Friday, February 5, 2010

They Live By Night


Nicholas Ray's first film They Live By Night, based on the same story as Robert Altman's later Thieves Like Us, is a tale of doomed romance between a desperate criminal and a simple, inexperienced country girl. It's a story as old as crime fiction, or even as old as time itself: the bad man who wants something better, who dreams of a "normal" life, and the girl who loves him even though she knows they'll never have the life they want. Bowie (Farley Granger) was in prison for hanging out with the wrong gang as a sixteen year-old orphan, until he breaks out and goes on the run with two older, hardened criminals, T-Dub (Jay Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) — another bad gang, because Bowie's a guy who always seems to be in the wrong place, with the worst friends. Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) is Chickamaw's niece, who grudgingly ministers to the gang after a failed job on which Bowie was injured. These two young, confused people are unlikely lovers, but there's nevertheless a magnetic, seemingly irresistible connection between them, the bond of a desperate and slowly developing love. Neither of them has ever had much happiness from life, from their families or the situations in which they find themselves. They share absent parents: both their mothers ran away with other men, and Bowie's father was killed before his eyes while Keechie is saddled with a drunken, no-good old man.

Ray treats this young love with grace and shadowy romance, capturing the brooding quality of this slow-burning desire between two inexperienced youths. "I don't know much about kissing," Keechie admits after the couple are married, and Bowie shyly agrees that neither does he. He's billed, on the radio and in the newspapers, as the leader of a vicious gang of bank robbers, but his infamy is almost accidental, entirely out of proportion to his simple ways, his country boy decency and good manners, his humble ambitions. He actually convinces himself that if he can just raise enough money for a good lawyer, he can show everyone that it's all just been a mistake, that he's actually not a bad man, and they'll let him go. Keechie has the same fantasies: they'll settle down, live a good life like ordinary people, and then the authorities will let him be since he's proven he can lead an honest life. They have to know it doesn't work that way, that their story is predestined to have a darker ending, but Ray portrays their insular romance so convincingly, so romantically and beautifully, that one is swept along in their fantasies, momentarily blinded to the unrealistic foundations upon which they're attempting to build this love.

The pair go on the run together, splitting away from T-Dub and Chickamaw, and manage to craft a haphazard domesticity in an out-of-the-way vacation lodge. Nothing is perfect for them, everything's a ramshackle parody of respectable life, but they don't mind. Their marriage — telegraphed by a great shot where, as the bus the couple is on pulls to a stop, a blinking neon sign advertising all-hours weddings is framed by the front window — is an expression of their deep, intuitive connection with one another. They get married at a small chapel where a weary minister marries eager couples for $20, charging an extra $10 for the full deal with music and photographs and recordings of the rushed service. Keechie and Bowie skip the frills, getting the stripped-down essence of a wedding, with sour-faced witnesses who only provide the expected good wishes and blessings after they've received their tips. Later, the couple's honeymoon lodge is rundown and dusty, though the place is overseen by a cheerfully eccentric proprietor who keeps passing on business tips to his young son. The film is packed with eccentricities like this, bit characters who get some compelling business to do around the fringes of this lovers' story.


The core of the film, though, is the romance between Keechie and Bowie, and Ray is well-suited to portraying their unconventional love. Their relationship seems like a nascent indication of the makeshift family formed by a group of outcast, neglected teens in Ray's famous Rebel Without a Cause; Keechie and Bowie don't seem much more mature or adjusted to life's cruelty than James Dean and Natalie Wood do in the later film. Ray's images are meticulously framed and intimate, bathing the doomed lovers in lushly romantic light and shadow. He frequently places his camera in close proximity to them as they kiss and clench, enforcing the intimacy and exclusiveness of their love. As their romance develops, other characters and dramas increasingly drop out of the film; Bowie's gang disappears, as does Keechie's father and various other supporting characters. It's as though the whole plot is put on hold by the sheer force of their love, their determination to create a new life away from the violence and criminality of their pasts. There's a lengthy interlude at the film's center that feels more like a romance than a crime film or a noir, but the intensity of this focus only makes it all the more devastating when the sinister Chickamaw's return heralds the couple's true tragic destiny.

Although this was only Ray's first film, his sensibility is already tough and his command of storytelling surefooted. The film has a raw energy that elevates it above many similar stories. The early encounters between Keechie and Bowie are fantastic, seething with barely contained stormclouds of hostility and attraction, which Ray captures by dwelling on Keechie's sullen, heavy-browed glares and Bowie's hesitant attempts to maintain his gangster composure. Ray's equally assured with their brighter moments, like the dawning grin on Keechie's face as she awakes one morning, stretching and mewling in a way that Bowie quite accurately describes as kittenish. Ray is undoubtedly better when dealing with the darker shadings of this story, however, and nowhere is this more apparent than when the couple has a brisk, pointed exchange about Keechie's unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. Bowie expresses his frustration and unhappiness with the situation, and Keechie responds with an absolutely harrowing line: "you don't see me knittin' nothing, do you?" It's such a direct and heartfelt response to her pregnancy, completely overshadowing Bowie's reaction with an implicit suggestion that she's the one who's really affected by this, that she's the one who's going to actually have the baby.

As forceful as Keechie is here, she can also be almost painfully subservient and pathetic elsewhere in the film. In one of the most nauseating scenes, she actually compares her loyalty to Bowie to that of a dog, telling him that a bad dog will take anyone for a master, while a good dog will remain true to the one person it loves. She tells him about one dog who, after its master died, wouldn't take food from anyone else and died not long after, and the obvious implication is that she's like the dog. It's a pretty horrifying analogy, and once Keechie drops her antagonistic initial response to Bowie and the other robbers, the film does little to make Keechie into a more developed character: her only desire is simply to be by Bowie's side, eagerly leaping into his arms at every moment. The limitations in the portrayal of Keechie hold the film back from being completely satisfying, but in other ways it's a worthy noir romance, replete with dark undertones and a poignant depiction of the gap between reality and impossible fantasies.

15 comments:

Andrew Gilbert said...

I'm curious, not having seen this particular Ray, but is there no double or triple meanings behind any of the relationships?

Ray's best work, and everything I've seen, barely hides its surrogate gay, bisexual, and swinging romances, usually a transformation of the compulsive heterosexual characters that exists in tandem.

Ed Howard said...

Andrew, I think any interpretation along those lines for this film would be a stretch — it's so singlemindedly focused on the romance between Keechie and Bowie. I could maybe see someone inclined to think of gayness in Ray arguing that the gangsters who show up to disrupt Keechie and Bowie's domestic tranquility represent that kind of alternate sexuality; Bowie is drawn away from Keechie by them. But, again, it's a real stretch in this case.

Rebel Without a Cause is of course a prime example of what you're talking about, dealing simultaneously with a heterosexual "family" structure and the gay attractions within it. But I don't see any comparable tensions within, say, In a Lonely Place.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Outside of the dazzling beauty of Fraley Granger there's nothing of gay interest in They Live By Night -- unlike Rebel's polymorphous-perverse jamboree.

It's a very beautiful film, very much in the mode of Borzage -- but with a dark undertone we'll shortly discover is all Ray's own.

Ed Howard said...

Agreed about the film's dark beauty, David. It really captures that moody, moony quality of awkward young love, even if it does happen to be set in a criminal milieu.

Anonymous said...

George E. Diskant's moody lighting and textured cinematography was a central ingrediant of this film's presentation. Diskant, who later filmed Ray's even greater ON DANGEROUS GROUND (one of my favorite of all noirs) was a noir wizard, as he developed his own almost existential visual style. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is on eof the greatest of the romantic crime dramas, and Ray's boundless energy as a then newbie was most evident, as you note youself in this exceptional appraisal of the film.

Sam Juliano said...

Ed, the previous submission was mine, but for some reason it came up as "Anonymous".......Sam

Doniphon said...

Ed, if you haven't already I recommend checking out Edward Anderson's original novel Thieves Like Us. It's a great read.

Andrew Gilbert said...

Thanks for the clarification. Like I said, I haven't seen this one, but Bigger Than Life, Savage Innocents, Johnny Guitar, and Rebel are what I was primarily referring to. Agreed on In A Lonely Place

Greg said...

This is actually one of my favorite Nicholas Ray films if not at times my favorite. There is such an unpretentious air about it. And Howard da Silva is really menacing as Chickamaw (who knew that Ben Franklin could be so scary).

I saw Farley Granger at a Q and A at the AFI last year (and got to meet him briefly afterwards) and he was wonderfully grumpy throughout, not pulling any punches. With Ray it was clear he liked the earlier works better and kept referring to Ray's later works as "glitzy crap." And then he said he bugged Ray about it for years. Every time a new film came out he'd call Ray and ask, "Why do you keep making this glitzy crap?" Of course, no one could pin him down to explicitly name which ones outside of "the later stuff."

DavidEhrenstein said...

He was probably thinking of Party Girl.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, agreed about the importance of Diskant's cinematography to this film; the imagery is beautiful, and so romantic as well.

Doniphon, I haven't read the book but now that I've seen two different adaptations of it I have to say I'm quite eager to. Thanks for the recommendation.

Greg, da Silva really is creepy here. And that's some great insight about Granger and Ray. I still have a lot of Ray to see but already there's obviously a disjunction between more straightforward films like this one and some of the other stuff he made.

Sandy said...

Thanks you very much for your clarification, Nice blog post mate.

Jake said...

I didn't write as much on this film as I usually do, but I loved this movie. Other than that stunning moment where Keechie makes herself out to be a literal bitch, all of the elements are so fully formed and intelligent. The lighting is so oppressive, the performances are so effecting and the humor is so wry that it still looks striking after spawning off maybe the key genre in the development of film (largely serving to launch both the New Wave and New Hollywood).

Adam Zanzie said...

I second what Jake just said. Tremendous work here, Ed. I DVR'd They Live By Night on TCM recently.

And I lol'd when I read David's Party Girl comment. I haven't seen that one- although I've definitely heard that it's one of Ray's worst, and I guess it fits the description Greg was talking about in his story of Granger calling out Ray on the "glitzy crap". Haha.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, Jake and Adam. This film is an amazing debut. I haven't seen Party Girl, so I can't comment on that one, but I do find it hard to imagine dismissing anything by Ray completely.