Sunday, August 17, 2008

Film Ignorance #13: In a Lonely Place

Ok, so it's a bit late in the day, but I've got another film ignorance entry for you on the same day that the same film is featured as part of Noir Month over at MovieZeal. Enjoy!

Film: In a Lonely Place
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame
Year: 1950
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Dix Steele (Bogart) is a hard case in a bad way. He's a hard-drinking screenwriter who hasn't had a hit for years. His only friends are a drunk Shakespearean who bums brandy off of him and his loyal agent. He's got a hair-trigger temper, a history of barfights, and is a rumored abuser of women. But he's not a murderer. Or is he?

Steele can't stand to read the trashy novel he's supposed to adapt, so he invites the hat check girl who read the book while holding it for him back to his place to tell him the story. He immediately loses interest in the crappy story, gives the girl cab fare, and sends her home. The next day, she turns up dead in a gorge. Steele's heartbroken:

The police captain: You're told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What's your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No - just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele.
Steele: Well, I grant you, the jokes could've been better, but I don't see why the rest should worry you - that is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of emotion.

Luckily for Steele, his neighbor provides him an alibi: she saw the girl leave. And after meeting each other at the police station, Dix and Laurel start to fall in love. With her, his passion is rekindled, his new script flourishes, and his violence seems restrained. But cracks appear at the edges, and as Laurel gets to know him better, and witnesses him nearly kill a man in a fit of road rage, she begins to question his innocence.

This is a shockingly difficult film to watch. There's no doubt in my mind that it's Bogey's darkest film and his darkest role. We legitimately don't know whether or not Dix is the killer. We can tell that he loves Laurel, and that she loves him, but although his violence and his drinking seem in check, her doubts are our doubts. At first I simply didn't believe the idea of Bogart as a murderer, but by the time we finally learn whether or not he killed the girl, I no longer had any such convictions. Either result seemed equally plausible; Dix was, particularly before meeting Laurel, a broken, violent, and unpredictable man.

Of course, by the time you learn the truth, it has largely ceased to matter. The film shifts from the noirish murder-mystery that it seems to be to an authentic, troubling love story. Dix and Laurel are two very different, equally vulnerable people. Laurel has a history of running out on men; Dix has a history of holding on too tight. Bogart and Grahame are both shockingly believable; it's been argued that Dix, as both a violent tough guy and a vulnerable depressive, is closer to the real Bogart than any of the tough guys he played. And Gloria Grahame was a good actress under any circumstances, but the deterioriation of her marriage to director Ray brings added poignancy to this tale of two broken people who found each other but are breaking apart.

Which brings me to Nicholas Ray. Talk about Film Ignorance: I had never seen a film by this legendary auteur. I always feared that what people regarded in the 40s and 50s as shocking sensitivity and profound alienation would seem dated and contrived today. But if Rebel Without a Cause and Ray's other pictures are like this one, I have nothing to worry about. This is a remarkably true story, with characters that think and act and feel real. It reminded me, of all things, of Woody Allen. This, at long last, explains the appeal of Bogart to Allen; although I see few similarities between Allen's Little Jew persona and Bogart's Casablanca/Big Sleep/Maltese Falcon persona, Allen and Dix spiritual brothers. They're both real people, just trying to find love in a crummy world of alienation and unhappiness. In other words, they're just like the rest of us.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


MovieMan0283 said...

This a fantastic film - I'm glad you like it. Other than Rebel, I hadn't seen any Ray films about a year or two ago and then I saw a bunch (On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, They Live By Night). All are good, but this is the best.

What was it about the early 50s that caused so many great directors to pick apart Hollywood in some of the most entertaining, but also darkest, films of the era? Not just this, but Minnelli in The Bad and the Beautiful, Mankiewicz in The Barefoot Contessa, Cukor with the remake of A Star is Born (which I haven't seen), Donen & Kelly with Singin' in the Rain (ok, that one's not too dark), and of course Wilder with Sunset Boulevard.

Anyway, this is the film that really made me see what the French critics were on about with Nicholas Ray. I'm hard-pressed to think of another Hollywood film of this era that feels so stripped-down and raw. Usually there's pain and individuality poking out of the cracks in auteurist cinema, but Ray managed to let it all hang out. I'm still not sure how.


Graham said...

Yeah, I really loved this one. I'm not sure how much more Ray is on my list, but I'm excited about it. I also want to watch the documentary that Wenders made about him once I've seen a few more of his movies. This truly was an emotionally real movie, on a level that I don't ever expect from Hollywood of the 50s, even at it's rawest.

Actually, the only one of those films that you mention that I've seen are Singin in the Rain and, of course, Sunset Boulevard. More Film Ignorance pleasures to come.

MovieMan0283 said...

Your post started the wheels turning, so I may do a series on the early 50s Hollywood films about films sometime soon, amongst all the other ideas I have in the works and haven't gotten to yet...