‘They Live By Night’ uncovers a soft side to a classic criminal couple

Oct. 17, 2017, 1:00 a.m.
'They Live By Night' uncovers a soft side to a classic criminal couple
Bowie (Farley Granger), left, and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), right, in ‘They Live By Night’ (Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures).

“Romantic” is an appropriate epithet for director Nicholas Ray. Best known for “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray’s works often highlight the struggles of lovers trapped in cruel, cynical milieus. Indeed, his first film, “They Live by Night” (1948), focuses on two young protagonists, the powerful passion they share for each other and the obstacles to their happiness. Based on a novel by Edmund Anderson, the film begins as Bowie escapes from prison with two other criminals and meets Keechie, the niece of one of his fellow fugitives. They fall in love. Bowie promises Keechie he will go straight. Still, the other fugitives talk Bowie into committing one last crime. It goes horribly wrong, and soon, Bowie and Keechie are trying to evade the police. In telling the story of a couple on the run, Ray eschews many of the conventions associated with the subject matter, creating an intimate character study of two naïve lovers.  

Criminal couples are quite common in the American cinema, from Bart and Laurie in Joseph H. Lewis’s “Gun Crazy” to Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s eponymous film to the Lonely Hearts Killers in Leonard Kastle’s “The Honeymoon Killers.” Through these stories, Lewis, Penn and Kastle examine larger topics, such as the myth of the femme fatale, the limits of the American Dream, and the seedier side of society. These directors also highlight the havoc that their protagonists wreak, and all three films are noted for their kinetic action sequences.

In contrast, Ray keeps his story closely focused on the relationship between Bowie and Keechie. While he deftly details the development of their relationship, he deemphasizes the parts of the story that involve crime. By showcasing their youthful naïveté rather than their illegal actions, Ray implores us to think of them as more than just juvenile delinquents. While the lovers in “Gun Crazy” are drawn to each other sexually, Bowie and Keechie cling to a more arcane idea of love. (They are married before they are physically intimate.) While Bonnie and Clyde strive to become two of the most notorious outlaws in the annals of American crime, Bowie and Keechie long for the day when they can go to see a movie together without fear of the police. While Kastle’s lovers kill for thrills, Bowie and Keechie retain their innocence, as if they don’t quite understand how they got into this mess. Yet, Bowie and Keechie inhabit the same dog-eat-dog world as the other killers and are surrounded by people who prize acrimony, not affection.  As a result, their love is star-crossed from the start. Their passion will inevitably be crushed, and thus, the fate of these vulnerable romantics is more tragic than that of the other outlaws.

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell contribute to this sense of tragedy, playing Bowie and Keechie not as conniving criminals but as doomed innocents. Granger never forgets that Bowie is just a kid, clinging to the hope that he can settle down with Keechie. Granger communicates Bowie’s aspirations with such passion and eloquence that we want to believe him even though as it becomes increasingly likely his dreams will not come to fruition. As portrayed by O’Donnell, Keechie is a wide-eyed girl who thinks Bowie is cute, who longs to escape the tedium of her day-to-day existence, and who doesn’t understand the complexities of loving someone. Even as the police come closer and closer to arresting Bowie, she refuses to abandon him. She likens herself to a dog, and calls Bowie “her master.” This dialogue might seem melodramatic or, at worst, misogynistic. Coming from O’Donnell, however, it becomes a fervent expression of Keechie’s love for Bowie.

The supporting cast is also superb. As the other escapees from the prison, Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen are gruff and menacing enough to force Bowie out of his romantic idyll. Helen Craig, playing Keechie’s aunt, Mattie, embodies a woman so world-weary she seems to have lost all concept of what love is. With her husband in prison, Mattie has turned to abetting petty criminals. Craig looks like O’Donnell. This resemblance not only reminds us of their relationship to each other, but also suggests that Mattie was once madly in love, like Keechie. Time and reality have dulled Mattie’s romanticism, and this loss explains her actions.

As Bowie and Keechie run from the law and towards their melancholy fate, they meet a surfeit of swindlers. Even the individuals most sympathetic to their plight, like Mattie and the proprietor of a for-profit wedding chapel, call themselves thieves. Appropriately, the original title of the film was “Thieves Like Us.” RKO studio boss Howard Hughes changed it to “They Live by Night” because he believed it sounded more marketable. In a sense, however, “They Live by Night” befits Ray’s treatment of the subject matter. In a world filled with thieves, two romantics must hide under the cover of darkness, rather than face the ruthless world by day.


Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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