

    A gink begins icy his discernment teeth the earliest often he bites out more than he can chew.

  3. Faisal J. on

    Reblogged this on That Dark Alley.


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