In June 1947, Nicholas Ray began shooting on his first film. The director of future classics like In a Lonely Place (reviewed here), Johnny Guitar, and Rebel without a Cause, had spent much of his professional career in the theater, but in 1944 he stood behind the movie camera with Elia Kazan on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and that would help jump start an amazing career. From the first scenes — a brief, idealistic, soapy prologue and a long shot of a car of prison escapees shot from a helicopter — of his first film, They Live by Night, it’s clear that Ray had a soft spot for outsiders as well as a keen cinematic eye.
They Live by Night begins with that brief prologue, almost a teaser trailer, in which the young couple — Farley Granger’s Arthur “Bowie” Bowers and Cathy O’Donnell’s Catherine “Keechie” Mobley — looks into each other’s eyes and begin to kiss. These words pop onto the screen, quieting any notion we may have that we are about to watch a hard-boiled crime drama:
This boy . . . and this girl . . . were never properly introduced to the world we live in . . . To tell their story . . .
Suddenly, the couple is startled by horns and something just off screen, when the title appears: They Live by Night.
From the first moments of his first film, Ray, who, as I mentioned above, was going to on to direct Rebel without a Cause and Bigger than Life, shows his sympathy for the doomed, romantic souls caught up in a drama larger than they are.
After the title comes up, we enter the film proper and see the first scene Ray ever directed: that shot of a car filled with escaped convicts. This also happens to be one of the first, if not the first, instances where an action scene was shot by helicopter. It was an audacious stunt by a new director who had, strangely, been given a lot of creative license at RKO, the studio which essentially said they were no longer interested in catering to director’s artistic visions after Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane failed to turn a profit at the box office. This is not a story about a director proving the studio his vision would make money — They Live by Night also failed to make a profit — but it’s a story about a cinematic artist flexing his muscles and creating art for those of us who do not care if the film turned a profit or not.
The three convicts who have escaped prison are the two older, hardened men, Chicamaw Mobley (Howard Da Silva) and “T-Dub” Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen), and the twenty-two-year-old Bowie. When they hop out of the car to cross a field, we see that Bowie is injured and limping. He can’t go all the way to their destination — a filling station owned by Chicamaw’s brother — so they drop him behind a billboard and tell him they’ll send someone for them.
At this time, if we ignore the prologue, the film appears to be setting us up for a cynical noir. When a car does come to pick up Bowie, he sees the driver is a young woman. He goes up to her, untrusting. She’s just as wary. We still wonder if this is heading into pitch darkness:
Bowie: You having trouble?
Keechie: Could be.
Bowie: Who are you? You live around here?
Keechie: Could be.
Bowie: You haven’t had a couple of visitors lately, have you?
Keechie: That wouldn’t be a sore foot making you limp, would it?
Bowie: Could be.
Since we’ve already seen these two kissing in the prologue, however, it’s clear this chance encounter is going to bring them together as lovers.
They remain wary but attracted to each other for the first part of the film. Bowie, it turns out, has been in prison for six years for killing a man. Keechie, born and raised in a family of criminals, is not sure what to make of a young murderer who appears to be rather sensitive. She’s right that he’s sensitive, though: much of his past was brought to him without his consent, and he’s looking for a way to start again, hopefully after securing proper legal counsel. He’s so naive he’s sweet.
Chicamaw and T-Dub have other plans for Bowie, though. They chose to break out with him because they saw his potential, and they plan to ensure he pays them for their beneficence. He’s a capable driver, so his job is to keep the car running while they empty banks around the area.
This is not the way to freedom and a new start, and Keechie knows it. With her encouragement, Bowie and she catch a bus for the future. She’s naive to believe in his dreams, too. But, then again, even if we know in our heart of hearts how this story is going to turn out, we also want to believe in them. Bowie and Keechie simply want to escape their circumstances and build their own lives. Soon their lives are linked by the bonds of marriage, and the illusion of the ideal life starts to solidify in a rundown shack out of the way of everything.
It’s not out of the way enough, though, and soon Chicamaw and T-Dub find Bowie and, er, encourage him to come back to do a few more jobs. This breaks Keechie’s heart. Putting on the pressure, though, Bowie is the most famous outlaw in the area now. “Bowie the Kid,” he’s called, and his partners, particularly Chicamaw, resent that the press considers him the leader of the gang of bank robbers.
Through all of the drama, Ray keeps Bowie and Keechie’s youthful, beautiful, naive relationship in clear focus. No matter what’s going on on screen at any given moment, we foster hope they can go someplace where their truly good characters can come out into the open daylight. As such, They Live by Night is a classic doomed love/love on the run story. We are more sympathetic to Bowie and Keechie than to many of these lovers that will come after — Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands — so the impulse to hope for a criminal’s clean break is all the more enticing. Bowie and Keechie’s idyll is one of true companionship, and they continue to resist the allure and easy cash of the robbery . . . all for not, alas.
I was delighted by this film, genuinely cheering for a murderer and robber and his young wife to get away from the law and set up a new life. When Ray first took of the director’s chair, he had complete control over his material and a strong desire to sympathetically explore the lot of the downcast, helping his audience see something in this screen couple that we don’t often see in their real-life counterparts. Thankfully its disappointment at the box office didn’t stop Ray (or Granger or O’Donnell) from advancing in this new career.