They Live by Night (1948)

Dir. Nicholas Ray. Starring Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell, Howard Da Silva

A woman is like a dog, Keechie (O’Donnell) tells Bowie (Granger) one night. I knew a dog who lost his master and refused to eat food from anyone else’s hand, would let no one pet him. It is a humiliating comparison, and Keechie is not without a little pride. Yet she is consumed with Bowie, simply and totally, and he is much the same with her. They should part once Bowie is redrafted into the little gang of three which broke out of prison together. They should never have gotten married in the first place; they do so compulsively when their bus meets a quickie marriage spot. This is love beyond logic, not quite passion but more like the animal companionship that neither Keechie nor Bowie has ever known before. She has lived in the armpit of Texas for her whole life with an alcoholic father. He has been in jail since he was a teenager, having killed a man and then gone through the entire process, from arrest to conviction, in a single day. Frequently, the two of them admit to one another that they don’t know how their romance should go. I don’t know about kissing, one will say to the other, or I don’t know what other girls want. There is an unmistakable Robert Herrick moment when one presumed virgin gives another a watch: “Old Time is still a-flying,” indeed. Bowie is a wanted man from the first time we see him, and there is no doubt that he’ll be gunned down one of these days. They are living on stolen time, abducted from justice or the legal system or luck. Romeo and Juliet were less inevitably doomed than these two, and the short months they spend together are elegiac and sad.

Cathy O’Donnell plays Homer’s girlfriend, Wilma, in The Best Years of Our Lives, and while other people have more obviously difficult parts, there may not be another person who has such an unglamorous role. O’Donnell is not beautiful like Teresa Wright, not glamorous like Virginia Mayo, not distinguished like Myrna Loy. She is quite literally the girl next door, and in her quiet voice and yearning features we can see the shy dignity that she carries. Milly and Peggy come to care for men who are physically unharmed but mentally tortured. Wilma, on the other hand, wants to fix Homer, and Homer is the only one whose physical wounds (i.e., no hands) outstrip his mental hurt; if we’re honest, Homer is the most mentally whole of the three vets in the picture. And where Harold Russell won two Oscars for the same role (one honorary, but still), O’Donnell slips by and large slips past our notice. Homer shows her what it takes to get him ready for bed, letting her see how helpless he is without his hooks, and Wilma never pulls away. She cares for him—just as she has been prepared to care for him since the moment he walked onto his front lawn. For a minute, it seems like O’Donnell will be put into the same role in They Live by Night, but then we see her in the light. She is sexless with her limp and roughly tied back hair, her unadorned face, her boy’s clothes, her blank expression. She seems to know her way around cars, a code which even seventy years later would associate her with a tough mannishness; her traditionally feminine activities, like cooking and cleaning, are done lifelessly. Down to the anonymously weird name, Keechie is completely removed from the world. Wherever she lives—it’s a shanty without even having the benefits of a farm, from what we can see—is bound to keep her forever, the wordless Emily Dickinson of central Texas. Only the sudden presence of Bowie changes her, moves her to the action which she seemed disinterested in. In one scene, she looks in the mirror and runs her fingers through her hair. She reaches for a comb and begins to deal with her lank locks. In the next scene, Cathy O’Donnell is Wilma again.

I was prepared to dislike this movie mostly because of the presence of Farley Granger, who has a bad habit of being the worst part of the movies he’s in. Yet I wonder if he is just badly, badly miscast in his Hitchcock appearances; in Rope and Strangers on a Train, Granger is placed in conjunction with a true psychopath without really being one himself. John Dall and Robert Walker both get to chew a little scenery and leer and mix strong drinks and make double entendres, where Granger does little more than look concerned and shout stuff like “Say, what is all this!” which is only ever a placeholder for Dall or Walker to steal the spotlight back. It doesn’t suit him, and They Live by Night doesn’t make him try to act out of that box. Like O’Donnell, he has a natural tenderness in how he presents himself, although Granger is the more handsome one. Of that Linnaean genus of male actor who is primarily lithe and pretty—Tony Leung, Robert Pattinson, young Leo DiCaprio, and especially Rudolph Valentino, who we might name the genus after—Farley Granger is a marvelous example. He must be one of the prettiest men ever to hit the big screen, symmetrical and clean-cut, with thin veins running in his forehead and tight muscles never far beneath his thin shirts. The prettiness is supposed to be an asset in his Hitchcock appearances, although it never does amount to much more than “handsome junior manager at the department store.” Ray, using close-ups like a mace, finds the magnetism in Granger, who becomes more and more likable as the movie carries on. One is ready to see your everyday hood, but Bowie is never anything like that. An inclination towards gentleness, if not outright meekness, shines through; it gets harder and harder to imagine how he could have ever killed anyone. The crime and violence in this movie, executed primarily by Chickamaw (Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), is almost entirely offscreen. Ironically, “Bowie the Kid,” the driver of the “Zelton Bandits,” is reported by the radio as the leader of the gang, and Chickamaw is badly hurt by this snub. The absurdity of his jealousy is only matched by the absurdity of Bowie’s criminal career, which he finds himself returned to again and again without his consent.

The phrase “thieves, like us” pops up several times throughout They Live by Night, and the number of characters with names who admit to a certain sort of pilfery almost outnumbers those who are innocent. Maybe the most unusual member of this thieving collective is Hawkins (Ian Wolfe), who marries Keechie and Bowie. He appears another time after the perfunctory wedding ceremony, when a desperate Bowie returns to his shop to ask for advice about getting to Mexico. Hawkins’ creed, as he explains to Bowie, is to make people happy as long as they can pay for that happiness: thus the cheapie weddings. He understands that even Bowie, a participant in one of those ceremonies, doesn’t think much of this kind of wedding, and nor does he think much. “Money’s a real comfort to an old man,” Hawkins says to Bowie, whose holdings from his last bank robbery are funding his runaway romance with Keechie. He could as well have said it to the late T-Dub or the late Chickamaw, too, who are probably at the midway point between Bowie and Hawkins, but they wouldn’t have understood. At their age the money burns a hole in their pockets. For thieves like Bowie and Hawkins, at the beginning and end of their lives, the money means security instead of excitement. Indeed, when Bowie attempts the second bank robbery, he does so because he fears that Chickamaw will harm Keechie; Chickamaw has gambled and drank away his share of the first robbery and, as much as anything else, seems bored. Earlier in the film Keechie described him as a man who went out of his way to look for trouble, and she hits the nail on the head about the thief most unlike them.

There are quick nods to the changing identities of our heroes as they progress through Texas. In their last outing together, Keechie and Bowie go out to a country club and dress up real nice to do so. She wears her gray flannel and he wears his very period double breasted suit. It ends badly for them, but for an hour or so it feels like a success. It feels to them like what real people do, real people who haven’t been holed up in a motor lodge for the past months, real people who can go out to a movie if they have a mind to. At this point she knows she’s pregnant. (Ray has a talent for framing dramatic moments like the one where she tells her husband that she’s left the cabin to see a doctor. “That’s all I need!” Bowie shouts, doubtless thinking of the endless complications a baby would make on their fugitive lives. Keechie’s reply made my blood run cold: “You don’t see me knitting anything, do you?”) The two of them have always playacted a little bit at being young adults, having so little experience from socialization or the radio or parents from what it’s like to be in their early twenties. This is the height of the Bowers’ pretending, and it is no surprise that it ends disastrously for both Keechie and Bowie, who are too honest for their own good in the first place and who actively prod the universe to obliterate them by stepping out line.

Most interesting of all in this study of identity is what happens on their trip to Hawkins’ wedding lobby. The two of them have jumped headfirst into this idea of a marriage, and neither one of them appears to have given much thought to what I was alarmed by as soon as the sign for the joint first appeared on screen: what name does a wanted murderer and escaped convict put down when he registers for a legal wedding? It turns out that they’ll both use their real names. He’s Arthur. She’s Catherine. Their nicknames are Dust Bowl chic, but their given Christian names—both royalty, amusingly enough—are different people from the Bowie Bowers and Keechie Mobley we thought we had come to know. There is a graveness in their aspects when they give those true names. The two of them are serious throughout the entire picture, but the solemnity they take on as they give Hawkins their real names and take a profound plunge via that mockery of a ceremony is striking. There are glimpses of essential Keechie when she combs out her hair, or when she holds Bowie close to her while she takes the wheel; there are hints of a better Bowie in his final and hastily scribbled testament, or in the way that he tries his best with a screaming baby on a bus. But nothing quite compares to the people they might have been like their wedding, if they had been forced to run far less and been able to concentrate on one another the way they clearly mean to do.

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