Monday, January 14, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #209 - In A Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray)

In 1950, Humphrey Bogart was one of the top-grossing film stars in the country and had just established his own Santana Productions film company to create interesting work outside the rigid Hollywood studio system (though still relying on studios for distribution) after being known the industry as a somewhat willful star to work with. At the same time, director Nicholas Ray had made three moderately successful films (one of them via Santana Productions) and his star was rising; his biggest success, Rebel Without A Cause, still lay years ahead of him. Ray was in a tempestuous marriage with actress Gloria Grahame, also an up-and-comer with several supporting roles to her credit, but her only starring role to date had come a couple years earlier in the film noir Crossfire. These three strong artistic personalities found themselves together to create the best film Santana Productions made - and also one of the best works any of the three produced in their careers - the noir-ish drama In A Lonely Place, adapted from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name.
            Bogart stars in one of his all-time best performances as Dixon Steele, a screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since “before the War,” whose violent temper we see erupt three separate times in only the first six minutes of the film, and whose penchant for drinking doesn’t help matters. Gloria Grahame plays Laurel Gray, a neighbor in the same apartment complex who’s seen Steele (usually called “Dix” in the film) around and when he’s accused of murdering a young woman who left his apartment after going there to help him work on a script - a story the police hardly believe - she provides his alibi, though official suspicion is still aimed squarely at him. As Laurel and Dix get to know each other, romance blossoms and his writer’s block begins to lift, but as Laurel learns more about his explosive temperament, she (and the audience) begins to wonder if she did the right thing in helping him - and if perhaps her own life might be in danger. Nicholas Ray, who advocated for his wife to play the role after both Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers proved unavailable, has an unerring eye and ear for the tone of the film, which starts out like a whodunit and then quickly loses interest in the murder mystery as the principles fall for each other and the film instead drifts into the turbulent waters of their relationship (though the murder always lurks in the background). There’s never been a more threatening ‘love scene’ than when Dix is making breakfast for the increasingly suspicious Laurel, with the dialogue standard romantic fare but the body language and the absolutely perfect tone of Grahame’s delivery reading as pure terror.
In fact, it’s hardly a noir at all, even though it’s tagged as such on most film sites, and even though a murder sets things in motion. Nowhere are the shadowy, high-contrast cityscapes of noir, the standard femme fatale (instead we may have noir’s first homme fatale), the greed and cynicism driving most of the great noirs - instead we have an examination of a delicate, fragile relationship, one that’s constantly under threat of being blown apart by Dix’s behavior. This examination of the relationship of outsiders, and especially of masculine stereotypes, is common to Ray’s films - think of James Dean in Rebel, fighting against the school gang leader for honor and disappointed in his father’s inability to stand up to his mother, think of James Mason in Bigger Than Life, undermining the role of paternal protector to his family as his addiction spirals out of control, think of Johnny Guitar and its inversion of gender roles wherein women play the respective heads of a town in roles usually doled out to male actors and Sterling Hayden’s titular character is just an ex-flame and hired gun to Joan Crawford. And right in this line we have In A Lonely Place and Dix Steele, supposedly a successful artist in Hollywood, but also a heavy drinker, and a brawler when provoked - and he gets provoked at the drop of a hat. His masculine ego simply can’t take it when he feels attacked, rightly or wrongly, and as the film progresses and he gets closer to Laurel Gray, he gets more paranoid and jealous, rather than more intimate and trusting. It’s an unsettling examination of toxic masculinity decades before that phrase was even coined.
As it was in the script, so it was in life. Actress and writer Louise Brooks wrote in Sight & Sound magazine about Bogart’s performance that “In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the character's pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.” And the relationship of Dix and Laurel gets closer and closer in the first half of the film, then slowly falls apart for the second half, mirroring that of Ray (who was also a heavy drinker) and Grahame, who separated during the filming and who divorced two years later. Ray, after filming the original script’s ending, decided it didn’t ring true and created an improvised new ending with Grahame, Bogart, and co-star Art Smith. The ending, which I won’t spoil for you, replaced the noir-styled downer finale of the novel with a more devastating and unexpected one that gives the film its lasting sting and resonance.
            Time hasn’t been as kind to Ray’s work as when he was revered by French critics of the 50s and 60s, but In A Lonely Place has endured, his only film to place on the most recent once-a-decade international critics’ poll in Sight and Sound magazine. He’s got a lot of great work but this film, with its personal resonance for the three key artists involved in its making, cuts the deepest of any of his films.
-          Patrick Brown

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