In 1934, the newly enforced Motion Picture Product Code declared that “sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” In 1949, a thirty-eight-year-old director from Galesville Wisconsin named Nicholas Ray released They Live By Night, his debut film. “If you prudes and authoritarians insist that I can’t make a movie where crime pays,” Ray, who was in his early twenties during Hollywood’s glorious “pre-code” golden age, seemed to say, “suit yourself. I’ll kill off my outlaw hero and leave his girlfriend sobbing over his bullet riddled corpse, but I’m going to make them both so young sympathetic, and romantic that there won’t be a dry eye in the house when I’m done.”
Ray, who’s probably best-known for his film Rebel Without a Cause, succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. Not only did the great French director, and film critic, François Truffaut declare They Live by Night Ray’s greatest film, Jean-Luc Godard went a step further. “Cinema,” he once remarked, “is Nicholas Ray.” I’m a stone-cold cynical, fifty-one year-old male who knows as much about doomed, romantic love as I do about Chinese calligraphy, a moralistic, secular Calvinist who lives up to the H.L. Mencken aphorism that “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” but even I was rooting for Arthur “Bowie” Bowers and Catherine “Keechie” Mobley, a twenty-three-year-old bank robber and his girlfriend played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, to get across the border to Mexico and live happily ever after. What’s more, during their love scenes, I didn’t feel like an outsider, a voyeur, at all. Even though I was always conscious of how different I was from both characters, I also felt that they somehow represented me on screen, that their dilemma was my dilemma.
The late English art critic and writer John Berger explains why. Living under capitalism, he argues in his essay Fellow Prisoners, means living in prison, not a metaphorical prison, but a literal one. “Those who have legal employment and are not poor,” he says, “are living in a very reduced space that allows them fewer and fewer choices—except the continual binary choice between obedience and disobedience.” In other words, while some of us are locked up behind bars, and the more fortunate among us have upper-middle-class jobs and five-bedroom McMansions in posh suburbs, none of us are really “free.” It’s only when we rebel, when we step outside the system of rules that define our society, when we become outlaws, that we become genuinely human. I was rooting for Arthur Bowers and Catherine Mobley because they, my “fellow prisoners” had, for a few brief weeks, become genuinely free, not because the found a way to “beat the system,” but because they discovered they couldn’t live without each other.
They Live by Night begins with a jailbreak. Chicamaw and T-Dub, two middle-aged bank robbers, and a much younger man, Arthur Bowers, who have taken a hostage and stolen his car, knock the man unconscious and plan to continue on to a “safe house,” a gas station owned by Chicamaw’s brother “Mobley.” Bowers, nick named “Bowie,” can’t walk. He’s sprained his ankle during the escape. They have to leave him behind in a hiding spot and come back later. The next morning, Mobley’s daughter Catherine shows up to drive Bowie to her father’s place. Distant at first, they soon begin to warm up to each other. Catherine can’t stand her father or his criminal brother, but she quickly learns that Bowie is different. Sent to prison at the age of sixteen for a murder he says he didn’t commit, he explains why he has difficulty talking to women. Since he hasn’t seen a woman from the age of sixteen to the age of twenty three, he’s never learned how. Essentially, he’s always been in prison, and he looks at Catherine like he’s looking at “freedom” for the first time.
What’s more, unlike Mobley or Chicamaw, Bowie doesn’t like living outside the law. His only dream is to get enough money for a lawyer so that he can turn himself in and clear his name. After Chicamaw and T-Dub persuade him to go along on what turns out to be both a successful robbery and a disastrous escape – they succeed in stealing a large amount of money but have to kill a policeman to cover their tracks – Bowie discovers that he has enough money to live outside the system for as long as he wants, and the certain knowledge that sooner or later the police will track him down and kill him. Cops rarely let outlaws who kill cops escape. For a few weeks he’s able to live with Cathy in a way he’d never be able to live if he had a normal, nine to five job. They’re never apart. They don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves. They are truly free, truly human, and yet both of them know that sooner rather than later, they’re going to be torn apart.
Cathy O’Donnell, who plays Catherine Mobley, is a great actress. Farley Granger, who plays Bowie, is a good looking young man, but he’s no James Dean. I think the contrast between her terrific performance and his conventional one, far from damaging the effect of the movie, enhances it. Catherine Mobley has no criminal record. There’s no reason for her to be on the run from the law. She loves Bowie, not because he’s an outlaw, but because he can dream of world where he doesn’t have to be, a world that doesn’t exist. For Bowie, Catherine Mobley is life itself. The now all but forgotten Cathy O’Donnell — I wonder how many people who know the name “James Dean” know the name “Cathy O’Donnell”? — puts in a performance that’s so strong she makes us believe it.
“In the nineteenth century, long-term imprisonment was approvingly defined as a punishment of “civic death,” John Berger writes. “Two centuries later, governments are imposing—by law, force, economic threats and their buzz—mass regimes of civic death.” It is significant that Nicholas Ray released most of his films during the height of the American Empire, and yet created men and women who were either rejected by “the system” or who voluntarily put themselves outside of it. Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause lives for that game of “chicken,” for that thirty seconds behind the wheel of a car just before it plunges off a cliff. Dixon Steele in In a Lonely Place finds love only after he’s unjustly accused of murder, then does his best to destroy the relationship he’s always wanted. Bowie Bowers and Cathy Mobley fall deeply in love, not because they have the chance of a future together, but because they don’t, and because we don’t.