Sunday, March 18, 2012

They Live by Night (1949)

The force that drives noir stories is the urge to escape: from the past, from the law, from the ordinary, from poverty and stifling relationships and personal failure. Noir found its fullest expression in America because the American psyche harbors a passion for freedom and autonomy, forever shadowed by a corresponding fear of loneliness and exile. Both find expression in the road story and its fiercest variant, the lam story. To be on the road is to be moving forward, released from all bonds. To be on the lam is to be hunted, running away from something that is always closing in, shutting off options one by one. The “key to the highway” has its B side, the haunted persecution of a “hellhound on my trail.” As they are powered by the need to escape, noir stories are structured by the impossibility of escape, so their fierce, thwarted energy turns inward on itself.

Film noir has no monopoly on man-on-the-run stories, but noir versions emphasize the isolation of fugitives, their vulnerability to betrayal and exploitation, the ruthless closing in of the law-enforcement dragnet, the physical and mental fraying of outcasts unable to settle anywhere in safety, and the way outlaws are driven further and further out of society, until they eventually become something less than human—something to be hunted down and slaughtered with overwhelming force, like rabid animals.

The lam story is as ritualistic and full of repeated motifs as the heist movie or the prison drama. Fugitives drive all night, sleep in back seats, abandon their cars as the license plates are reported over the radio, steal new cars; hop freight trains; stay in motels and tourist cabins; get married in quickie roadside ceremonies; work menial laboring jobs, hold up gas stations, wake doctors in the middle of the night to treat wounded companions; charge roadblocks, flee cops armed with machine guns, see Wanted posters trumpeting the prices on their heads; haggle with used-car dealers, pawnbrokers, immigrant smugglers and other carrion crows of the road. The claustrophobic city may be the quintessential noir setting, but the transient, banal, melancholy world of road travel is an essential noir locale too. The in-between realm created by postwar car culture, what James Kunstler called “the geography of nowhere,” embodies the essential alienation of the noir world, where no one is ever really at home. Film noir relentlessly mapped the false lure of the highway, which promises freedom and escape but leads only deeper into danger. All roads are blind, in both senses of the word: full of twists and corners concealing the dangers beyond, and leading ultimately to a dead end.

The title of Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us sums up its theme: banks, politicians and other institutions of authority are no better than the robbers who attack them. Nicholas Ray, who adapted the book into his first film, They Live By Night (1949), was less interested in this social commentary than in the personal relationships between the characters. The pre-credit prologue introduces his favorite theme of alienated youth (“This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in”), with a heart-melting image of Bowie and Keechie (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell) kissing in the flickering light before a fireplace. They are so fresh-faced and softly pretty that their outcast status implies the guilt of society—since they are so plainly innocent.


Like the outsiders in other Ray films, the young lovers on the run in They Live By Night briefly find a home, this time in a tourist cabin in the mountains. They ask for a cabin far away from the others, and the proprietor assumes they want privacy because they are newlyweds: “Married people like to be alone,” he tells his son. The mistake is at once ironic and apt: the couple’s romantic bond is indistinguishable from their fugitive status.

When Bowie and Keechie decide to take a chance and spend a day in public, “just like other people,” they and we are reminded how completely they are cut off from normal life. Bowie has been advised by an older criminal of the importance of blending in and looking like other people. But the pair look and feel out of place, stiffly dressed up and clutching a briefcase full of stolen money. They observe everyday activities like anthropologists among baffling natives, disparaging habits that are unfamiliar and out of reach. They keep asking each other for reassurance: “Are you having a good time?”

Bowie was sent to prison as a young teenager for a killing in which he was barely complicit, and he remains child-like and unformed, though determined to seem tough and ready for anything. The two older, experienced convicts who help him escape want him as their driver for a series of bank hold-ups. T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) is an old-school professional crook, steady and decent; he enlists his sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) to bankroll their operation with the promise that they will supply money for her to mount an appeal for her own jailed husband. The desire to “break out,” to get free of the net woven by crime and the law, hangs over almost everyone in the film. Only the one-eyed Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) wants not safety and a normal life but excitement and fame as an outlaw.

Chicamaw’s niece Keechie has a harder shell than Bowie, but her life—in a grimy, run-down service station owned by her drunken father—has been just as stunted and confined. The two approach each other warily, at first quarrelling and feigning indifference, but quickly giving way to their eagerness for love. When she comes to tend his wounds, her touch on his bare back evokes an intense yet delicate moment of adolescent awakening. Their relationship changes Keechie more than the terminally naïve Bowie, a malleable type who is easily led astray and just as easily redeemed. Keechie’s plain, grubby face—set throughout the early scenes in a look of defensiveness and disdain—becomes prettier and more feminine as she blossoms into a wife. She delivers a sentimental speech about how a good dog loves only its master, and a good woman is the same, but apart from this she manages to embody the film’s conscience without sanctimony. (One of the most significant differences in Robert Altman’s 1974 Thieves Like Us is its treatment of Keechie.)

The rich glow of the central love story is off-set by the portrait of a hard-scrabble world in which few people can be trusted. Ray recreated the rural areas he had explored during the Depression, when he traveled through the rural South with Alan Lomax, collecting folk music. Dingy motels and auto-courts and sleepy little towns like Zelton, where the men rob a bank on Main Street, look unchanged since earlier decades. Cars throw up trails of dust as they careen along dirt roads running through dry, empty fields. The overhead shots taken from a helicopter establish a raw, documentary look that contrasts sharply with the Rembrandt lighting of the close-ups in the scenes between Bowie and Keechie; their private world is very different from the world through which they move.

Ray’s film is truer to the Depression ambience of its source than most noir films based on thirties novels, but the Production Code required some changes in the story—the lovers had to marry, as they never do in the book. Ray’s staging of their marriage, however, is anything but reassuring. Bowie and Keechie are repelled by the seedy, neon-lit roadside wedding chapel, yet ominously drawn to it as well. The beady-eyed justice of the peace, stuffing a fresh carnation into his button hole as he greets them with forced cheer, pegs them as fugitives but marries them anyway. They take his cheapest wedding, and it’s all over in a minute, the pronouncement of “man and wife” immediately followed by the hint to tip the two glum, perfunctory witnesses a dollar each. The smarmy justice arranges the purchase of a stolen car, chiseling $500 for himself.

The car becomes their only permanent home as they travel aimlessly, their route traced on a black map. At first, just after their marriage, they look like any young newlywed couple, driving along in the sunshine with the wind in their hair, laughing as they struggle to drink cokes and eat sandwiches. The next time they’re in the car—after fighting bitterly over Bowie’s participation in another robbery, and being forced to flee their holiday cabin after he’s recognized—the vacation mood is gone. Rain streaks the windows; they sleep in the car or drive all night, wary of roadblocks, as the pregnant Keechie grows steadily weaker.

Their day of pretending to be ordinary people is their last happy interlude. They go to a nightclub where they’re entertained by “Your Red Wagon” (Ray’s working title for the film). It’s a song about minding your own business, and about being on your own. The lyrics are double-edged: to be left alone is what fugitives want most, but the tough-luck indifference expressed in the song (irresistibly performed by a beaming Marie Bryant) is reflected by the way no one in the film is willing to help the young couple. Bowie dreams of finding refuge in the anonymity of a big city, or in Mexico out of the reach of the law, but this fantasy is constantly punctured. In the men’s room of the nightclub, Bowie is recognized by a local crook who contemptuously gives him an hour to get out of town. There is no sense of loyalty in the underworld, or honor among thieves. Bowie is betrayed first by Keechie’s spiteful, greedy father and then by Mattie in exchange for the release of her own husband—who is so sickened by the deal that he can’t look at her. Sad, hungry-eyed Mattie is no stock villain; when a cop tries to reassure her that she has saved everyone a lot of trouble, she replies disconsolately, “I don’t think that will help me sleep nights.” The person who finally tells Bowie there’s no place he can run to is the crooked justice of the peace, who is decent enough not to con him with false hope.

The ending, in which Bowie is gunned down while Keechie sleeps inside their motel room, runs counter to the usual Bonnie-and-Clyde template where the couple is united in death. It is more tragic, since Keechie is left alone to grieve. For all the deaths and defeats, noir rarely breaks your heart: pessimism, fatalism and cynicism are, for one thing, a defense against heartbreak. But Nicholas Ray, with his bruised romantic temperament, created some of the most moving and wounding of all noir films, including his devastating masterpiece In a Lonely Place.

Ray’s first film fully expresses the concerns that would dominate his career: lonesome wandering, youthful alienation, the destruction of emotional bonds by misunderstanding and an uncaring world. Though he made only a few contributions to the noir canon, Ray added a new note to the heavily German-influenced style. It is often said that outsiders can see a society most clearly, and foreign directors like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang ruthlessly laid bare American illusions and dreams. Ray’s tone is not acid but saddened, not cold but tender. He has been called, by Geoff Andrew, “the first home-grown poet of American disillusionment.”


Written by Imogen Sara Smith  NOTE: This essay is adapted from her book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.

Imogen Sara Smith is an independent film scholar based in Brooklyn. Her most recent book was In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City (McFarland, 2011), and her writing appears regularly in Alt Screen, Noir City Magazine, The Chiseler, and other venues.


  1. Wow... This is one of the best essays on film noir that I've ever read. Insightful and very well written. I'll have to pick up the book that this comes from when I get some more money.

  2. Absolutely one of the most insightful pieces on noir ever. The first three paragraphs are as incisive as you can possibly get.

    THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is truly one of the most quintessential noirs in screen history. The chemistry between Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell is palpable, while their situation deteriorates throughout the film. Nicholas Ray's direction is top-drawer.

    A winner all the way around.

  3. Ray’s first film fully expresses the concerns that would dominate his career: lonesome wandering, youthful alienation, the destruction of emotional bonds by misunderstanding and an uncaring world. Though he made only a few contributions to the noir canon, Ray added a new note to the heavily German-influenced style. It is often said that outsiders can see a society most clearly, and foreign directors like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang ruthlessly laid bare American illusions and dreams. Ray’s tone is not acid but saddened, not cold but tender. He has been called, by Geoff Andrew, “the first home-grown poet of American disillusionment.”

    Ameican disillusionment is an anomaly and was concentrated after WWII and encased in the Noir tradition in ermany but more so in the ice cold noirs of France ,the France of Vichy during the Nazi era of dehumanization.


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