Denim on Film Noir: Lovers on the Run in “Tomorrow Is Another Day”

Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran in “Tomorrow Is Another Day“, 1951. Warner Brothers

 

Bill Clark and Cay Higgins only have each other to rely on. They are lovers on the run, even if it’s an obsessive love that they are united by. But we know something Bill doesn’t. Cay has hidden the truth from Bill and, for us, the viewers, to know that is to know that they in fact are separate from one another. Therein lies the greatest noir sensibility of Tomorrow Is Another Day.

Bill Clark (Steve Cochran) has just been released from prison, after serving 18 years for murdering his violent father. His release is observed by a newspaperman who is after an exclusive story. He befriends Clark without revealing his intentions and then betrays him and runs a discrediting story on him. From now on, Clark feels cornered and watched by everybody, tensed around everyone. He is always on the watch-out. The viewer feels this tension, too. Even when he enters a dance room and feels uneasy because he is being watched because he can’t dance. He is like an animal released from the cage who no longer knows what to do in liberty.
 

Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran in “Tomorrow Is Another Day“, 1951. Warner Brothers

 
He meets Cay Higgins (Ruth Roman), one of the dime-a-dozen girls who make a living at the dance club. Things are going good until Cay’s cop/pimp boyfriend Conover (Hugh Sanders) shows up, starts a fight with Bill, who is knocked unconscious, and then Conover is shot in self-defense by Cay. She lets Bill believe he shot the cop. The fugitives leave New York and settle down among lettuce pickers in California, but their past catches up with them. And the secret Cay harbors the entire film has caught up with her conscious, too. Throughout the entire film there is this shift of focus between Bill and Cay, the antihero who is tormented by his guilt and anxiety, the conflicted femme fatale who falls victim to her own self.
 

Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran in “Tomorrow Is Another Day“, 1951. Warner Brothers

 

This transformation is clearly showed in the clothes they wear – Milo Anderson was responsible for the wardrobe. When we meet Cay, she is dressed in glamorous gowns and she has platinum blonde hair, perfectly coiffed. Bill is wearing a suit, trying to fit in in an adults’ world he has long missed the start on. They change looks when they flee the police. Jeans, white shirt and denim jacket for her (and plain dresses when she’s around the house). She dies her hair black. Jeans, white t-shirt and black leather jacket for him. Not only does this change of looks have a narrative motive (they’re hiding from the police), but now they do look like a proletarian fugitive couple. Which they are.

It was the 1950s. Blue jeans were emerging as a kind of uniform for the ordinary man, for the working class man, but also as an identity staple, the symbol of a generational revolution. Marlon Brando had a lot to do with that. It was the undesigned outfit that Lucinda Ballard chose – T-shirt and blue jeans – for him to wear in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a look that used to be his acting costume (completed by a ragged jacket and tennis shoes) from his theater days, when he started to work with Stella Adler, prompting her to ask “Who’s the bum?,” when he entered her class. The look ultimately became part of the culture, “the new symbol of American maleness”, an urgently desired new beginning, a badge of cool, a symbol of identity, the defining fashion moment of the decade, and, most importantly, fashion that was accessible to all, regardless of the economic reality in which people lived. The economic reality in Felix E. Feist’s Tomorrow Is Another Day is poor, and it’s this economic reality – the poor people Cay and Bill find refuge at, forced to do anything for a dime – that pushes the outcome of the film.

 

Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran in “Tomorrow Is Another Day“, 1951. Warner Brothers

 

Nicholas Ray had a lot to do with the look of the 1950s, too. His poetic film noir They Live by Night (1948) was his first feature film and the first in a series of films of hard-hitting social realism that treated the theme of the confused and misunderstood American outsiders and outcasts, and paved the way for decades to come of couples-on-the-run noirs and thrillers. His film introduced its couple with a written line: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) are an innocent couple in their early twenties. When Bowie, a fugitive who has broken out of prison, after an unjust sentence, with some bank robbers, meets the innocent Keechie, each sees something in the other that no one else ever has, they fall in love despite the circumstances that put them on the wrong side of adulthood and start to hope for a life different than the one they were born into, trying to break loose from both a society and parents who either don’t understand them or refuse to try.

The same line – “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” – goes for just half of the couple in Tomorrow Is Another Day: Bill Clark. He was a child when he was thrown in jail. Now he is an adult unequipped for the world he has once again been thrown into. But his jeans, t-shirt and leather jacket certainly suit him better than his suit. Furthermore, they conceal and protect him from the outer world. In They Live By Night, Farley Granger’s preference for the leather jacket instead of a suit questioned the place of the individual, and of the teenager, in the American society. “One thing you’ve got to learn, kid,” one of the gang tells Bowie, “you’ve got to look and act like other people.” And he takes him to buy him a suit. The leather jacket was his safeguard against an adult world he knew he didn’t belong to.

Cay Higgins, on the other hand, is well versed in the shader kind of life, blasé and willing to fight with any means for survival. Underneath all that though, maybe they are somehow able to see in each other a way out. She certainly seems more at home in her jeans and white shirt than in her femme fatale black dresses. Free, at last. That’s the impression you get when you see them hitchhiking. Eventually they even come to love each other, but Cay’s dishonesty, not society, doesn’t allow them to function happily. And our knowledge of Cay lying to Bill and of him not having in fact anyone to rely on, suffuses the film with the noir ethos that unfortunately the ending isn’t able to sustain.
 
 

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The undesigned outfit, the new symbol of American maleness:
Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Film noir style: Peggy Cummins in “Gun Crazy”

A new kind of rebel: Farley Granger in Nicolas Ray’s “They Live by Night”

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