They Live By Night (1948) Part Two “A woman is sort of like a dog”

They Live By Night (1948) Part One “This boy and girl were never properly introduced to the world”

It’s the first 10 minutes of They Live By Night that sets the stage for our ill-fated lovers. When Keechie comes out to the barn to get water, Bowie follows her, rattles some chains to make noise, and then he slumps down against the wall. When the headlights of a car startle him, he begins to whisper a little ritualistic number-counting verse to himself, a way to calm himself. Perhaps something he picked up in jail. Bowie is 23 years old and spent 7 years of it on the prison farm where he met Chickamaw and T-Dub.

He tells Keechie that he doesn’t really know how to talk to a woman. The old man Mobley shows up in a car with a woman. It’s Mattie, wife of T-Dubs brother still in jail trying to get paroled. Mobley is soused and nearly crashes the car, but smashes some crates and tires and damages the front tire. Mattie gets out complaining about the drive there, and the drunken fool who picked her up. “That’s the best you can send?”

They go into the cabin and leave Bowie and Keechie still in the barn. Keechie asks Bowie if he likes his old man. He says “Not much.” Then Bowie asks if it’s true that her Ma ran off, and she answers yes. He tells her his ma ran off with a guy who ran a pool hall. His Pa used to take him there. He relates to her a story of how one night, there was an argument, but there is usually an argument centered around a game of pool. This time his Pa raised his cue but the other guy had a gun. His Pa turned to him like he was trying to say something, his face went white like he was going to cry. “The blood running into his eyes” Then Ma went to live with the guy who killed him.

Here the backstory lays the groundwork for the couple, who never had a chance to live a normal life, with decent parents who could raise them with a moral code.

She asks why Bowie would run with men like T-Dub and Chickamaw, her uncle “lives for trouble” and is “wild” Bowie keeps a newspaper clipping in his pocket about a guy convicted of murder just like him, who had no due process of the law. The Supreme Court said, “Let that man out!” Bowie fantasizes about running away to Mexico. Dreams are all he has.

This is what Bowie is living for, the day he can afford the Lawyer in Tulsa, who can overturn his conviction and he can get himself “squared around” a significant phrase that will come back at the end of the film. The idea is that these young people are fueled by the desire to belong to the right side of society. Bowie and Keechie start to develop an obvious attraction to each other.

Mattie takes an instant dislike to Bowie and tells Keechie that he’s Jail Bait.

Chickamaw and T-Dub want to pull a big job in Zelton Texas, rob a bank. Bowie agrees to be the driver of the getaway car.

The day before the robbery, we see a large street clock, Bowie looks at it, always asking what time it is. He’s sitting in the car, we hear a train whistle blow. Then Bowie cases the bank. He purchases a beautiful woman’s watch for Keechie at the Zelton Jewelry Store. He doesn’t have smaller bills with him so the jewelry store owner will have to take him over to the bank to break the large bills.

T-Dub and Bowie return to the house where Mattie and Chickamaw are. T-Dub asks Mattie what’s going on. It appears there might be a sexual relationship between the pair. Chickamaw says “How long does a woman wait for one man?” Mattie gets upset “Listen you crumby one-eyed nut” T-Dub goes to slap Mattie but Chickamaw grabs him, and Mattie smashes a mirror. Bowie is spooked and says “That’s 7 years!” is there an emphasis on his superstition because he is uneducated and from a lower class?


On the day of the bank robbery, the same train whistle blows, the clock is standing in the same spot outside the bank, and Bowie is in the car waiting for the two men to give the signal, when the jeweler recognized Bowie and tried to strike up a conversation with him. When Bowie keeps telling him to “get away” and he doesn’t stop talking, Bowie pushed the man to the ground and he hits his head.

All 3 men are in the getaway car now, fleeing the robbery, back on the wide expanses of open land. Blue Grass music is playing on the radio. They pull off the road. Chickamaw pulls out a gas can and sets the robbery car ablaze. The radio starts to die out as the car is consumed by the flames until it sounds like a dying doo hickey.

They drop T-Dub off and Chickamaw says, they can start struttin’ and the one thing Bowie has to learn “is to look and act like other people.” Again we see the emphasis on trying to fit into normal society. They buy fancy clothes and new cars. On the way back to the house, an old jalopy cuts off Bowie and they crash the car. A police officer comes over to question them about how fast they were going and requests that they come along with him, and Chickamaw calls him “friend” and then shoots him.

Chickamaw takes Bowie, who’s sprained his back in the crash, to his brother’s place so Keechie can take care of him. Old man Mobley starts complaining about having to close the station, but Chickamaw says not to worry and shoves a wad of cash in Keechies blouse pocket. Her uncle Chickamaw has a very unhealthy boundary around his niece. He leers at her a good deal of the time and objectifies her, by calling her the girl instead of his niece. When Keechie hands the money over to her father, the old man says, “Girl that’s more money I’ve seen since we collected on that fire we had.” He takes the money, and we know that he’ll blow all of it on booze later on.

Bowie is laying face down on the bed. Keechie takes her hair down and starts brushing it. The first sign that she is embracing her sexuality, her womanhood, amidst this band of dirty thugs, her father included. Bowie awakens and is framed on screen behind a wrought iron bed, that looks like the bars of a jail. Noir characters are often trapped by framing.

Bowie asks Keechie “Who’s your fella…other girls have ’em?” she says “I don’t know what other girls have.” She rubs his back down with something, and the wind in the telephone wires from out the highway, makes an eerie noise outside. Bowie asks if she ever thinks about leaving town, most girls would want to go, again she says “I don’t know what most girls want.” Keechie has been so sheltered from the world. He tells her that he has lots of money now from the robbery, but this offends Keechie. He doesn’t mean to offend her, but she replies, “I’d do this for a dog.” Then he tells her to look in the side pocket of his shirt. She takes out the package and finds the watch he bought for her. She mentions that there is no clock in the cabin, though she wants to set the watch to the right time. Perhaps people who live outside of society have no sense of belonging so need to track the hours of the day. That’s the sense I got from all the references to time and why it was so important for Bowie and Keechie to know what time it was.

He puts the watch on her. She says she never saw any sense in having a fella, then asks him if he’s trying to say that he should be her fella. He says “I guess maybe it is.” This is a very sweet moment for the two of them. She tells him to stay until morning, by then her drunken father will have shot off his mouth all over town, so he’ll need to get away. She’ll go with him.

They leave on a bus. A baby crying incessantly, on a seat next to Bowie, but the mother could care less about quieting the child. They stop for coffee and notice a flashing neon sign Marriages Performed. The waitress pours more coffee and interjects, Hawkins class B, organ music, and everything for $20. She says the way people pop in and out of there you’d think they’re getting dog licenses. At that point, Bowie tries to tell Keechie that he’s no good for her. He’ll always be a black sheep. and she tells him “The only thing black about you is your eyelashes.” She saw the goodness in him from the beginning. After complaining about how awful that wedding place is, he asks her to marry him and they get off the bus, and enter Hawkins, to be married. The old man running the quicky ceremony says to Bowie “You don’t think much about the way I marry people” “I sure don’t” “Me neither but you gotta give people what they want.” Then he sells them a car and heads off for their honeymoon, at Lamberts Inn where they take a room all the way at the end, from Mr Vines and his little son Alvin. They set up a house there. And life seems quiet and “normal” like other people.

In the meantime, old man Mobley goes to the police and tells them about Bowie, kidnapping his daughter. Tells them where they can find him. “That boy belongs in the electric chair, and I’d like to be the one to pull the switch!”

Bowie asks Keechie about “these women who don’t wait for their men” and she gives him her philosophy. “Those women don’t love…woman only loves once. I guess a woman is sort of like a dog, a bad dog would take things from anybody, and he’ll bite anybody who tries to pet him. There was a man back up home, and after he died, his dog wouldn’t eat or do anything, and he died too.”

Chickamaw shows up “Aint you shacked up nice and cozy,” He asks for alcohol, but since there wasn’t any, he asks for candy and starts munching on it. Tells Bowie the newspapers are “plastered with his face.” Every time some dingbat robs a filling station, they say it’s “Bowie the Kid”, the Zelton bandit. “You’d have to have wings to be every place they say you did.”

Chickamaw and T-Dub are out of money and now want to pull another job. ” kid we got a bank in Cedars, just itching to be charged” Bowie offers half his loot from the Zelton robbery but Chickamaw strongarms him into coming along. “you know that’s friendly, real friendly…you aint gonna be handing me out no two bits at a time for ice cream cones, that doe you got where’d you get it?! working the shoe store, it takes 3 to pull a trick and you’re number 3, even if the papers say you’re number one.” T-Dub tells him later on that they took him out of jail over other men. Keechie is furious with Bowie for going along.

After the bank job, Chickamaw is gets righteously riled. T-Dub got killed during the bank robbery. Chickamaw tells Bowie that it “rips his guts out” All the papers do is talk about Bowie the Kid. He wants Bowie to stop for a drink, but Bowie refuses, Chickamaw grabs a pipe from the back seat and tries to hit him with it. Bowie orders him to get out of the car.

Bowie returns home that night to Keechie. “I guess you heard over the radio” “I heard T-Dub’s dead, Chickamaw was killed breaking into a liquor store…they say it runs in threes.”

She tells him she’s going to have a baby, no matter what. Bowie says “That’s right, he’ll have to take his chances just like us.”

They go out for the day and walk around the park like other “real people”, Bowie talks about going to Mexico again. they go out for supper and dancing.

A drunk stumbles into Keechie, so they decide to leave, but Keechie asks Bowie to get her some cigarettes. While in the bathroom getting the pack of cigarettes from the machine, a man crouches behind him and says “Bowie the kid” pulls the gun away from Bowie “Papers say you carry a .45” Bowie comes back “Papers say a lot of things.” The man tells him “We want you to leave town tonight, we don’t want any trigger-happy hillbillies around.”

There are no safe places for Bowie and Keechie to belong. They’re too innocent for the thugs like Chickamaw and T-Dub, yet they’re perceived as hicks by a whole other hierarchy of criminals. They Live By Night really is a story about human suffering and class disparity.

When the couple realizes that the plumber who came to fix the busted pipes in their place has recognized Bowie, they flee their little home and head out for the Prairie Plaza Hotel, a piece of property that Bowie remembers Mattie owns. Mattie is not happy to see Bowie, even though she finds out that Keechie’s ill and pregnant, unknown to the young couple, she turns them in to the police in exchange for her husband finally getting paroled.

Bowie goes back to the man who married them, asking about getting help to flee to Mexico, but the old man tells him that he’s a thief just like Bowie, but he won’t sell him “hope” when there ain’t any. Bowie realizes that there just isn’t a place in the world for “people like us.”

Note: the use of the metaphor of dogs is used a lot in the film– as obedience, faithfulness, and submissiveness. loyalty.

I won’t spoil the climax of They Live By Night, it is a poetic masterpiece of director Nicholas Ray


They Live By Night (1948) Part One “This boy and girl were never properly introduced to the world”

They Live By Night (1948) Directed by the great Nicholas Ray. Ray was responsible for one of my all-time favorite films with Bogie and Gloria Grahame, In A Lonely Place (1950), and he also gave us On Dangerous Ground (1952), Rebel Without A Cause, and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar.

They Live By Night is an adaptation by Nicholas Ray from the Novel “Thieves Like Us” by Edward Anderson. Produced by John Houseman.

Farley Granger plays Bowie, Cathy O’Donnell is the simple girl Keechie, Howard Da Silva is the ruthless”one-eyed “Chickamaw, Jay C.Flippen is T-Dub, and all three men make up the band of criminals responsible for robbing “charging “banks, across Texas. Will Wright plays old man Mobley a drunk (Ben Weaver, cantankerous store owner in The Andy Griffith Show) Helen Craig, plays Mattie who is married to T-Dub’s brother who is stuck in jail, having difficulty getting paroled.

“This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in…

To tell their story…

Ray uses open vistas, the cars driving through open expanses of land, not the often dominating skyscrapers, or closely cropped staircases and framed structural shadows. yet a certain desolation permeates the screen. Textually and thematically, They Live By Night breaks away from the urban milieu and plants itself in the rural countryside, in contrast to other darker noir environs.

This is yet another RKO excursion into the noir realm that they became well known for.  RKO had been one of the original production studios from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Val Lewton had done his low-budget yet groundbreaking horror collection(I Walked With A Zombie, Bedlam, Cat People, Isle Of The Dead) while at RKO.

There is a sentimentality and romanticism surrounding our two lead actors, the young couple project innocent victims, who were just born into a bad station in life. We get the sense that had they have been given another set of circumstances in another place, their lives would have been so far contrasting to the lives they’re leading because Bowie and Keechie are both essentially good people. We also see the very plain and feral Keechie blossom into her sexuality, as Bowie awakens this primal undercurrent that’s been subverted by her sheltered existence.

The certain outcome they faced, was always inevitable because they never had a chance to rise above the choices they’d been given.

There is so much of the narrative focused on what “other people normally do”, “to be like everybody else”. Our two young figures are trapped in a world, not of their own making.

Though most of the story is set in the rural countryside, which opens up the environment from the usual claustrophobic city scenes and defies the familiar mechanism of darkness, They Live By Night has an oppressive sensibility that makes the film a dark piece. The protagonist Bowie is still closed in by his situation.

Another departure from the more commonly seen protagonists with rough exteriors like Richard Conte, Robert Ryan and Charles McGraw, Farley Granger exudes a sexual ambiguity. Granger’s characters (Rope (1948), Strangers on A Train (1951), Side Street (1950)) have often been morally weak and susceptible to crime, not able to hold off temptation. He projects a sullenness, a softness that makes him appear the noir victim.

The divergence of the gentle souled Bowie with the cutthroat ruthlessness of his two treacherous partners in crime, set up the combustible dynamic that threatens Bowie’s safety from the outset.

As the lush and poignant music opens, it creates an unusual mood for us, not the typically hard-edged jazz thematic score we’re used to hearing with dark noir offerings. They Live By Night starts by serenading the sweet embraces of Farley Granger’s Bowie and O’Donell’s naive Keechie. The musical strings become threatening and the Titles roll as an old jalopy is driving eclipsed by the words They Live By Night.

It’s the 30s and two jalopies are speeding furiously down a desolate road. We see Bowie toss his shirt out of the car, and four men in the car, spin off the side of the road stirring up a dirt cloud, as they stop the car.

“I knew that tire had to go,” a farmer they’ve kidnapped says to Bowie sitting in the back seat. 2 men step outside of the car holding guns, one of them, Chickamaw wearing a hat says “You talk too much” The dusty isolation frames the men like a gray wilderness.

Chickamaw jerks the farmer out of the car as he begs, “Please mister please.” At first, Chickamaw holds a rifle up to his face as if threatening to shoot, instead he is forced to the ground out of our view, obscured by the car but we hear Chickamaw pounding on the farmer.  The music is serious, the horns play brutal tones, and then we see a concerned expression come over Bowie watching from his viewpoint, startled at the brutality he is witnessing. We get a glimpse of humanity in one of the 3 thieves.

We can’t see but we hear “Smack, smack” like pops and bones breaking. The picture, the photograph we see is so filthy, the environment itself so angry, like the dirt could devour all the men whole.

They toss the beaten man into the back of the car and Chickamaw says “Now what” T Dub replies “Now we gotta get to that brother of yours and get to that doe you got stashed away.”

The 3 men leave on foot we get an aerial view of them walking in the tall grass passing a billboard sign that says “Cosmo Nifties.” Bowie falls and grabs his foot. “How far we gotta go?” “About 10, 15 miles.” Bowie’s foot appears injured. The two other men tell him to hide out in the bushes beneath the billboard and that they’ll be back for him at night. They tell him to “take it easy son,” he says “I’ll take it easy. I gotta lawyer in Tulsa to see.”

It is night now. The Cosmo Nifties sign bares a sultry-haired beauty with a flower in her hair, the sign shapeshifts on the screen into a fence. Bowie is peaking through the fence, and a little scrappy dog comes into the scene, Bowie sits back down the little approaches him for food. But he suddenly sees headlights of a car approaching. he looks through the fence again. The fence, he is fenced in. We hear the twinkling song of night crickets, a truck pulls up and stops, the breaks screeching to a halt.

Bowie steps out from behind the fence, and we hear the truck trying to be started but stalling. The dog is following him. He asks the driver, “you having trouble?” a voice shaded by the dark and a hat answer back. it is the soft comeback of a female voice, this is Keechie.
“Could be” he asks “Who are you?  Do you live around here?” The crickets serenade the two veiled in shadow. Again the only two words she utters are “Could be.”

“You haven’t had a couple of visitors have you?” ” That wouldn’t be a sore foot making you limp would it?” “Could be” she says “I got some other stuff to pick up, get in or we’ll both get pneumonia” Her profile is solemn, and she looks down at the steering wheel.

She gets the car started and now her face is lit a little more, we can see she’s very plain, but very pretty, he comes around the side and starts to get into the car. A train whistle sings in the background. He looks at her “They sure took their sweet time sending for me”

Bowie asks “Who are you?” “they sent this for you, get in.” They arrive at a shabby place, in the car only the edges of their faces show light, like crescent moons, the rest is pure darkness surrounding them. They are staring at each other, she tells him “I’ll take that stuff, you go around the shed, through the trees, a cabin back there.”

He knocks on the door to the cabin, there are several men inside, one smoking a cigar opens it up to greet him with a smirk. Chickamaw says “Look who’s here” T-Dub sitting down counting money, says “Hello son,” Chickamaw says “You took your time gettin’ here… what are you and the gal been doin’, swimmin’?” “Say hello to Mobley, Chickamaw’s brother,” the old man says, ” I told you she’d find him… she’s a weasel that daughter of mine” “Sorry we had to keep you waiting son…had to be that way” Chickamaw gives Bowie a new shirt and says “here kid this’ll fit a lot better over that bandage.” He takes it, still very silent, Chickamaw slightly admonishing him says “You’re welcome.”

T-Dub, asks old man Mobley, “A thousand dollars, is that enough for a used car?” “Could be, you can’t tell though, the way things are…” They are interrupted by a sound outside, he says, “Oh that’d be my daughter.” T-Dub rises to his feet and says ” Hello Miss Keechie.” Bowie puts on his clean shirt and looks up at her, holding groceries, a surprised expression, as she too looks back at him curiously.

T-Dub looks at Chickamaw and gestures that he wants some of the cash, so he starts shuffling money through his thumb and fingers to hand to the old man, “That’s five hundred more, that’s fifteen hundred for the car… can’t have you coming back in no rattle trap, not for this trip.” Bowie with food in his mouth says “Fifteen hundred bucks for a second-hand car?” T-Dub says “That’s right” Bowie comes back. “That’s worse than robbing a bank!” but T-Dub explains “They’re thieves just like us” (meaning old man Mobley and his daughter Keechie).

T-Dub sits and faces the old man Chickamaw, “Now don’t forget the clothes, and tell Mattie the first big doe goes to getting her man out of jail.. tell her that or she won’t come.” “I’ll tell her for sure… well so long fellars… I’ll try to get back here with Mattie before tomorrow night.” Chickamaw says to his brother the old man Mobley, “Say big brother stay sober” he puts his hat on and answers “Me?…oh I won’t touch a drop, not a drop” he says resentfully. T-Dub still sitting down says, “Of course, he won’t, we take care of our friends Mobley” The old man cries out “I know, I know that T-Dub, he turns to Keechie and asks if she’ll take care of the station, then says “so long.”

Chickamaw says, “Take care of the station he says, he hasn’t done a lick of work in his life…that brother of mine.” Close up we now see that his right eye is hazed over and blind. He starts grinning and laughing, “Did you catch the look on his face?”…more laughter, “he’s still trying to figure out where I had that doe hid.” He laughs even more sardonically.

Keechie looks so worried. We hear a noise, Bowie is fiddling with the small stove, she goes towards him and says, “Can’t you make that stove work?” but as she starts to move, Chickamaw grabs her by the arm. “He’d a grab you too wouldn’t he?” T-Dub says, “You show ’em how Miss Keechie” “That’s one machine he don’t know nothing about..” Bowie hands her a clean cloth and says “Here”, she smiles a little and says “Thanks.”

T-Dub says, “That boy’s some gallant eh Miss Keechie?” and Chickamaw says “Yeah, he’s got a soft heart…” takes the cigar out of his mouth, “and a head to match”

Keechie says “his head looks alright to me” She gets up and walks away.

Bowie says “That little girl don’t think any too much of what’s me I tell you.”

Chickamaw relates “Her ma was just the same way, always acting like she was the Queen of Romania!” just then Keechie steps back from behind the heavy floral curtain that partitions the room. Bowie asks curiously “Keechie’s ma?” Chickamaw tells him “Yeah, you know what she did?…she ran off with a fella, now they’re running a medicine show” Keechie throws down what she was holding and walks back through the partition.

Fade to Black

T-Dub says “No matter how, I tell you we’re short…we need another thousand dollars” Chickamaw replies while looking at a newspaper “Hey we’re in it… Prison Farm break, the escape of 3 lifers was announced today by Warden E K Lardub (of some such name) the fugitives have captured a farmer in their flight”, then Chickamaw gets angry and slams down the paper. T-Dub picks it up and continues to read, “Elmo One Eyed Mobley” aka (Chickamaw) mumbles and paces, “It’s always one-eyed something.”

T-Dub reading “RT Waters, farmer of Akota, gave a description of the 3 men who commandeered his car at the point of a gun.” Chickamaw pipes in still pacing with the cigar in his mouth, “I shoulda blast his head off with that gun.”

T-Dub sees that there’s a dance at a dance hall that used to be Chickamaw’s old stomping ground, he gets the idea that there would be enough for the take there to be a small cushion for the big Zelton job they’re planning on.

Chickamaw picks up the paper from the table and says, “Sunday night, yeah that…” Then he pauses, “That one eye!…they didn’t’ print a very big piece about us either.” T-Dub says “Don’t wish it was more than just 2 lines..newspapers raise more heat than anything Chickamaw In a few days, they’ll really have somethin’ to print about us?” Bowie says “Yeah” and Chickamaw continues, “3 boys like us, we could charge any bank in the country, any bank!, how many have you knocked off T-Dub?” “Enough,” Chickamaw says to Bowie “You’re in luck kid, you’re traveling with real people T-Dub puts his hand on Bowie’s shoulder, and Chickamaw says “It takes 3 to charge a bank…and we’re the 3 mosquitas.”

“We move fast” looking deep into Bowie’s face. “Can you take it? “me?” “You!” “Sure.”

Bowie “I can rib myself up to anything,” Chickamaw says “Maybe. You ribbed yourself up once to killin’ a man didn’t ya?” Keechie walks into the room just then and looks faintly startled, and disappointed, Bowie stares at her concerned, and ashamed, Chickamaw asks again “Didn’t ya?” then Bowie breaks his gaze away from Keechie and looks up at Chickamaw and says “Yeah… I sure did” then looks back at Keechie who now looks down at the floor and walks out of the room.

It’s the first 10 minutes of They Live By Night that sets the stage for our ill-fated lovers.

To be continued in Part II…

They Live By Night (1948) Part Two “A woman is sort of like a dog”