Monday, July 4, 2011
"In a Lonely Place" (1950) Dir: Nicholas Ray
What I remember:
I believe the old adage amongst writers is, “When you’re stuck, write what you know.” And the one thing all writers know best is themselves.
This can apply to the autobiographical story based either on reality or fantasy. I always hear a little bell going off when I read a book or see a movie wherein the protagonist is a writer. Ahhh, I think, so you were stuck, and couldn’t come up with a REAL story. Often these stories take place in academia (see/read “Wonder Boys”, “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or “The Human Stain”). These usually smack of some truth and reality. Then there are the more fantastic stories, like “Misery” by Stephen King, and “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin. These usually strike me as a tale invented from the imagination of some dreary life event, like King being harassed by some over-ardent fan, or Levin being brow-beaten by some older colleague.
In movies, there is the occasional screenwriter protagonist. Interestingly enough, three of my all-time favorite films have screenwriters at the center of them. Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation”, the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” and Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” are, to me, all masterpieces. A bit lower on my list comes “In a Lonely Place”. Nicholas Ray directed this very intense movie, and cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead role as tough guy writer Dixon Steele, a man with a violent streak who is under investigation for murder. The premise seems a bit unreal. Most writers you come across are intellectual, pacifist types. I guess there’s always the Hemingway prototype to lean on, although he seems the anomaly.
I remember it as a bravura performance by Bogie, maybe one of his best. That usual Bogie aplomb, the controlled fire we all know is not to be found. His Dixon Steele is all rage and impudence. Ray also cast his ex-wife Gloria Grahame in the role as the sexy neighbor who becomes Steele’s lover. Grahame is smoldering and for me, a real revelation when I saw this film. We all remember her as Violet in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and she is likeable and attractive in that classic. In this film, she is equal to any of Bogie’s most comely co-stars, even Bacall.
I was really very impressed with and absorbed by this movie, and found it’s slightly sketchy premise to be eclipsed by the powerful performances and Noir stylings of Ray’s direction.
“I've been looking for someone a long time... I didn't know her name or where she lived - I'd never seen her before. A girl was killed, and because of that, I found what I was looking for. Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look.”- Dixon Steele
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter who has a serious temper, but who is obviously quite intelligent and talented. He gets into a lot of fights, and can be a lout, but his agent stands by him, and his friends put up with him because at the core he is a good guy. He is asked to adapt a trashy book, and rather than spend the energy reading it, he asks the coat-check girl at his favorite haunt to come to his apartment and tell him the story. She is a little ditzy and star-struck, so she agrees. At his building he runs into a new neighbor, the attractive Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Mildred, the girl from the restaurant, tells Dixon the flimsy story, then he sends her home with cab fare. Mildred is discovered murdered the next day, thrown from a car in the canyon. Dixon’s alibi is Laurel, who says she saw him send the girl on he way. Laurel soon becomes Dix’s lover, and helps him finish his screenplay. All the while, she sees the violent side of him, and begins to suspect that maybe she was wrong to give him an alibi. The investigation begins to fray their relationship, and soon the trust between them erodes to almost nothing.
There’s an expression I once heard back when I was in college about the sacrifice an artist makes, and it is quite simple:
“Perfect in life, or perfect in art.”
I immediately found that fascinating and haunting. Is it really true, I wondered. Does one have to give up all real relationships in order to be great? Or is it a fact that you need to have a personality disorder to have the single-minded dedication in order to achieve greatness? Bi-polar behavior seems prevalent amongst the geniuses in the arts. The list is long (though not proven): Pablo Picasso, W.A. Mozart, Charlie Parker, Vincent Van Gogh, Jaco Pastorius, Graham Greene, Edgar Allen Poe, Brian Wilson and Virginia Woolf were all said to be afflicted with this problem.
Though it’s never said, anyone who knows about this connection can see that this is the problem with Dixon Steele. He has manic episodes, and these are often hostile unless he focuses the mania on his work. Eventually what makes you great becomes your undoing, as it did for Van Gogh, Bird, Jaco, Mozart and Woolf. I originally thought in remembrance that this was a writer’s fantasy, but after watching again I realize that this is a portrait of the tortured artist, unable to harness the insanity. I’m sure both Ray and Bogart were thinking of people they knew in the business when drawing this portrait.
As for the movie itself, what starts out as a typical LA Noir whodunit, turns smoothly into a relationship and character study. It’s not simply a descent into madness, it becomes the tale of two people who can save each other, and how the mental illness of one is both the creation and destruction of this salvation.
To quote my old friend, “Mr. Bass Man” Ronnie Bright, “That’s some deep shit”. Unfortunately, he was referring to the lyrics of the song “If” by Bread, so maybe his estimation of “deep” might be a bit suspect.
Anyway, the turn from Noir to love story is paralleled by the turn from the audience’s identification with Dixon to its identification with Laurel. This is accomplished with maximum finesse by Nicholas Ray and writer Andrew Solt. At first, before the relationship really kicks in, you are completely with Steele. Then, as the two become lovers, you are with both as one unit. Then, as suspicion and lack of trust pulls them apart, you go with Laurel. I can’t remember another film, with the exception of “Psycho”, that does this so well.
One other theme in the film bears mentioning. You get the feeling while watching that you are getting a serious insider’s look at the movie business circa 1950 (and maybe always). It is a bit melodramatic in representation, but then again there seem to be elements of candor that I suspect were rare, and that we don’t really see back then except in “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard”, both of which, coincidentally or not, were made that same year.
There is a symbiosis with Ray and Bogie, that you see only in the great works. It is on a level with Ford and Wayne, or Hitchcock and Grant, or Truffaut and Leaud, or Scorsese and DeNiro, or Kurosawa and Mifune. Director and Actor working together almost as one unit, creating a persona and atmosphere to make the movie take on it’s own life.
Normally I will discuss the acting of a lead in my next section, but because of what I just said, I think Bogart’s performance needs to be discussed now. In one very Hitchcock-like scene, Steele directs his friend Brub (who is also one of the investigators of the murder) and Brub’s wife Sylvia into reenacting how Dix thinks the murder was committed. As he orders them around, there is a light across Bogart’s eyes that illuminates them, adding to his manic look subtly, producing a hypnotic concoction that is horrifying and reassuring at the same time. What a delcate line they (Ray and Bogart) both walk during this scene.
There is also no care taken to make Bogart look good during the movie. Laurel says she likes his face, and acts like that is why she is attracted to him, but it is clear it is the kind of person he is that she falls in love with. His fire, his creativity, his artistry, and by proxy his edginess are the magnet. He is obviously much older than Laurel (in fact Bogie had 24 years on Grahame- he was 50 and she 26 during the filming). There is no attempt to play down or even acknowledge this gap. One is simply left to believe the moth and flame situation that we are proffered. I didn’t doubt it for a second.
As in all films about writing, the dialogue is snappy, and without cliché. At times it is a bit over the top and leaden. After one of his episodes, Steele says this line to Laurel: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” He says he is putting that in the script. Probably at the time it’s a line that was a focal point and 1950 audiences might have needed the hook. Today, it plays heavy handed, to say the least.
Full disclosure--When I first saw the film, it inspired me to write a song entitled “I Lived For a Day”.
Guilty as charged, your honor.
The score by George Anthiel is way too pervasive; always there, always highlighting the emotions which need no help. I think it takes away from the power a bit, and would love to see this film with just a few touches of music instead.
As I stated before re-watching, Gloria Grahame is a revelation in the film. She captures the character changes in Laurel so perfectly throughout. Her coolness to Dix early on is controlled fire, and very alluring. Then, when deeply in love with him, she embodies that high so captivatingly; you just can’t take your eyes off of her. Finally, as she begins to fear him, her apprehension is powerful and visceral. It’s bravura acting from start to finish, and one wonders where performances like this were in other films.
Both Ginger Rogers (!) and Betty Bacall were considered for Laurel, but Bacall was under contract, and Ray held out for Grahame, who not incidentally was his wife.
Fascinatingly, in real life, she and Nicholas Ray were in the midst of a divorce during the shooting of this movie! They kept this under wraps, which I guess was more great acting. It gets weirder; Grahame got remarried to Ray’s son from a previous marriage.
To quote the Dan- “Hollywood, I know your middle name”.
Frank Lovejoy and Jeff Donnell as Brub and Sylvia are very believable, but not standouts. As for the rest of the supporting cast, there is really only one role that is interesting- Martha, Laurel’s masseuse and confidant, played by Ruth Gillette. She plays it like a bastard offspring of two Hitchcock characters, Judith Anderson’s chilling turn as Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” and Thelma Ritter’s wisecracking Stella the physical therapist in “Rear Window”. Martha keeps calling Laurel “Angel”, and comes across with heavy lesbian overtones, which must have been a risky take in those days. She knows Dix is trouble for Laurel, but because of her persona it feels like she’s always saying, “you’d be much better off with me, Angel.”
Art Smith as Dix’s agent Mel is standard issue Jewish nebbish. The role could have been played for more comic relief, but thankfully was not. There is also a piano bar scene featuring Hadda Brooks singing the Ray Noble classic, “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You”. Fun trivia: Her contralto led her to a job as the first black woman to host a TV show.
ON SECOND LOOK
This is probably the first re-watched movie that went higher in my estimation than it was originally. For the performances, the difficult subject matter, the intense direction and crushing ending, it should be considered one of the masterpieces of American Cinema, and for certain a top 3 Bogart role, along with “African Queen” and “Casablanca”. You’ve probably never seen it. Change that as soon as possible.
1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★★