They Live by Night

I hadn’t seen They Live by Night (1948) for a while and forgot how much of the film focused on Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). Their relationship prefigured the one Nicolas Ray also used in Rebel Without a Cause (1956) between Jim Stark (James Dean) and Judy (Natalie Wood). In each, the girl’s father is overbearing and drives the girl to the boy. Despite Bowie being imprisoned for murderer (when he was 16), the couple are decent people. Their relationship on the run is reminiscent of two others.

First, Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) and Joan Graham (Sylvia Sydney) in You Only Live Once (1937). Eddie is a two-time loser, accused of murder, and headed for the electric chair, but he is a decent person supported by a fanatically devoted woman. Like Bowie and Keechie, they are married and, while on the run, have a child. Keechie is pregnant when Bowie is gunned down. Eddie and Joan give up theirs, whom they named ‘Baby’, to Joan’s sister. Both couples dream of settling down. Eddie and Joan buy house before Eddie’s former friends implicate him in a holdup. Bowie and Keechie are already hiding from the law and find a good place to live for a while. Their dream is ruined when Bowie’s former partner, Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) finds them and forces Bowie to pull another robbery.

Fate hangs over both films, especially You Only Live Once, directed by Fritz Lang. Doomed couples, plans, and individuals populate his films. One of his earliest directorial efforts is called Destiny (1921) in which a woman tries unsuccessfully to save her fiancé from Death. Eddie’s own character (“Character is fate” wrote Heraclitus) dooms him in two ways: he allows society to beat him down and can only complain how no one gives him a chance. Secondly, he makes bad choices because he is no faith in anyone. The moment he is about to be reprieved from his death sentence, he accidentally shoots ta priest who is pleading with him not to break out of prison. Now Eddie must run, joined by Joan, as they drive across the Midwest, trying to make the Canadian border.

Bowie is ultimately betrayed by another partner’s wife when the police promise her that they’ll release her husband (Jay C. Flippen) from prison in return for revealing Bowie’s location. His last chance to escape closes when the woman convinces him to say goodbye to Keechie. When he goes to the cabin, the police kill him in a crossfire. Bowie, less weighed by fate, understood that he had to get away from Keechie and their future child if the two are to have a decent life. He is never embittered by the circumstances which have limited and destroyed his happiness.

The other noir couple is Annie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Barton Tare (John Dall) from Gun Crazy (1950). They too are on the run, robbing and killing along the way. Unlike the other couples, they start from raw passion for the other, symbolized by their attachment and remarkable expertise with guns. The guns represent their sexual attraction and the power it gives them. Their sense of doom (or our sensing their doomed relationship) stems from a passion that starts to waver when Barton wants to settle down, have a more conventional relationship. Annie doesn’t want to let that happen. Although their bond seems to be breaking and they decide to leave the other, they find they can’t do it. Fate, again, is wrapped in the fantasy of their sexual attachment.

Annie and Barton, unlike the other couples, do not have a child. It’s as if their lust has sterilized their them. Annie, yes, hardly seems the motherly type; Barton could convince himself he’d want to be a father but he couldn’t be a good father. They’d make a kid ‘gun crazy’ (creating a delinquent of the Jim Stark type?). Annie and Barton get close to the border, as had Annie and Joan, only to be picked off by the police marksmen.

The most famous scene in Gun Crazy is a bank robbery filmed completely from the inside of the getaway car. A similar sequence and shot occurs in They Live by Night when Bowie and his friends rob a bank, Bowie is the driver and most of the scene is filmed inside the car. I felt the same tension in both, and felt my mind could automatically flick from the one film’s scene to the other’s.

These films are forerunners of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), with the movie-glamorous ‘bank robbers’ Beatty and Dunaway most like Annie and Barton, that is, sexually romantic fantasists who quickly devolve into cold-blooded killers.

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