LOVE ON THE RUN:
NICHOLAS RAY'S OUTLAW
Nicholas Ray’s centenary in 2011 inspired renewed interest in the postwar Hollywood director, once the critical darling of the French auteurists at Cahiers du Cinéma, whose commercial period spanned 1947 to 1963 and whose most famous films include In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The experimental and semi-autobiographical We Can’t Go Home Again, which Ray shot with his students in the 1970s while teaching at SUNY – Binghamton, was restored and released at the Venice International Film Festival with the “making of” documentary Don’t Expect Too Much (both films are now available together on the Oscilloscope Laboratories DVD and Blu-ray). In addition to Patrick McGilligan’s biography Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director from HarperCollins, a new edition of Bernard Eisenschitz’s biography Nicholas Ray: An American Journey was published by the University of Minnesota Press. Last year, Ray’s women’s pictures A Woman’s Secret (1949) and Born to Be Bad (1950) premiered on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection, and his Westerns Johnny Guitar and Run for Cover (1955) made their DVD and Blu-ray debuts courtesy of Olive Films. Perhaps most exciting of all for film scholars researching Ray’s life and work, the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin acquired his archive.
Much of the promotion and commentary surrounding this centennial celebration billed Ray as a “rebel,” and there are a multitude of discursive, ideological, and historical-material factors that constructed this reputation in film and popular culture. However, in this essay I want to look at the paradoxical figure of the rebel in three of Ray’s films—They Live By Night (1948), Johnny Guitar, and Party Girl (1958)—that in some ways complicates, if it does not entirely contradict, his familiar image. The three films I have selected form what I am calling Ray’s “outlaw couple trilogy,” in which he filters the experience of American modernity through the eyes of three different romantic couples on the run, outcasts who rebel against a society or community that refuses to accept them, but who rebel in order to seek acceptance from these same sociocultural groups.
They Live By Night, which Ray directed for producer John Houseman at RKO Radio Pictures, introduces his protagonists as if they were born on the screen before the eyes of the viewer, with no past or future, no biographies or personal histories, existing in the eternal present. As Ray’s first film, this introduction is rather fitting. Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) remain his most uniquely modern screen couple, running from the law as much as they are escaping from their predetermined roles as criminals in a futile attempt to live “just like other people,” to leave the threat of death behind them. Two young faces appear in a soft-focus close-up against a black background, accompanied by an instrumental version of the Scottish folk song “I Know Where I’m Going,” which will become their leitmotif. Subtitles read the following: “This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…to tell their story.” After the couple comes together for a slow kiss, their romantic reverie is interrupted by the harsh strings of Leigh Harline’s melodramatic score, signaling the presence of something that arouses looks of fear offscreen (so shocking they cannot identify it, just as the camera cannot reveal it). The film dissolves from this flickering two-shot into the opening credits, and the bluntly evocative title tells us that Bowie and Keechie are also existential outsiders. Forced to “live by night,” driving through the twisted back roads of the American South still haunted by the Depression, they are all too aware that the end of the world will not come at nighttime, as Jim tells Plato in Rebel Without a Cause, but at dawn.
Pre-credits sequences such as this one were rare during the Classical Hollywood period, but what makes Ray’s prologue especially unusual, apart from the subtitles, is that it seems to defy the spatial and temporal logic of the film. If it is a flash forward, where are Bowie and Keechie in the narrative, exactly? The credits play over a Texas prison escape in the bright light of day, which grounds us in the film’s proceeding linear action and orients us among the principle male characters. However, the narrative of flight seems motivated by the opening shot—whatever it is that lies outside our purview—and tries to “outrun” this creeping specter, first as Bowie and his prison mates Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) careen down a dirt road in a hijacked getaway car, then later as Bowie and Keechie go on the lam, plunging headlong into an uncertain future.
Moreover, the sense of both timelessness and “lost time” conveyed in the opening shot extends throughout the film, as Bowie and Keechie flee from the very systems of modernity (Bowie, whose name alone recalls legendary nineteenth-century frontiersman Jim Bowie, is also lost in his own time). Retreating to an idealized frontier past and mythic home that exists only in popular memory, they travel together across bucolic landscapes, but darkness undermines their utopian fantasy. “Someday, I’d like to see some of this country we’re travelin’ through,” he tells her at one point, to which she replies wistfully, “By daylight, you mean? That’d be nice.” As Geoff Andrew notes, “The sad point of the exchange is that they never will see the country together, the irony being that nature would seem the ideal habitat for this pair repeatedly likened, by themselves and others, to weasels, dogs, sheep, and kittens.”
Ray sets up a tension between the rural “outlaw culture” of Bowie and Keechie, symbolizing freedom, and the urban “official culture” of law-abiding society, symbolizing fate, only to collapse these binaries in subtle ways. They Live By Night is elemental, but also deceptively simple. On the surface it plays like a reformist crime melodrama, but rather than espousing a topical political critique or a message about particular social problems, Ray is more interested in feelings of modern alienation. The opening credits sequence is famous for the helicopter shot over the getaway car, the first use of a helicopter in an action shot and an early example of the action, movement, and urgency that the French would find so compelling about Ray’s directorial aesthetic. After Chickamaw knocks out the driver, a second helicopter shot follows him continuing on foot with T-Dub and Bowie through a desolate wheat field. Ray said that shooting this chase sequence from a helicopter saved $10,000 in production costs, but it also builds a paranoid atmosphere of dystopian surveillance and control determining Bowie’s destiny, as he wanders past the film’s “innumerable signposts that dot routes and signify nothing,” invoking Sartre’s description of modern life.
Bowie, whose injured foot inhibits him from keeping up with Chickamaw and T-Dub, hides behind the latticework under a lone billboard waiting for Keechie, Chickamaw’s niece, to take him back to her father’s house and rejoin his two senior companions. Greeting the trio of fugitives with the banality of postwar consumerism, the billboard advertises a brand of women’s underwear called Cosmo Nifties (“the ideal playsuit for all occasions”). When Keechie pulls up in a truck, a close-up of Bowie shows him caged behind the lattice work like a trapped and wounded animal (pushing the comparison further, he is even accompanied by a stray dog). This imagery repeats when the camera shoots Bowie and Keechie through the grille of the truck upon their arrival. Most of what we learn about them unfolds through their first conversation together later that evening in her father’s garage, and Bowie first appears onscreen in this sequence peeking at Keechie behind the grille again. Ray paints both characters not only as imprisoned and already guilty, but as victims of society and lost children of dysfunctional families: Keechie’s father is a petty criminal and an alcoholic, and her mother abandoned them to follow a man running a medicine show; Bowie’s father was killed in an argument over a pool game, and his mother went to live with his killer. The twenty-three-year-old Bowie confesses that he was convicted of murder at the age of sixteen while traveling with a gang of thieves in a carnival. A botched safecracking job resulted in a killing, but rather than running from the scene of the crime with the rest of the gang, he stayed behind and was sentenced to prison.
Other respected films in the amour fou style share a kinship with They Live By Night in their sympathetic portrayals of outlaw couples, such as Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), Anthony Mann’s Desperate (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), and Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993). The outlaw culture we enter into via Bowie and Keechie is defined not by criminality, though, but by a loyalty to an alternative family that lives on the margins of a socially acceptable order. Chicamaw and T-Dub share a close brotherly relationship, but also function as same-sex parents for Bowie. Mobley (Will Wright), Chicamaw’s brother and Keechie’s father, provides a refuge for the three escaped convicts, where Chicamaw has stashed away money for the gang. Mattie (Helen Craig), T-Dub’s vaguely Gothic sister-in-law, helps them rent a house for their bank robbery in Zelton (“She got a real house,” Bowie enthuses, and Chickamaw responds, “Why not? We’re real people”). The group rationalizes their crimes—Bowie wants to use the stolen loot to hire a lawyer to clear his name—because, after all, the world is full of thieves just like them.
Thieves Like Us was the title of Edward Anderson’s 1937 crime novel on which the film was based, and the title became the mantra of the film (along with Bowie’s ironic saying, “There ought to be a law”). While the novel served as a more explicit indictment of Depression-era social injustices, Ray still captures its central themes: the impossibility of living a good life in an inherently corrupt and venal environment, and the hypocrisy of institutions of power and authority. Thus, the film is less a moralistic narrative of crime and punishment than a sensitive depiction of crime as an avenue by which outcasts desperately attempt access to the exclusive domain of official culture: love, family, community, capital, property, and so on. Ray was clearly more attracted to his outlaw characters in this film, a stark contrast to the cold and mechanical representatives of law and order.
Bowie, on the one hand, searches for his Thoreauvian home in the woods, but breaking the law is not about the transgression of bourgeois American life. Instead, his ultimate goal is to steal money in order to settle down, raise a family, and open a filling station to make an honest living. Ray’s films are not about social radicalism, but about social rejection, about the passionate desire to rebel in order to conform. After the Zelton holdup, Bowie returns to Mobley’s home, battered from a car accident, and lies on Keechie’s bed as she massages his back. Once again, the mise-en-scène “frames” him, this time by the vertical bars of the bedstead, and he grows startled by the wind in the telephone wires over the highway, as if modernity itself carries with it inescapable danger. “You stay until tomorrow, then you go,” she instructs him after handing over his share of the bank money left by Chickamaw, adding gently, “I’ll go with you, if you want.”
Ray spent time on the road himself. From 1937 to 1939, he explored the South and the Midwest and learned about the folk culture of the regions, serving in the theatrical branch of the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration. He even worked with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who collected American folk songs for the Library of Congress. They Live By Night was clearly influenced by his fascination with local settings and the enthnography of indigenous cultures, which became more pronounced in films such as Hot Blood (1956) and The Savage Innocents (1960). Bowie and Keechie’s nocturnal sojourn also mirrors familiar ideas from America’s mytho-historical-ideological narrative of Manifest Destiny, most famously Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and Horace Greeley’s editorial advice to “Go West, young man, go west and grow up with the country.” Perhaps the most applicable concept of westward expansion comes from Mark Twain’s closing words in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as Bowie and Keechie “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” to start a better life together liberated from the hegemonic structures of civilization. This pure and open territory of equality, agrarianism, and tradition provides a space for Bowie to regenerate from a social misfit to an individualistic, outlaw hero, who represents the nostalgic values of the American pastoral. Having achieved a certain celebrity status, he even earns the nicknames “Bowie, the Kid” and “the Zelton Bandit” from newspaper publicity.
They Live By Night might therefore best be described as a “disguised western,” Robert B. Ray’s term for Classical Hollywood films that featured the outlaw as the most enduring and representative figure of the frontier on whom advancing society still depends. He argues that the thematic paradigm of both “pure” and “disguised” Westerns “served as one of the principle displacement mechanisms in a culture obsessed with the inevitable encroachments on its gradually diminishing space.” The genre establishes dichotomies between the “wildnerness” of the West and the “civilization” of the East, he claims, but “reassured its audience about the permanent availability of both sets of values.” At different moments in the film, Bowie and Keechie give each other watches as presents, setting them to the same arbitrary times, but operating literally on their own time (an eternal present) fails in the end. As much as they try to “look and act like other people,” to assimilate to the modern world, their love for each other blossoms as a respite from it. Yet, their happiness is fleeting and their relationship is transient; the instability of their home and the shadows of inevitable tragedy only underscore the false promise of the American frontier.
The wedding scene, for example, takes on an air of quiet menace. Bowie and Keechie spontaneously depart their bus and decide to get married at a roadside wedding parlor, complete with a blinking neon sign, where “class B” ceremonies are performed for twenty dollars. The seedy proprietor marries the couple and sells them a used car, crudely treating the affair as nothing more than a mercenary capitalist exchange (“Folks ought to have what they want—as long as they can pay for it”). When Bowie and Keechie find a picturesque inn to hide out, the manager turns obsequious after Bowie hands him a wad of cash and assures him they are not the typical “fly-by-nights,” passing himself off as a professional ball player. As they attempt to make their honeymoon cabin into a home of their own, they also look forward to a middle-class lifestyle, going out to restaurants and movies. “I’ll buy you everything you want,” Bowie says to Keechie. “What do you want, Keechie, what can I buy you? It’s all for you—just tell me what you want.” Ironically, it is imperative that they not spend the stolen money or interact with other people for fear of being caught. After their identities are discovered by a plumber, interrupting their domestic idyll, they have to go back on the road, all the more anxious about their future with the knowledge that Keechie is pregnant. Bowie is eventually threatened with physical violence when they stop at a nightclub and he engages in a scuffle with a drunken patron. The owner recognizes “Bowie, the Kid” and demands he leave town so as not to disturb business, holding him at gunpoint.
Even Bowie and Keechie’s surrogate family betrays them for their own personal and material gains. Mobley, hoping to make good on the reward money, informs on the runaway couple to the police. Chickamaw, planning another bank robbery with T-Dub, finds Bowie at the honeymoon cabin and pressures him into teaming up with them (“So to speak, you’re an investment—and you’re gonna pay off,” T-Dub barks slapping him across the face). Mattie, who strikes a deal with the police in return for her husband’s release from jail, houses Bowie and Keechie in her motel. Realizing that Keechie and their unborn child are no longer safe, Bowie writes her a farewell letter before moving out on his own, promising to send for them when the time is right. As he is trapped by the police and gunned-down in the motel courtyard, an offhanded line Mattie delivers to Keechie earlier in the film suddenly becomes another one of the its bitter ironies: “Maybe they won’t send him back to prison. Maybe he’ll get killed first.”
Despite the naturalist context, tender love story, and innocence of the characters, They Live By Night is a deeply cynical film noir. The film foreshadows the cosmic ennui that the high school students in Rebel Without a Cause experience from the lecture at the Observatory. Contrary to the compromised ending of Rebel, which offers hope for Jim and Judy as they emerge into the sunlight of the approaching dawn, Bowie is killed and Keechie is rendered emotionally dead, alone and with child in an indifferent universe. Bowie’s cataclysmic annihilation—in which police floodlights illuminate his body just before a swift hailstorm of bullets rains down upon it—extinguishes the film itself. Announced by the ominous whistle of a passing train, a floating signifier of industrial and technological progress, it comes as a return of the repressed: that shocking thing to which Bowie and Keechie bear witness in that first shot. There is no introduction more appropriate to Ray’s cinema of broken dreams.
If They Live By Night opens with a shot that exists beyond the main action of the film, Johnny Guitar begins in medias res. And whereas Bowie and Keechie meet too early in life, “never properly introduced to the world,” Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and Vienna (Joan Crawford) have separated and resigned to their hostile surroundings. The film is another doomed romance, but it is not about meeting one’s soul mate and running for cover; it is about bittersweet reunions and the opening of old wounds. Johnny and Vienna were an outlaw couple before the film started, and they will have to become an outlaw couple again, only in a world they no longer recognize. The transcendentalist meditations of They Live By Night have been replaced by a surrealist’s fascination with anarchic violence, shocking incongruity, erotic desire, and a fantastic social order. Ray takes Roy Chanslor’s 1953 novel and defamiliarizes the conventions of the Western, subverts its ideological underpinnings, and lays it bare for Freudian psychoanalysis and grotesque parody (in lurid Trucolor). We might be inclined to call They Live By Night Ray’s “Song of Myself,” a tone poem or mood piece in which Ray, the individual, speaks through the universal persona of the common American outlaw. Truffaut compares Ray not to Walt Whitman, but to Jean Cocteau, calling Johnny Guitar “the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream,” and it is certainly his most bizarre, absurd, and perverse film.
Ray’s approach to this material is more eccentric than in any of his previous films, and his view of the modern world is also more ambivalent. Oscillating between existential despair and explosions of fiery passion, tradition and progress, the importance of the individual and the importance of the community, the film presents the American frontier as both a battleground for these irresolvable contradictions and a scorched, wind-swept landscape of the unconscious mind. This unforgiving Arizona cattle town is the last stop, both literally and figuratively, for Ray’s brokenhearted characters on a road that leads nowhere. Film scholars have long been attracted to this Republic Pictures Western as an anti-McCarthyist allegory, the way critic Michael Wilmington read it in an early American essay on the film, but they have also expanded this interpretation to wrestle with its “dialogue between containment and excess,” its “representations of gender,” and its mode of “feminist camp.” The documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995) by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman also suggests a coded lesbian subtext. Yet, as the missing link between They Live By Night and Party Girl, it can also be read as a transhistorical vision of the American outlaw at its most primal and mythic, created out of the earth and driven to its most rebellious extremes under xenophobic persecution and mob rule.
Vienna is the main representative of the “outlaw culture” in the film, a saloonkeeper planning to build a train depot on her property at the opposition of the local cattlemen, led by the psychotic, sexually repressed rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). When Emma’s brother dies in a stagecoach robbery, she wrongfully blames the crime on a silver miner known as “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), a regular at the saloon who loves Vienna. Emma presumes Vienna guilty by association and, allying herself with lawman John McIvers (Ward Bond), she gives Vienna and the Kid’s crew twenty-four hours to get out of town (leaving Vienna’s property free for the takeover). Meanwhile, Vienna has hired her former lover Johnny “Guitar” Logan, a gunslinger-turned-guitar player, for protection from the townsfolk. The film attributes Emma’s fascist “witch-hunt” to her envy over Vienna’s relationship with the Kid, but it hints at Emma’s fear over her sexual attraction to the Kid as much as her displaced queer desire for Vienna. Donned in cowboy “drag,” Vienna hardly conforms to normative standards of femininity herself. “Never seen a woman who was more like a man,” one male character says, “she looks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” Vienna and Emma invert the gendered expectations of the Western, as Johnny and McIvers become increasingly passive and supporting characters, only to stand on the sidelines in the climactic showdown between these two self-made, strong-willed women.
Crawford and McCambridge reportedly clashed on the set of the film, fueling the antagonism of their characters, who become dark reflections of each other. With her broad shoulders, gash mouth, and thick eyebrows above large, penetrating eyes, the chiseled Crawford dominates over the more diminutive McCambridge, whose mousy squeak provides an almost comic contrast to Crawford’s flinty voice. Sexually liberated and assertive, Vienna is the modern double to Emma’s Puritanical virgin. Vienna and Emma have joined forces with male companions who share the same first name, Johnny Logan (played by a known liberal) and John McIvers (played by a known conservative), while the Kid stands in the middle of their personal war, essentially nothing more than a catalyst for the film’s action (a “dancer,” he both desires to be looked at by one woman, but is the object of another’s gaze). As the saloon owner, Vienna also plays den mother to her dealers at gambling tables and her loyal bartender (John Carradine), as well as to the Kid and his rag-tag crew of silver miners, Bart (Ernest Borgnine), Corey (Royal Dano), and Turkey (Ben Cooper). The leader of a faceless posse, Emma is a hatemonger for a town of cattlemen who behave like cattle. At one point, Vienna appears in a blazing white dress juxtaposed against Emma’s black funeral clothes, reversing the genre’s traditional color-codings of law/white and outlaw/black. The mirroring of Vienna and Emma reveals the fine line between the film’s “outlaw” and “official culture,” and the fanatical extremes that the status quo will take to fortify and naturalize this arbitrary distinction in the name of law and order. Vienna’s rebellion is basically standing up for her right to run a legal business and build on her property, while Johnny simply wants to enjoy “a smoke and a cup of coffee” as the saloon’s laconic guitar player.
Not only is Vienna less overtly dependent on men than, say, Keechie in They Live By Night or Judy in Rebel Without a Cause, but she is more secure about her place in the upheavals of modernity (“I intend to be buried here—in the twentieth-century!”). Johnny, on the other hand, is a violent male stranger more typical of Ray’s films (“I got a lotta respect for a gun—besides, I’m a stranger here myself”). One of the film’s most famous scenes, in which Vienna and Johnny’s history is made clearer to us, finds Johnny drinking alone in the saloon, unable to sleep, and Vienna, awakened by “bad dreams,” trading elliptical allusions to their past through veiled resentment:
JOHNNY: How many men have you forgotten?
VIENNA: As many women as you’ve remembered
JOHNNY: Don’t go away.
VIENNA: I haven’t moved.
JOHNNY: Tell me something nice.
VIENNA: Sure. What do you want to hear?
JOHNNY: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve
VIENNA: All these years I’ve waited.
JOHNNY: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come
VIENNA: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.
JOHNNY: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
VIENNA: I still love you like you love me.
JOHNNY: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
This scene encapsulates Johnny’s self-pity and self-deception, and Vienna’s denial of the feelings for Johnny and years of pain she has carried under the cold, “masculine” exterior of stoicism and entrepreneurship.
In an earlier scene, we learned that Johnny rejected the prospects of marital domesticity with Vienna and that after leaving him, she taught herself not to love again (despite several affairs that were strictly of a sexual nature). Rather than ending in confrontation, the bitter exchange strips these characters of their defenses and they surrender to the love they still have for each other. Vienna and Johnny’s reality is only this mutual love, but like Bowie and Keechie’s first night together, their reawakening comes at the ironic price of realizing that they can never actually live like “other people.” If their relationship is to survive, they have to become outlaws. Johnny’s earnest proposal is therefore an impossible dream: “Only you and me—that’s real. We’re having a drink at the bar in the Aurora hotel. The band is playing. We’re celebrating because we’re getting married, and after the wedding we’re getting out of this hotel and we’re going away. So laugh, Vienna, and be happy! It’s your wedding day!”
The morning after their tearful, dark night of the soul, ready to begin their life together, Vienna and Johnny are implicated in an actual crime committed by the Kid. Figuring they might as well make a profit so long as the town believes them to be criminals, the Kid and his crew vengefully decide to rob the bank on their way out of town, just as Vienna arrives with Johnny to withdraw her money before closing her saloon. Vienna and Johnny fall back into one of Vienna’s bad dreams (Johnny asks, “Was I dreaming or did I just see a bank held up?”) now that Emma has the evidence she needs to hang them. After she blocks the escape routes in the mountains with dynamite blasts, the Kid and his crew hide out in their cabin above their silver mine concealed by a waterfall. Vienna retreats to the saloon to wait for Emma, who at this point has become a harbinger of death, but she turns her back on Johnny when he insists they must be prepared to kill to protect themselves.
The second half of the film is punctuated by lush, flamboyant set pieces that take it further into otherworldy territory. Separated from his crew and bleeding from a gunshot wound, the adolescent Turkey finds his way back to the saloon. When Vienna, McIvers, and the posse arrive to demand information about the Kid, they discover Turkey and bully him into naming Vienna as one of the bank robbers, promising not to hang him if he admits to her guilt. Turkey reluctantly complies, but the posse decides to hang them both, and Emma shoots down the chandelier to ignite the saloon in flames, grinning from ear-to-ear and casting monstrous shadows on the wall. As the saloon burns to the ground against the rock formation on which it was built, the posse proceeds to hang Turkey under a nearby bridge. Before Vienna suffers the same fate, Johnny manages to cut her loose, having returned during the fire, and together they escape through a mineshaft.
Vienna and Johnny flee to the Kid’s lair, and when the posse catches up to them, Bart strikes a deal with Emma and directs them through the waterfall. Bart then kills Corey, who refuses to betray the Kid, and just before he shoots the Kid in the back, he is shot dead himself by Johnny. Following the noise of the gunfire, Emma approaches the cabin to face off against Vienna on the porch and, in a jealous rage, shoots the Kid through the head when he charges forth to save her. Finally forced to use a gun in self-defense, Vienna opens fire on Emma, who tumbles over the banister to her death. The shoot-out between Vienna and Emma recalls their first encounter in the film when Emma accuses Vienna and the Kid of the stagecoach holdup. “I’m going to kill you,” Emma says, to which Vienna matter-of-factly replies, “Not if I kill you first,” as if these women were destined to do battle, locked in an eternal struggle bigger than their hatred for each other.
The film’s climax remains interesting not only as a collision between the freedom of “outlaw culture” and the fate of “official culture,” but also for the ways in which Vienna and Johnny (like Bowie and Keechie) must resort to their outlaw ways for protection from those who claim to police culture. Whether Vienna and Johnny will be able to have a chance to live a so-called “normal” life like “regular” people is unclear from the ending of the film. Vienna tosses away her gun, and she and Johnny defiantly walk past the posse and through the waterfall to embrace in a kiss under the bright blue sky. The dreamy theme song by Peggy Lee creeps on the soundtrack, and one wonders if their kiss marks a happy ending for the couple, or an uncertain beginning. Will Vienna stay in town to see her plans for a train depot come to fruition, or will she and Johnny have to keep running?
The last film he directed in the Hollywood studios, the MGM melodrama Party Girl marked Ray’s return to the crime genre. They Live By Night, A Woman’s Secret, Knock on Any Door (1949), Born to Be Bad, In a Lonely Place, and On Dangerous Ground (1952) made up Ray’s early career and might all qualify as film noir. Viewed alongside They Live By Night, this “homecoming” film also creates symmetry to his career in Hollywood, showing us what might have happened if Bowie and Keechie met later in life, aging and disillusioned, but no less estranged from the modern world.
As a part of the crime genre, Party Girl can also be read as an elegy for the classical American mob movie. The late-1950s and early-1960s witnessed a cycle of crime films nostalgic for the figure of the Prohibition-era gangster—Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson (1957), Roger Corman’s Machine Gun Kelly (1958), Richard Wilson’s Al Capone (1959), Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960)—but the gangsters of this film have already fallen from grace. Film and cultural critic Robert Warshow famously proposed that “the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself.” In Party Girl, that time has passed. Crime boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb) is both an irrational company man and a pathetic slob, not a tragic Horatio Alger or populist anti-hero.
Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) and Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse) are a more classically attractive pair than Johnny and Vienna and yet more weary than the naïve Bowie and Keechie, as if Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell had outgrown their baby faces into what Steven Rybin describes as “the disappointments of adulthood.” However, despite their cynicism, Tommy and Vicki are finally able to survive their past even if they are not able to fully assimilate into official culture. Although the ending may be one of Ray’s most sincerely optimistic, as they walk off together into an extreme long shot that literally leaves their past behind them and their future open, it cannot shake off the violence that precedes it. Like Johnny and Vienna held in limbo under the waterfall that guards the Kid’s Edenic hideaway, Tommy and Vicki are emotionally healed and spiritually redeemed by their love for each other, but destined to wander forever down that dark and lonely street.
Tommy, a shrewd defense attorney for the mob, works closely with Rico. Having been crippled by a childhood accident, Tommy walks with a limp, which he uses to manipulate juries and win sympathy. His injury is reminiscent of Bowie at the beginning of They Live By Night, as well as Jeff in The Lusty Men (1952) and Davey in Run for Cover, but it is more than a metaphor for wounded masculinity. Tommy’s “crooked body” makes him painfully out-of-step with society, an outsider who aches to become “a whole man again, respected, admired, even envied.” Feeling “cheated,” he turns to criminal law as the quickest path to reach his goal. We also learn that Tommy has separated from his callous and materialistic wife (Claire Kelly), a showgirl repelled by his deformity. The outlaw family of Party Girl gives Tommy a modicum of solace, even through his contempt for Rico, his reptilian enforcer Louie Canetto (John Ireland), and his “yes man” Lou Forbes (David Opatoshu). In a scene played mainly for laughs, Rico, an obsessed Jean Harlow fan, shoots holes into a publicity photo of the star when he finds out she has gotten married. As the film unfolds, though, he becomes an increasingly monstrous presence for Tommy, more so than Chickamaw for Bowie. At one point in the film, Tommy watches in horror as Rico bestows another gangster with a miniature silver pool cue and then bludgeons the man with the gift after the L-train roars past, echoing what the train signaled for Bowie just before he was killed.
Vicki despises herself for selling her pride, just as Tommy does for selling his, and their mutual sense of moral compromise and personal failure draws them together. Both characters have prostituted themselves to the criminal underworld, Tommy as a “mouthpiece for the mob” and Vicki as a paid companion for parties (read: prostitute) and a showgirl at the sleazy Golden Rooster (one character actually refers to her as “expensive merchandise”). After she was raped at the age of 15, she grew up mistrustful of men and abandoned her dream of becoming a professional dancer for more lucrative opportunities in “calendar art” and “girlie magazines.” When Tommy and Vicki meet at one of Rico’s parties, they return to Vicki’s apartment and share a confessional moment of intimacy similar to Bowie and Keechie’s exchange in the garage and the “lie to me” scene in Johnny Guitar. Vicki’s red dress, insinuating sexuality, clashes with Tommy’s limp, insinuating impotence, but henceforth the film will see them on equal terms. This conversation is interrupted when Vicki finds her roommate lying in a bathtub of water that has turned red with blood, and discovers she slit her wrists. Dissolving from this suicide scene to Vicki sitting at the police station, the film marks her for death in her bright red dress that matches the blood in the previous shot. At the same time, it also represents an implication of guilt, as Vicki blames herself for failing in her responsibilities to help her friend, another showgirl at the Golden Rooster.
Contrary to what one might expect from this introduction, the film does not reduce Vicki to an infantilized female victim whom Tommy must save, nor to a sexualized figure of guilt and blame that leads Tommy into danger and must be punished. The profound connection between these two characters gradually rebuilds their confidence and self-worth, enabling them to break free from the prisons of their own past and emerge from the depths of exploitation in which they have sunk. Tommy asks Rico, part owner of the Golden Rooster, to promote Vicki to the floor shows so that she can perform more respectable solo numbers. In turn, Vicki urges Tommy to set up a legitimate practice and undergo a lengthy medical procedure in Stockholm to repair his hip. This European interlude provides the most direct connection to They Live By Night as Vicki visits Tommy, recovering from a successful operation, and the couple drives along the countryside, relaxes on the beach, and tours Venice. The rebirth of the two lovers balances the romantic “twilight of middle-age,” quoting Rybin again, with the sad realization that it must come to an end. Rico insists that Tommy return to Chicago, and as Tommy comes home to resign from his criminal organization, Rico threatens to break Tommy’s hip and disfigure Vicki’s face with acid.
Charisse’s two dance numbers at the Golden Rooster, choreographed by Robert Sidney, delivered what audiences would have expected from the statuesque co-star of MGM musicals The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), and Silk Stockings (1957). At the same time as they are derailments from the crime film we are watching, they unexpectedly foreground Vicki and Tommy’s fantasy of escape and their roles as outsiders. Designed seemingly for no other reason than to show-off Charisse’s spectacular beauty and skill as a ballet dancer in Metrocolor and CinemaScope, they both halt the narrative and appear to exist outside the film’s narrative space altogether. In his well-known essay “Entertainment and Utopia,” Richard Dyer theorized that the Hollywood musical gives the public what it wants, but it also defines what the public wants in ideological terms. Why entertainment works as an escapist and wish-fulfilling fantasy is because it embodies a utopian sensibility, he argues, implicitly offering “the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide.” The emotional signification of the musical therefore derives from its “temporary answers to the inadequacies of the society which is being escaped from through entertainment.” Party Girl is highly self-reflexive about this affective mode.
The first dance sequence occurs after Vicki begins performing her solo numbers, cutting from Tommy, transfixed in the audience, to (presumably) his point-of-view, as if the number was just for him (consequently, it is also just for us), either in an extradiegetic level or a hallucinatory dream state. Suddenly, Vicki transforms from one of the anonymous and objectified Golden Follies into the Cyd Charisse whom we love and remember from MGM musicals of the 1950s, glamorous, elegant, and sophisticated, not unlike her much earlier role as the long-legged mystery woman who seduces Gene Kelly in the “Broadway Melody Ballet” from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Dressed in a flowing, billowy magenta dress that matches the curtains on stage, she slinks between two jazz trumpeters until finally spinning to the end of the stage to perform a playful strip-tease in front of Tommy (although it is she who clearly takes the most pleasure in the act). When she glides back to center stage and continues dancing with the trumpet players, we resume the impossible fantasy of the musical (or Tommy’s gaze?) that culminates in Charisse extending her arms towards the camera as if to hug the viewer.
The second sequence later in the film at a New Year’s Eve party is the more exotic and ambiguous of the two, featuring Charisse clad in a leopard-print costume interpreting a faux tribal dance for the camera to the beats of drummers on stage. This time, Tommy is not in the audience, having been arrested by the police as a material witness after a mob war breaks out. The dynamic camera movements and expressive mise-en-scène suggest that the number is another rapturous illusion, but whose? A more literal reading of the scene might point to Louie as the male subject, to whom the scene cuts staring lustfully from the audience at Vicki’s gyrations and contortions; she rebuts his advances in her dressing room after the show. On the other hand, the larger psychology of the film might indicate that it is Vicki blissfully perceiving herself on stage with her dignity restored, having realized the potential of her extraordinary talent (“No talent?” asks Tommy after their first meeting, wondering why she gave up dancing. “I think so!” she replies firmly). As Richard Lippe observes, “Vicki is a woman of strength and determination,” and “it is Vicki who […] initiates the series of events which enables them to break free from Rico’s seemingly iron grip.” The wildly audacious dance numbers illustrate Vicki’s growing mastery over her domain and a chance for her and Tommy to live on their proverbial own private island.
From the gaudy lighting and décor to the supersaturated colors and retro fashions to the title song by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn, Party Girl should by all means be a Hollywood musical, which makes its outbursts of brutal violence that much more surprising. The utopian aspirations of the musical are reflected in Charisse’s two dance numbers, one just for herself and one just for her and Tommy, externalizations of their dream of taking flight. While not a road movie like They Live By Night, the film is about their search for a reprieve, even if only temporarily, from the dangerous outlaw culture to which they are bound and the dehumanized official culture that could never entirely accept or understand them. Tommy seeks an amicable separation from Rico’s enterprise, but fears for Vicki’s safety when Rico demands that he defend his new partner, the young sociopath Cookie La Motte (Corey Allen), about to be prosecuted for murder by the State’s Attorney (Kent Smith). When Tommy is imprisoned, he is torn between testifying against Rico, which would grant him the freedom he desires, and keeping silent, which would guarantee that no harm will come to Vicki. Either way, they cannot be together.
After Vicki convinces Tommy to testify, he is released and pursues Rico himself. We anticipate a showdown like the finale of Johnny Guitar: Rico’s men kidnap Vicki; Tommy is brought to Rico’s lair on the South Side to find Vicki, dressed in bright red again, wearing bandages over her face. The L clamors outside. But when he sees that Vicki’s face has not yet been burned, he simply decides to stall Rico, relying on his manipulative courtroom tricks. Rico meets his demise in an accident, spilling the acid on his own face and falling out the window when the police surround the building. While the film’s ending seems anti-climactic, it is more thematically and tonally appropriate than a resolution that would empower these damaged people through the cathartic release of heroic action and confrontation. As Tommy and Vicki walk side by side in a daze away from the crime scene, their backs to the camera, part of us wants to believe in a dawning future for them similar to Jim and Judy’s at the end of Rebel Without a Cause, but the last shot bears a closer resemblance to In a Lonely Place.
Will Scheibel teaches in the Department of Communication & Culture at Indiana University. He is the co-editor, with Steven Rybin, of Going Home: New Essays on Nicholas Ray in Cinema Culture (forthcoming from State University of New York Press) and he is currently working on a reputation study of Nicholas Ray.
 Although the film was completed in 1947, it was shelved when Howard Hughes took over RKO in 1948. After quarrels between former studio head Dore Schary and Hughes, Schary left and the film was released in Britain later that year. They Live By Night did not receive its American theatrical premiere until 1949 when Hughes released it with other backlogged productions. Douglas Gomery, “Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night,” The Velvet Light Trap 5 (Summer 1972): 25-26. For more on Ray at RKO, also see Michael Wilmington, “Nicholas Ray: The Years at RKO: Part One,” The Velvet Light Trap 10 (Fall 1973): 46-55 and Wilmington, “Nicholas Ray: The Years at RKO: Part Two,” The Velvet Light Trap 11 (Winter 1974): 35-40.
 The film was originally titled I’m a Stranger Here Myself in a version of Ray’s treatment. It then became Your Red Wagon, also the title of the song performed by Marie Bryant in the nightclub, which was a New Orleans expression meaning “It’s Your Business.” Schary re-titled it The Twisted Road before an audience research poll finally settled on They Live By Night. Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), 91, 95, 103.
 Geoff Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2004), 30.
 Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray, 98.
 “Film ‘Shot’ from Helicopter,” The New York Times, August 23, 1947, 7.
 Qtd. in Dana Polan, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 252.
 Jacques Rancière has written a brilliant analysis of this scene in his essay “The Missing Shot: The Poetics of Nicholas Ray.” See his Film Fables (New York: Berg, 2006), 95-104.
 Ray authored the treatment, but the screenplay was written by Charles Schnee. Director Robert Altman would bring the novel to the screen again under its original title in 1974.
 For Houseman, it was Ray’s experience in this context that made him such an appealing choice to direct a film based on a novel about the Depression in the American South. Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray, 90.
 An American folk song, Woody Guthrie’s “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” is heard on the car radio after Bowie, Chickamaw, and T-Dub rob the bank in Zelton.
 For an excellent discussion of fame and the outlaw couple film, see Corey Creekmur, “On the Run on the Road: Fame and the Outlaw Couple in American Cinema,” in The Road Movie Book, eds. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 90-109.
 Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 75.
 The film’s authorship remains one of its many ambiguities. Crawford purchased the rights to the novel from her friend Chanslor before it was published. Chanslor wrote the first draft of the script, but the film’s writing credit belongs solely to Philip Yordan, who claims to have joined the production after the filming began. However, Yordan often hired “surrogate” writers to work under his name, including his longtime secretary and some blacklisted writers. It was Crawford who was responsible for Vienna’s prominent role in the film, demanding that the script beef up her character. Patrick McGilligan, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 244-254.
 François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), 142.
 Michael Wilmington, “Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar,” The Velvet Light Trap 11 (Winter 1974): 35-40.
 Leo Charney, “Historical Excess: Johnny Guitar’s Containment,” Cinema Journal 29.4 (Summer 1990): 25.
 Jennifer Peterson, “The Competing Tunes of Johnny Guitar: Liberalism, Sexuality, Masquerade,” Cinema Journal 35.3 (Spring 1996): 4.
 Pamela Robertson, “Camping Under Western Stars: Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar.” Journal of Film and Video 47.1-3 (Spring-Fall 1995): 33.
 In his essay on the film, V. F. Perkins remarks that the film’s construction as a vehicle for Crawford makes Johnny Guitar one of the few Westerns with a female protagonist. He writes, “The casting links the three terms Western, Woman, and Star to another that has marked the picture since its first release: Weird.” See “Johnny Guitar,” in The Movie Book of the Western, eds. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye (London: Studio Vista), 221.
 Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray, 206-207; McGilligan, Nicholas Ray, 254-255.
 Unlike his contributions to They Live By Night and Johnny Guitar, however, Ray was not involved with the writing of Party Girl; Leo Katcher penned the story and musical/comedy veteran George Wells was responsible for the screenplay. Ray dismissed the project as “[a] bread-and-butter job” and “a shit film.” Qtd. in Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray, 346.
 Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theater, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, enlarged edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 100.
 Taylor and Charisse’s star text adds to the poignancy of their characters. McGilligan points out that these “two aging, fading stars [were] making their last MGM pictures under cushy contracts that had to be paid.” Cast against type, Taylor did not play the “nice guy” as a corrupt lawyer and Charisse hardly lived up to her reputation as a refined ballerina playing a showgirl. McGilligan, Nicholas Ray, 337.
 Ray always aspired to direct a musical and, although he never achieved this goal, one can find traces in the colorful widescreen dance sequences of both Party Girl and Hot Blood. Andrew, The Films of Nicholas Ray, 20.
 Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader, ed. Steven Cohan (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 20.
 Ibid., 22.
 Richard Lippe, “Party Girl: Ray and Hollywood,” CineAction 67 (2005): 7.