On flights to and from California for a family event, I watched a noir double-feature: They Live by Night and Side Street, both with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. These films were both made shortly after the war, and I was thinking that the men in them, actors and the characters they play, all had WWII in their recent memory: the disruption of regular life, the violence, the guns, fate, death, the whole deal.
Maybe it was the fact that she was born in Siluria, Alabama that made Ms. O’Donnell attractive for the role of Keechie, the innocent girl, living with her decrepit alcoholic father at a gas station in the middle of nowhwere in They Live by Night. This movie from 1948 is an early version of the loving outlaws on the run stories that would reappear in Gun Crazy and reach anti-hero apotheosis in Bonnie and Clyde twenty years later.
We first see Bowie from a dramatic helicopter shot as he limps along, his foot is injured, as he runs with his two outlaw compatriots. They leave him to rest at Keechie’s dad’s place, and he is practically the first guy to pay the girl any attention. They are drawn to each other immediately – two losers who crave a better life. Too bad he’s an escaped con, under the thumbs of those older, hardened criminals. He owes them big-time for getting him out of the joint.
The movie surges and stalls a lot – or maybe it was just my attention, being on an airliner and tired – but she and Bowie make plans and run off together, including a quickie marriage. He’s got a lot of dough from the bank job he pulled with One-eyed Chicamaw and T-Dub after the breakout. He gives her a watch for a present, but there’s nothing to set it with. Does anyone really care what time it is? It’s ten to midnight when they are married.
They move about, and even venture out in public for a night on the town. The sassy black entertainer indicates the underworld locale, despite their middle-class dress.
This is noir, so it’s not long before the thugs catch up with a request for Bowie to make a third on their next bank job. Keechie has gotten a taste of respectibility – why can’t it last? She doesn’t want to read Bowie’s name in the papers, shot dead by a cop
One of the interesting things about the film is how Keechie develops from a shy tomboy into a full-grown woman who desparately tries to preserve the better life she has won. Along the way, she develops a sexual personna as well, indicated in this sequence when she tries to stop Bowie from going to the bank job and is passionately wrestled into submission by him.
Bowie says he’ll go to the meeting as demanded, but insists that he will not participate. They can just count him absent, because that’s what he’ll be! As he leaves, Keechie asks him what time it is. Ten to midnight.
Of course, he owes them, so things work out differently – he joins in on the heist. The bank job doesn’t go well. One-eye, he hates being called that, get’s shot. Not only that, but for some reason the cops think Bowie is the brains behind the gang. That really burns up Chicamaw!
Bowie and Keechie are on the run again, but Bowie’s so hot, even his fellow criminals want him to leave town. Keechie is pregnant. They flee to a motel run by a woman related to one of the gang. They were going to spring her man from the joint, but it didn’t come off. Now she can get him off by playing stool pigeon. The authorities are very understanding – people inform all the time. No big deal – it’s the right thing to do. Bowie doesn’t have a chance. It may not even be his fault, but that’s the way it is.
A final desparate thought – flee to Mexico! The guy who married them said he knew people there, and he was on the shady side, but he says “we’re all just vultures,” and he sure looks like one. He’s no help at all.
Bowie returns to the motel, is betrayed…you know the rest.
A happier fate awaits our couple in Side Street from 1950. Granger plays Joe Norson, a part-time letter carrier whose plans for prosperity just won’t pan out. Having to live with his pregnant wife at her parents’ just gnaws at him. By chance, he sees a way to steal a few hundred bucks, and maybe get ahead of the game.
He breaks into an office and runs with the envelope. He’s not a real criminal: he’s shaking with fear. And it turns out he has a hot $30,000, not just a quick few hundred! He’s robbed a crooked lawyer who is running blackmail schemes with attractive floosies, but the female bait ends up dead. Joe doesn’t know this of course, and in a fit of remorse, he tries to return the money. The lawyer acts like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about! He wants to make sure Joe knows nothing about his operation, and then he’ll retrieve the cash.
There are lots of deadly complications as Joe is sucked down by the criminal vortex generated by the blackmailers desparate to get back their money. The police, portrayed as organized and efficient, the protectors of the good and the innocent in deadly Gotham, are closing in. They explain the facts to Mrs. Norson (O’Donnell) and put a trace on her phone when he calls her while they are with her. Why then does she cry out to Joe, “Run, Joe! They’re tracing your call!” Doesn’t she want to see him alive? Oh…she regrets it later, she does.
Joe is forced to be the driver for the remaining thug in a wild chase through downtown Manhattan in the morning. The cars careen through the empty streets like rats running through a maze.
Joe purposely crashes the car right in front of Federal Hall, with George Washington looking on. We know it will all work out. The father of our country is there!
Wall Street is a nasty place! The last thug shoots it out with the police, and pays the price for his criminal ways. This takes place right in front of the NY Stock Exchange, but you barely see it. THAT would have been a fabulous shot if they had included it!
The Chief shows up. “That money is evidence – no souvenirs!” He’s such a card!
The bells of Trinity Church ring in the background, signalling redemption as the ambulance siren wails. The voice-over narration tells us what we all know. Joe will be all right.