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Film Essay

Film Noir for the Innocent: “They Live By Night”

A companion piece to my Noirvember 2020 post.

You only love once.

When I was fifteen (maybe sixteen), my brother gifted me a DVD set of James Dean’s three films on Christmas Eve. At that point, I had only seen East of Eden (1955), but even with that formative education, I was completely smitten with the idea of Dean. A few hours after receiving the gift, I watched Rebel Without a Cause (1955) for the first time. I will never forget that it was on a Christmas Eve, on a holiday, when I could have been involved more in my family’s affairs but favored the teenage wasteland of a kind of Hollywood movie I had never seen before; afterwards, the film became a living, breathing part of my teenage zeitgeist, sharing the unfortunate fare of being an expression of my unequivocal angst with the likes of The Graduate (1967). I never looked at people my age or movies about people my age quite the same way again after watching Rebel Without a Cause; it all seemed so futile, to care as much to be sensitive to new love when it was all but fleeting and tragic. But at the same time, it encouraged me to be more of a teenager, more romantic and less achingly aware of myself. Rebel Without a Cause, to this day, carries a conflicted tone and memories for me: missed chances, teenage love I never experienced, my dignified insistence on being “above it all” even though I wasn’t, a penalizing reminder of how being young and tragic looks better on James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo than those from around my block. Nicholas Ray is perhaps best remembered for his seminal work on Rebel Without a Cause, a puzzling figure of Hollywood pratfalls and distinguished sincerity, now only remembered in his art. Rebel Without a Cause blends everything that makes They Live By Night aesthetically significant and affecting, down to the prepossessing casting of both pictures. But where Rebel Without a Cause is a flagship for all past seasons and their hauntings, They Live By Night is distinctly current: you must act on this love/chance/escape now, or you won’t live to see the daylight. 

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night (1948).

Adapted from the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, They Live By Night was originally intended to be released under the same name; however, this title was discouraged, anticipating the misinterpretation:  “Thieves Like Us.” That was Howard Hughes’ suggestion, and a sordid reminder of the stifling nature of Hollywood filmmaking during the golden age, even for something so simple. In fact, Hughes’ involvement, discouraging artistic choices and shelving the picture in a great RKO takeover fumble, ensured that They Live By Night would not see a fortuitous American release, despite its distinctly American context. Deviating from its source text a generous amount, They Live By Night tells the story of a young Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger) who, with two seasoned bank robbers Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), escapes from prison amid the rural south during the Great Depression. Planning their next move, the three outlaws hide away with Chickamaw’s brother at his service station, where Bowie meets Catherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s sullen niece. Cold and attuned to indifference, Keechie takes a quiet, genuine interest in Bowie, who seems to be a decent young man that simply got mixed up in the wrong trade. On a whim, the two run away together, swiftly marry at a drive-by chapel, and hide out in a mountain cabin while Bowie’s name makes its rounds in local papers as the wrongly-accused shepherd of the robbery he, Chickamaw, and T-Dub committed earlier in the film. Still indebted to the men who helped spring him from jail, Bowie agrees to help pull off one last robbery, much to Keechie’s chagrin. The robbery goes awry, tensions rise between Bowie and Keechie, and the two flee from their hideout as the authorities continue to name Bowie as the ringleader in the now string of robberies. All too quickly, the two young lovers become pinned against the world.

I think I knew my month would veer into unexpected territory a couple scenes into They Live by Night. Having nothing but introductions between them, Bowie watches Keechie light her cigarette against the night. He watches her too intently, his hand slips from against the wall, rattling chains and startling Keechie, thrusting them into terse conversation: their first. Farley Granger is so beautiful in that scene, a kind of beauty that you might take for granted in any other one of his films, but here it’s special because it’s so unprecedented. He’s a rare case of prepossessing, pure of heart, and outlawed all at the same time. Cathy O’Donnell, too, turns on a sunken world-weariness that might come with women from the side streets of the rural country, but she’s a rare case in that she’s so young and already so sad. As their conversation deepens, Keechie learns that Bowie has spent seven years in the can for a murder plot he was mistakenly involved in. Though he’s done time and flies with a crowd like Chickamaw and T-Dub, Keechie responds kindly to him, thinking him different. Decent. There’s never anything smoldering or burning between them, not even in their first few conversations, only a quiet understanding that comes when you truly know someone; a kind of connection that goes beyond dialogue or physical touch. It’s innocence. It’s quite literally spelled out for us:

“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…To tell their story…”

To wax poetic about this film, Romeo and Juliet each taking the poison in the greatest dramatic irony known to literature, Bowie and Keechie never have the fortune of being star-crossed; they come together in the most desperate of circumstances that would otherwise prove their romance hasty and colorless, if not for the tender interference of being one another’s teacher. They attach to each other and learn to know the world, though limited and grey, through the eyes of another. Though they live their days of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, it’s with the constant accompaniment of fear and desperation. Though they live, it’s only from dusk till dawn.

They Live By Night is rhapsodic and devastating, completely stealing away from the polished romances of Hollywood film noir by paying mind to the unbridled matters of the heart. Nicholas Ray, with his softness towards human calamity and sympathy for the youth of the then-present, considers the stakes in every thought, action, and fear between our two young lovers and measures them out accordingly, with an assured sense of reality. Same is the case in his tenderness towards the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause: everything is so important because it is. In They Live By Night, the exigency is recognizable, but the subtlety of Bowie and Keechie’s shy resolve till the end of time completes the narrative. They become adults by the end of the line, only it’s too late to enjoy the fruits of their labor. A reserved portrait of romance amid suffering, love against corruption, They Live By Night accounts for those who had that one person who taught them everything.

It wouldn’t be a month of spectacular reconsideration for a genre I’d long neglected if it wasn’t for this film that knows its conventions so well that it breaks them, creating something that is not boastful or demonizing, but compassionate and sincere. It’s noir that does not fear the ultimately kind and tender. It’s Farley Granger when he was young and demure. It’s Nicholas Ray when he held the courage of his convictions. On the last page of his script, Ray handwrote:

“This is a love story, it is also a morality tale in the rhythm of its time.”

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