Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Nicholas Ray Blogathon: In a Lonely Place (1950)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: In a Lonely Place (1950)

by Tony Dayoub

In a Lonely Place is a coincident film within the careers of Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful), and director Nicholas Ray; despite being an adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, it is the most personal film for each of the three. For Bogart, the character of alcoholic screenwriter Dixon Steele revealed the real-life vulnerability and mercurial temper that afflicted the actor. In Graham's case, the film highlighted some of her insecurities vis-a-vis her marriage to Ray. And in regards to Ray, its story of a romance gone off the rails paralleled the slow disintegration of his relationship with Grahame while giving us a glimpse into Hollywood's early days.

This may explain the atypical unspooling of what is often classified as a film noir. It bears one of the genre's hallmarks, an antiheroic protagonist with a self-defeating flaw—Bogart's lonely Dixon Steele, a screenwriter who bears more than a passing resemblance to Robert Ryan's writer character in Ray's previous film Born to be Bad, except for the added defining quality of an uncontrollable temper. Burnett Guffey's expressionistic cinematography delineates the claustrophobic boundaries of the shadowy purgatory Steele now finds himself in as the police circle about him, questioning whether he murdered a hat-check girl last seen leaving his apartment. A blunt-speaking blonde, Grahame's struggling actress Laurel Gray dwells in the same complex as Steele and provides him his alibi. She informs the cops of the murdered girl's early, unaccompanied departure from Steele's abode.

The crucial point at which this typical-sounding noir turns is about forty minutes in. Up until then, the viewer has been seeing the events unfold from the point-of-view of Bogart's Dix Steele. As Steele drives through Beverly Hills while the opening credits roll, the camera sits just behind him in the car (a recurring shot within Ray's work). From inside the car, the viewer is made privy to one near-altercation between Steele and a jealous husband at a stoplight, as well as one flat-out bar fight at his favorite restaurant, Paul's, after Dix defends Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), a drunk, washed up actor friend of his. When an ex-flame talks to Dix about his misogynistic streak, the viewer is close enough to hear:
Frances: Do you look down on all women or just the ones you know?
Dix: I was pretty nice to you.
Frances: No, not to me. But you were pretty nice.
Ray is even canny enough to place us squarely in Dix's head for a few p.o.v. shots in his apartment—the viewer as Steele—as Mildred (Martha Stewart), the girl to be found dead later, synopsizes a story the writer plans to adapt for his next movie looking straight into the camera. We watch Steele's initial plan to seduce the naive, starry-eyed groupie in his flat literally disintegrate as we see her the way he now does: shrill, grating, and unworldly. We've met Grahame's Laurel already as Dix walked into their shared courtyard with young Mildred, and now we see Laurel again, through his window, standing on the balcony overlooking his apartment as he escorts Mildred out. Cut to morning when Dix is woken up by his old friend, Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and taken downtown for questioning. With rare exception, we see what Dix sees. When he sleeps, the film just skips forward. But that leap forward elides past the crucial moment when Steele may have murdered poor Mildred.

Luckily, Steele remembers Laurel on her balcony, and the cops bring her downtown to back up his alibi. This meeting sparks a mutual romantic interest between the two, and after some trepidation on the part of Laurel, a full-blown relationship. It is here that "an interesting thing happens," Danny Peary states in his Guide for the Film Fanatic. "Grahame becomes the main character." Now, we are with Laurel when she is called back to the police station for a follow-up interview. When a masseuse warns her that Steele used to beat up another woman she used to work on (Dix's ex-girlfriend we saw earlier at Paul's), we are in the room with Laurel. At a beach party with Nicolai and his wife (Jeff Donnell), it is through Laurel's bewildered eyes that we see Steele fly into a rage after discovering she spoke to the cops again. It is from Laurel's point of view that we see Steele beat a young motorist nearly to death after he cuts Steele off in traffic and calls him a "blind, knuckleheaded squirrel" (a scene that prefigures one in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) in which Robert Loggia almost kills a motorist for tailgating him through the L.A. canyons). As Laurel becomes more and more confused about whether Steele is capable of having murdered Mildred, director Ray spends less and less time with Dix.

But Ray never abandons him. There are many indications that for the filmmaker this was a personal story, and that he sympathized with the volatile Dix Steele. Ray always follows Dix's bouts of rage with private moments in which the remorseful writer performs an act of contrition, from sending flowers to Mildred's funeral to wiring monetary compensation to the bruised road rage survivor, courtesy of "Joe Squirrel." As Roger Ebert points out in his own review of the film,
Life on the set [of In a Lonely Place] was obviously fraught with emotional hazards. Ray had modeled the movie's apartment complex on an apartment he once occupied at Villa Primavera in West Hollywood. When he moved out on Grahame, I learn from critic J. Hoberman, Ray actually moved onto the set and started sleeping there.
For both of its leads, the film resonated strongly. Ebert points out that the restaurant Paul's is "inspired by Bogart's own hangout, Romanoff's," and he requested the part of Waterman be played by old friend Warwick. Meanwhile, Grahame's alienation with Steele translated to a distancing from husband Ray during the production. As Kim Morgan describes in her lovely video essay (edited by Matt Zoller Seitz),
Love or lust often motivates action in noir, particularly via a femme fatale (as in Double Indemnity or Out of the Past). But it also holds up a mirror to myriad themes, largely existential, that hang over characters with profound malaise. Ray approaches the torments of Camus and Sartre with In a Lonely Place (1950) showing, not only the delicacy of true love, but the delicacy of creativity, violence, trust, and a person's own position in an often ugly, alienating world and the inner nausea it creates.
Perhaps the depth of resentment stirred up by the film's depiction of amour fou gone wrong had some influence on the demise of Ray and Grahame's marriage, which ended on a rather lurid note. (Rumors had Ray discovering her in bed with his 14-year-old son, whom she would later marry when he came of age.) Dix and Laurel are finally undone by a near fatal flare-up of his rage just as he's found innocent of the murder. Ray would revisit this type of man again in characters like Robert Ryan's Jim Wilson from On Dangerous Ground or Sterling Hayden's Johnny Logan from Johnny Guitar. Picking up where he leaves off with Steele, in a way, Joan Crawford's Vienna rekindles her romance with Logan from 5 years before the events depicted in Guitar, when Logan and Vienna broke it off because Logan was "gun-crazy." As for In a Lonely Place's Steele, he walks away from Laurel into an uncertain future, a fate not unlike that of Robert Ryan's Nick Bradley in Born to Be Bad. Except this time, it's all the writer's doing, not his paramour's.

This is a revised version of a review first published on March 19, 2010.

1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

That shift in perspective is fascinating; it hadn't occurred to me in previous viewings of the film. The decision to elide the murder is part of what makes this such an uneasy, unstable film - even if we "switch" to Grahame, we still see so much through Steele's eyes, and experience emotionally what he does, and yet at the same time we're outside, wondering who he is, really. The film in this sense presents a character in the throes of self-loathing disassociation: we get the sense that Steele sees himself, in some sense, as a murderer and to the extent he controls the narrative unspooling, he wants us to see it this way too. (The scene in which he reenacts the killing, eyes gleaming, reinforces this sense.)