When Bowie Met Keechie
“What time is it, Keechie?”
“Ten to twelve…”
I think these are the most beautiful lines of film dialogue I have ever heard. Although there are many people who will disagree, I am sure. People will say I am just being difficult. But I like these words because they are rooted in the characters, their experiences and predicaments, and in my experience of watching the film.
That film is They Live by Night. This is the story of two young runaways, Bowie and Keechie, who get caught up in murder and are desperate to flee the vicious gang they find themselves in. It is an old, old story, the tale of misfits who cannot live in respectable society, but are too gentle for crime. Bowie and Keechie live on the edge of society and outlawry, on the cusp of day and night. These lines occur near the tragic end of the film and the premonition of final closure couldn’t seem more obvious if she replied to her boyfriend’s question with any other words: “Ten to eleven” is just not the same!
In the 1970s when old films were coming to be valued as a part of our cultural furniture, for many their appeal lay in the scintillating dialogue which could be endlessly recalled, and often was by way of a party piece. A young beau of mine taught himself to mimic James Cagney in front of the mirror. Television comedians like Stanley Baxter and Mike Yarwood took off all the old stars. In 1977 the song “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca came out as a record in England along with some lines from the film. Inevitably, they were lines from the scene in which Ingrid Bergman makes Dooley Wilson play the song for her in Rick’s Café Américain. Already immortalized in Woody Allen’s film Play it Again, Sam in 1972, the scene became even more stitched into our imaginations. On Christmas Day 1977 The Big Sleep was shown on BBC2, a film with such a difficult story that it would be nothing without the witty byplay. In 1978 a long-playing record, I think it was called the Golden Age of Warner Brothers, came out in England. On it were scenes from the likes of Angels with Dirty Faces, Now, Voyager, The Sea Wolf, King’s Row. (We nearly wore mine out!) Like old and beloved songs, we remembered the lines because they seemed so beautiful, so polished, and so fine.
But, frankly, now I don’t give a damn! Seriously, those lines (even now I recall one whole slick speech Zachary Scott gives in Mildred Pierce) were often the best thing about Hollywood films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. It is quite right that scholars like Richard Corliss and others should have referred to the ‘dialogue tradition’ when they wrote about the classical cinema for the films depended on the exactitude of their lines, the flourishes and curlicues of writers aspiring to (or falling short of), the great modernist tradition. If you took away the dialogue, you would have little but the stilted acting, those costumes, a few lovely faces. Billy Wilder, John Huston, Preston Sturges were right to want to graduate to directing because American cinema was above all a spoken cinema. I know I’m going to sound like Norma Desmond when I say that Hollywood films of the ‘30s and ‘40s can seem to be just talk, talk, talk!
And in the golden years of broadcast television before video, didn’t we love all that talk! The television schedules of the ‘70s were chock-a-block full of old Hollywood talkies, chattering away on BBC2 on Saturday and Sunday afternoons as an antidote to the sport and the religion on BBC1. I believe that the watershed in our love affair with dialogue came with When Harry Met Sally in 1989. Enamored with words, and as we were in the ‘70s with Casablanca, When Harry Met Sally appeared as video was saturating the bargain bins and our shelves with ever so many entreaties to watch and listen that we were in danger of losing touch with those blissful passages we had gleaned from the Midnight Movies of the golden years. When a film came around in the ‘70s, you remembered the lines as if you were remembering a conversation you were privy to, and if you missed it then you missed the encounter. When Harry Met Sally may have appeared in the ‘80s and it may have been about yuppies, but for its dialogue and its old-fashioned love, it was a film for the ‘70s, a film for us. Like Casablanca, Now, Voyager, An Affair to Remember and the rest, When Harry Met Sally desperately believed in one boy, hard-working, well-adjusted, a little vulnerable inside, and one girl, well-adjusted, a little vulnerable inside, hard-working for now, and a love that lasts forever. When Harry Met Sally was where all the glittering witticisms and deft ripostes of the depression and war years were leading.
But what if the boy and girl were not well-adjusted but temperamentally askew, not hard-working but living between bank jobs, not just vulnerable inside but hurting all over? What is beautiful about They Live by Night is that it takes as its characters little people who don’t do great things or apparently have great feelings but live meanly and die horribly between the cracks of conventional aspiration. I am reminded of the small desperate stories of the Italian Neo-Realists, anecdotes of difficult days using people drawn from the day itself and given their lives on a daily basis to keep them fresh. They Live by Night was released in 1948, the same year as Bicycle Thieves, so my presumption doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
“What time is it, Keechie?” “Ten to twelve…” I love the functionality of those lines. This boy and this girl don’t have time for clever talk, for they are going to die, he properly and painfully, she a little everyday, inside. I love the melancholy in Keechie’s voice as she answers him. I love the look she gives as she speaks, one in which the daylight of young womanhood looks into the night and witnesses what becomes of daylight. I love the poetry and looks and light as Bowie and Keechie prepare to say goodbye.