A Statement and a Challenge
“This boy . . . and this girl . . . were never properly introduced to the world we live in . . . to tell their story . . .” The opening shot of Bowie and Keechie, with its four subtitles, is a statement, as if warning the viewer: telling the story isn’t all; we will also comment on it. This initial close-up remains in the viewer’s memory and permeates the whole mood of the narrative. A point of view is established: keeping close to the heroes, to their eyes, to their skin. Few films center on such a number of close shots and close-ups, the camera creating an intimacy with the characters. The contrasting bird’s-eye view that follows breaks away from closest to farthest, showing an action—an escape car speeding down the road—but only in relation to the characters, the three fugitives, who become identifiable as we get nearer to them during the superimposed credits.
John Houseman, the producer of They Live by Night, told in his memoir Front and Center the story of that helicopter shot on the first day’s shooting, a sort of gambler’s make-or-break, whose failure might have meant at best a tighter control imposed on the neophyte director, Nicholas Ray, at worst a dismissal. “He knew he was under surveillance by the production department—always allergic to new talent and waiting for his first sign of inefficiency or weakness to have him thrown out.”
Raymond Chandler rated the source novel for They Live by Night, Edward Anderson’s 1937 Thieves Like Us, “an infinitely better and honester book than Of Mice and Men”—another Depression novel of the same year—and “one of the best crook stories ever written.” Admiration for the book and Ray’s film has obscured the fact that the adaptation strays considerably from the source. It has often been assumed that Anderson took his inspiration from the real-life characters of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Philippe Garnier’s research on the reporter-novelist, for his 1996 account of Hollywood screenwriting Honni soit qui Malibu (due out in an English translation in late 2017), however, has established that it originated not with the famous outlaw couple but with extensive interviews with bank robbers that Anderson had conducted in 1935 at Huntsville prison in Texas. Actually, there was enough material in the novel to feed both Ray’s film and Robert Altman’s 1974 adaptation, which reverts to the original title. Where Ray focused on the two lovers’ trajectory and made the thirties atmosphere palpable by suggestion, Altman went mostly on location and responded to the whole feeling and life of the country.
Nor is They Live by Night in any other way a forerunner of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), whose fascination with guns, patronizing view of eroticism and sex, and antique dealer’s reconstruction of the thirties have little to do with Ray’s low-key approach. A look at the films’ diametrically opposed treatments of period, eroticism, and violence should have been enough to dissipate that old misunderstanding. (Altman’s film indeed might be seen as a rebuttal to Bonnie and Clyde’s artifice and its legacy.)
There is something about a first feature that sets it apart from later works. Not an innocence but rather a blissful ignorance of external obstacles and pressures, a determination to pursue an initial vision to the end, which will never happen again, after an artist has learned to cope with barriers and to find those barriers interesting. So with They Live by Night: “I like They Live by Night because all the mistakes are mine,” Ray would say.
He wrote his two treatments of Thieves Like Us in April and August 1946—months before Charles Schnee polished them into a shooting script and a year before production—as an intimate, poetically autobiographical journey. He imbued the film with the whole of his life experience—his feeling of being “a stranger here myself” (“the working title of all my films”), his need to wander, his love affair with his first wife (journalist Jean Evans)—as well as his knowledge of the arts. His background included work onstage, both political and legitimate, in field trips to record folk culture, in integrated nightclubs, for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, and for radio. Thornton Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elia Kazan, Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly had shaped his outlook on life and art. “Nick particularly was very familiar with that territory,” Houseman said of the story’s southern backdrop. “He’d been there when he worked with the Lomaxes, he’d been there when he worked with the Department of Agriculture, and so on. And that whole Depression thing was terribly his stuff.” Although there is no explicit indication of the film’s setting in time, its whole fabric conjures the thirties era.
Obstacles and Solutions
From the start, the RKO hierarchy opposed many aspects of the Thieves Like Us project, as did the Production Code Administration. The censors contrasted the presence of the police as a “balancing force” in Robert Rossen’s recent Johnny O’Clock with their strictly perfunctory presence in Ray’s adaptation. They objected to the initial prison-camp break—which was replaced by a better opening, the helicopter shot—and to the bank robberies (proposing that the thieves rob gas stations!). They vetoed references to honor among thieves and to official corruption, and opposed broadly “the general indictment of society that justifies the title” (so Thieves Like Us became Your Red Wagon, then The Twisted Road, and finally They Live by Night, by decision of Howard Hughes).
Each filmmaker has his or her own way of working around such dicta. In the case of Ray, his answers and rewrites were part of a ripening process that would give the film its unique tone. In addition to addressing some, though not all, of these requirements (e.g., the censors’ demand that Keechie represent “a potent voice of morality” was unacceptable), Ray and Schnee took the opportunity to streamline the script in other ways, not least by reducing psychological explanation and character backstory to a minimum, so Ray would be free to concentrate on what mattered to him. In the film, Anderson’s panoramic view of the southern bandits is seen through the eyes of the young heroes. Violence is omitted or talked about, even described before the fact, and often seems to happen in a dream. Still, even though the book’s most explicit dialogue is toned down, the characters clearly live in a similar atmosphere of pervasive poverty and general corruption, a world in which every encounter is a transaction. “You’re an investment, and you’re gonna pay off,” the elder runaways tell Bowie. And Hawkins, the seedy marriage official (originally a corrupt judge), adds: “I believe in helping people get what they want, as long as they can pay for it.” And they must pay for it in cash, in advance, as Thom Andersen comments in his 1991 essay “The Time of the Toad.” Marriage between Bowie and Keechie (a must for the censors) had already been added, and results in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, when innocence is confronted with corruption and the power of money.
They Live by Night intertwines several couples: Chickamaw and his brother, T-Dub and his sister-in-law, and, of course, the two young lovers. The steps of their discovery of love and of each other are itemized, from the sexual indetermination—Bowie’s crippling wound, Keechie’s first androgynous appearance—to the joy of togetherness. Bowie, a junior partner to the two jail breakers, expected to submit to their male domination, and Keechie, a self-assured working girl who “never saw any use” in having a boyfriend, get closer to each other before they accept the strength of their emotions. They exchange similar family stories; Keechie discovers his body while absentmindedly lifting his shirt to rub his back. They’re cautious about their love: “If you want me to,” she repeats. Ray’s characters are frail and confused; they don’t get to overcome their hurt. “You want to live your life fast,” Keechie says—a line that Ray would hardly need to rewrite for Knock on Any Door (1949) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Light and Shadows
They Live by Night stands out from most films of its time through its tight merging of sounds and images. George Diskant’s moody, low-key photography favors faces up close and bodies, as witnessed by the five characters’ first reunion in Mobley’s cabin. Lighting combines with an equally moody sound design carefully devised like a jazz score: internal rhymes, object tracks, song lyrics commenting on the story become instead of mere devices the very fabric of the film. As are signs, such as cutting away from an intimate scene to an image of trees in the wind (a beautiful transition for which Ray credited the editor Sherman Todd); or the obsessive presence of trains passing, never shown, only heard; or that icon of the thirties, the billboard, under which Bowie hides. And as are the blues and other songs, also part of an iconography of the Depression, like “Your Red Wagon” or Woody Guthrie’s “Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way,” first heard as an ironic comment when the fugitives set fire to a getaway car (“I’m a-goin’ down this old dusty road”). These are not props for a period reconstruction but emblems. They Live by Night’s production was confined to the studio and Los Angeles surroundings. But “location realism” was not the only way of eschewing “Hollywood realism” to conjure a portrait of a forgotten America. A few details would do the job, like the scenes of a small town waking up.
The moment Bowie is gunned down by the police, the story ends. What happens next is only a story of light and shadow. Keechie, reading the farewell note left her, gets up, possibly seeing the onlookers offscreen. Four shots for that simple movement, with very slight angle and lighting changes. Is it love, sadness, mourning, a requiem, defiance? Putting it into words doesn’t make a difference. At the final fade-out, the lights are lowered on camera, with her face plunged into darkness and only her hair backlit.
Toward the end of shooting, in August 1947, Ray took the time to write an extra scene for Helen Craig, whose character, Mattie, carries the burden of the informing process. In exchange for her husband’s liberation, Mattie tells the police where Bowie is hiding, leading with certainty to his killing. Her victory is also her demise: in the same second, she loses the man she wants to get back. Her husband closes his eyes and turns away without looking at her. In a later scene, she finds herself face-to-face with Bowie, betrayer and victim, a situation familiar from blacklists past and to come. Craig, with her atypical face, makes the character one of the most moving in the film, both dreadful and pitiful, and this scene one of its emotional climaxes.
Mattie’s action is barely hinted at in the last sentences of Anderson’s novel. A few weeks before the first House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the “Communist infiltration” of Hollywood would take place, Ray was emphasizing a subplot about an informer. Indeed, 1947 was not only the “annus mirabilis” Houseman could boast of, with his productions of They Live by Night, Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo onstage, and Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. It was also the year of the antiunion Taft-Hartley Act, in addition to HUAC’s offensive.
Informing was an obsession with Ray. In the late thirties, as a member of the Federal Theatre and a WPA employee, he had experienced harassment by witch-hunters. At the time of Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection, he told his students that his generation had been “more guilty of betrayal than any in history.” Not only had they betrayed their ideals but the betrayal had been literal.
Whether Ray personally became an informer in the early fifties remains unclear. Pat McGilligan’s careful research for his biography did not uncover any more hard evidence or clues than I did when, for my own book, I had to rely mainly on Jean Evans’s recollection of a vague confession he made to her. Whatever the answer, the price he had to pay to continue working, compromising with Howard Hughes and the Hollywood scene, was high.
The term film noir was not in use when They Live by Night was released, two years after its making, in 1949 (though it had one screening in England in 1948). But nobody would have thought of the film that way in any event. It was an unusual narrative about dropouts, a love story set in the South during crisis years that were not yet over. It had few of the defining parameters of film noir, like violent action and big-city locations, both of which the young couple stay clear of as much as they can. Ray’s hero was not a mature man, content with his aloneness; his heroine was neither self-conscious nor manipulative.
The wish to include Ray’s film in the canon may have to do with the date it was made, 1947—a great year for film noir, especially at RKO: Born to Kill, Desperate, They Won’t Believe Me, Crossfire, Out of the Past . . . But perhaps They Live by Night was the beginning of something else: a short transitional period between two waves of witch-hunting (1947–51) during which, in Thom Andersen’s words, “Hollywood left-wing writers and directors had been left free to pursue their vocation, and they did so with a special vigor, as if sensing that their time was short and that they had to make the most of it.” Andersen has coined the term film gris for these “critical genre movies,” the first he discusses being Ray’s film. “Like the protagonists of film noir, the antiheroes of film gris may ask themselves, What have I done? Or, How did I get here? But the answers they might find implicate society at large, not just a single evil woman or a small cast of killers.” “[Bowie] is a thief, as his companions often remind us, a killer, a bank robber, but that is his destiny, not his character. He and Keechie only want to live ‘like real people,’ but there are no ‘real people’ to be found in their world.”
Another regrouping was informally suggested when They Live by Night was shown at the Rendez-vous de Biarritz in 1950 along with Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film, Cronaca di un amore. The kinship between the two was later noticed by one of the programmers, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze. Doniol-Valcroze also mentioned Robert Bresson in relationship to Ray, as did François Truffaut a few months later (“They Live by Night and [Robert Wise’s] Born to Kill, the most Bressonian of American films”). And Antonioni himself acknowledged debt to Bresson and his 1945 Les dames du Bois du Boulogne.
The relationship, while resting primarily in the eye of the beholder, might perhaps be extended. Along with Bresson, Antonioni, and Ray, other filmmakers all over the world were sidestepping both current cinematic revolutions: the impetuous, expressionist fanfares inaugurated by 1941’s Citizen Kane, and the openings on the naked world of Rossellini. Unbeknownst to one another, a league of more secretive artists were redefining their art on their own terms. At the moment, I can think offhand of Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small Town and Hasse Ekman’s 1950 Girl with Hyacinths, but the reader will certainly react with his or her own choices. Most were borrowing devices from American literature or film. Roger Tailleur was the first to comment on the Italian filmmaker’s “prolonging of film noir through interiorization,” which is also true of the Swede’s contradictory flashbacks and the Chinese’s inner voice and erotic tension. Above all, these filmmakers were reinventing a forgotten lesson of cinema, aiming at what Bresson called “cinématographe”—a total involvement of the filmmaker: “Your film must resemble what you see on shutting your eyes. (You must be capable, at any instant, of seeing and hearing it entire.)”—and Ray, “the cathedral of the arts.”