The dichotomy, or at least the dual characterizations, of both an active, “lusty” masculinity and a more sensitive, emotional masculinity is starkly illustrated in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, his first film (though released after he completed his fourth). Much of the writing on Nicholas Ray and Professor Polan’s lectures point to the simultaneous presence of these two separate notions of masculinity in both Nicholas Ray’s own life and in his films, both the active Man’s Man type of masculinity as well as the counterpoint gentle poet-type of masculinity.
These two manifestations of masculinity, seemingly characteristic of Nicholas Ray and his films, are clearly articulated in They Live By Night through the rather overtly foiled characters of young Bowie on the one hand, and aged, rugged TW and one-eyed Chickamaw on the other. The two types of men share a common denominator of crime and jail time, and yet, though Bowie is initiated into the two older men’s jail-breaking and bank-robbing plans, from the very beginning he is markedly different from them. The opening scene shows the two experienced criminals angrily threatening and beating a man to steal his car, while in the back seat Bowie shies away from the violence. This distinction is carried through the whole film, with Bowie proclaiming to have joined up with these two hardened criminals in order to secure enough money to get a lawyer to clear his record, and is ultimately manifested in his love (and his ability to love) Keechie.
Whereas TW and Chickamaw remain isolated in a criminal fraternity, first within prison and then outside of it, Bowie moves away from them towards Keechie, the rational, good-natured, more femininely emotional and caring niece of Chickamaw, who better fits his embodiment of masculinity. However, their pairing quickly turns They Live By Night into a story of the young lovers against the external world, much like Romeo and Juliet and Tony and Maria after them, pursued by both the legal forces of law and order as well as Bowie’s abandoned partners-in-crime.
The film’s opening sequence frames the two young lovers and seems to formally shelter them from the outside world, their faces overlapped in intimate close-up. However, disquieting subtitles are then projected over their loving faces, foreshadowing their dark fate: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Their idyllic moment of romantic abandon is then interrupted not only by these alarming words but by an unheard sound off screen, and both kids look up suddenly startled and afraid. This opening foreshadows the way in which the external world and Bowie’s criminal past will continually chase them and break into the private spaces they have created for themselves. This mirrors the way the film’s two notions of masculinity are counterposed and forced to interact with each other, as Bowie’s more innocent, naive, dreamy and gentle masculinity is constantly challenged by the more active, violent and controlling masculinities of not only TW and Chickamaw but also the stalwart policemen.
What is important is that Bowie, embodiment of the sensitive aspect of Ray-ean masculinity, is shown to be capable of love at all, linked with the two female characters Keechie and Mattie in contrast to the other men: TW’s mentioned-but-never-shown relationship disintegrates before the his violent death during a bank robbery and Chickamaw, who performs the most machismo of anyone and who takes definitions of active masculinity to their chaotically violent extremes, is not only incapable of getting a girl but also loses and destroys every relationship he has, male or female, romantic or not. Mattie hates him as does Keechie, and Bowie too tries to leave him, eager to live a life “like real people” with his new wife. Drunk and alone, an impossible form of active masculinity, Chickamaw rebels against those running away from him, yelling out into the night that “I’m better off alone, I always was,” before being killed trying to break into a liquor store.
What is so tragic, though, is that there is “no place for her and me” as Bowie sadly comes to realize, even though they have never embodied the violent, active machismo espoused by TW and Chickamaw and though they have done their best to outrun Bowie’s past and start anew, with a family built upon their combined sentimental and emotional integrity and love. But here, both of Ray’s manifestations of masculinity come to the same violent end: like his older criminal pals, Bowie goes out in a reign of fiery violence, shot down in front of his pregnant wife by the uncompromising arm of the law.
This movie has made Nicholas Ray’s interest in both the active and the sentimental forms of masculinity more clear to me, and such understanding offers some possible elucidation on Jim Stark’s more emotional masculinity in Rebel Without A Cause. Last week I wrote that it was somewhat confusing or at least complicating that though Jim fights for an active, erect, stand-up type of masculinity, he himself is capable of crying, of emoting, of loving, and is in fact praised for this. But now I can see this in the larger scope of Ray’s other films and his own life, in which he the creative, intense, emotional artist was also influenced by the drinking, whoring, reticent, authoritative German masculinity of his father, among others. Like the men in his movies, Ray himself defies any single notion of masculinity, oscillating instead between active machismo and emotional sentimentality.