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The First Dream: "They Live by Night"

They Live by Night plays as part of a 15-film Nicholas Ray retrospective at New York’s Film Forum on July 29th & 30th.

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From the very first image of his very first film, Nicholas Ray announced himself to the world: Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) in an abstract, undefined space, living only for each other. Then suddenly, the world appears. They Live by Night (1948) is Ray’s mission statement, doing everything that would appear in his later masterpieces. It all began with a boy and a girl who were never properly introduced to the world we live in.

Although never actually specified what decade the characters live in, They Live by Night reeks of the Depression. Every square inch feels worn out, tired, barricaded. At the same time, however, possibility lurks behind every fence. Bowie lingers behind such a fence after he and his friends break out of jail. Once he crawls under it, he steps into the unknown. Thankfully, Keechie is waiting on the other side. Once they find each other, they must never be apart. She is wise yet weary of her fate (Laurel, Mary, Vienna and Vicki all have Keechie inside them). He has been unjustly persecuted by the law, and his innocence makes him superstitious. Together, though, they are reborn, pure.

So many motifs that travel with Ray for the next 15 years: grates, bars, and fences that enclose Bowie & Keechie, sometimes together, sometimes apart; the deliberate and controlled use of the film’s score, contrasted with long stretches of diegetic sound; Keechie graphically repositioned as the stronger of the two lovers, underscoring her experience and his innocence, complicating gender roles like so many Ray couples; societal outcasts attempting to reject the life that has sheltered them, who try to build their own community, together. Every time the sun goes down, the hope of a new world is offered. (Every time it comes up, that hope seems to recede.)

Their new world becomes real for them when the camera follows them, surrounded by darkness, into a makeshift chapel for a $20 wedding. A piecemeal affair, but to Bowie and Keechie, it means their lives are about to begin. They become equals, no longer complementing each other’s innocence, but discovering experience together.

When the world intrudes upon them, they divide, and can no longer be as strong as they are when they are one. Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) draw Bowie back into the criminal life, while the police and those who are trying to save their own families press down on him & Keechie, because all forms of social design, without respect for individual communities, will eventually oppress those who try to step outside those forms. Bowie’s death may be more brutal than any other Ray ending, because new, young hope is instantly snuffed out. Ray found Bowie and Keechie in almost every film he subsequently made, but they were never as elegant, pure, or startlingly new as they were here.

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Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.

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