When I see a movie described as Bonnie and Clyde-like, I’m expecting an adrenaline-junkie couple, exciting escapes, violence. Imagine then my surprise to find They Live by Night is a surprisingly sweet tale of young newlyweds who long to–wait for it–go out to dinner together.
It’s true that initially, this film seems a typical noir. Bowie (Farley Granger) is an escaped convict, sprung by fellow criminals Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay Flippen) so that he’ll be the getaway driver for their bank robberies.
Jailed seven years for a murder he didn’t commit, Bowie goes along with their plans, thinking the loot will help him pay for a lawyer to prove his innocence. (Yes, that’s how naïve he is.) This supposedly scary criminal looks like this when he’s afraid a girl will disapprove of him:
But innocence is the theme of this movie–and not the corrupting of that innocence (as a noir might lead us to expect). While he does commit robberies, Bowie doesn’t seem very interested in them. He’s loyal to his partners, but ready to quit at any time. In fact, we see very little of his robberies in the film, and very much of his quiet time with his love. What makes it a noir is simple: he’s trapped by his past actions, and escape isn’t looking likely. His hopes for getting out of the mess he’s caused are sad to hear, even if they do endear him to Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell).
Keechie, whose drunken father hides the escapees, falls for Bowie after his fumbling attempt to talk to her (she seems to be the first girl he’s met). When they spend time together after an injury and his partner Chickamaw’s bloody response to it given Bowie an undeserved reputation for villainy, the two become even closer. Their impulse decision to marry after she runs away with him shows them fearful, hesitant as they approach the altar–like the kids they are.
At points, there’s so much giddiness when they smile at each other it’s easy to forget that these dark shadows on the screen portend something, that their romance probably isn’t headed anywhere better than Shakespeare’s famed lovers.’
(I should mention, by the way, that I’ve never found Rome & Juliet romantic; I regard it as the tragedy of teenage-think-gone-wrong, when a new crush means forever-love, and a life without him/her is THE END. It’s difficult for me to fathom that others find fickle Romeo–who was in love with Rosaline the day before–romantic.)
While there’s no feud between the couple’s families in They Live by Night, Keechie’s father helps the police catch Bowie, and the latter’s partners refuse to let him go straight, giving us a bit of that lovely, narcissistic Capulet-Montague spirit.
Despite the odds, Keechie and Bowie do manage to escape the patent absurdity of their names and the triteness of their situation, making us root against others hunting them. O’Donnell plays that same almost-too-sugary supporter as she did when portraying Wilma in The Best Years of Our Lives, but with enough toughness and grit to make us like her. Granger perfectly captures the blustering young lover trying to do the right thing, but kind of clueless about how to pull it off.
While the criminal partners of Bowie’s are fairly stereotypical, others the couple meet are not; the strange, quirky hotel proprietors and marriage officiants seem to promise sympathy and add interest to the story–though no one deserves as much trust as these two are willing to shell out. You just keep wondering how this kid could survive 7 years in prison and STILL be this childlike, or a girl could have a corrupt, alcoholic father; a criminal for an uncle; and remain such an optimist. And yet, they come across as real on the screen, and the freshness they bring to their experiences is enchanting, as with this scene of them ecstatic about going out for dinner.