Sunday, August 8, 2010

Film #34: In A Lonely Place (1950)

Director: Nicholas Ray

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers):

Brilliant but haunted screen-writer with vicious mean streak finds love amidst murder accusation.

Uncut Summary (The full plot, spoilers included. Fair warning)

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a phenomenally talented film writer, but one with demons. He has the love of loyal friends and the respect of the film industry, but has been out of work for some time. This is due to his penchant for getting into fist fights with anyone who he feels slights him. His career lull is also due to his lack of artistic inspiration.

One night in Hollywood, “Dix” meets several acquaintances in a favorite restaurant. He rubs elbows, and convinces the coat-check girl, Mildred, back to his apartment to give him a quick summary of a novel that he is supposed to adapt for the screen. Upon arriving at his apartment, Dix and Mildred catch a brief glimpse of Dix's neighbor, the beautiful Laurel. Inside Dix's apartment, the somewhat shady meeting of Dix and Mildred becomes quite benign as Mildred merely gives Dix a summary of the novel. Dix sends Mildred on her way and heads to bed.

Laurel and Dixon drive ahead, each shrouded in their own shadows.

The next morning, a cop, also an old army buddy of Dix's, arrives at his apartment and informs him that Mildred has been found murdered by the side of a road. Dix is taken to the police station and grilled by the police captain, but rebuffs any accusations of murder with chilling indifference. Dix is let off the hook when Laurel shows up and tells the police that she had seen Dix at his apartment, alone, after Mildred had left. For the moment, Dix is in the clear, though he remains a suspect, along with Mildred's boyfriend.

After she has provided him an alibi, Laurel and Dix fall deeply in love with one another. They spend nearly every waking moment together, seemingly to both people's benefit. Laurel sees and adores all of Dix's good qualities: his generosity, loyalty, and passion; and Dix has found his muse, which leads to a rekindling of his artistic gifts.

Nevertheless, certain threats remain. Through conversations with present and past friends of Dix, Laurel and the police start to realize just how violent the otherwise brilliant and charming Dix can sometimes be. Laurel comes to see this first-hand when, after a wrong word sends Dix on a rampage, he very nearly kills a local college student. Laurel begins to doubt whether Dix is truly innocent of Mildred's murder, and even wonders whether she could have a life with a man tormented by such dark demons.

Dix begins to sense Laurel's reluctance and grows increasingly paranoid and afraid of losing the one thing that he loves in the world. Despite having a newly-finished movie script that will likely reassert his position as a top-flight screen-writer, his obsession for Laurel's love blinds him. He pushes her into admitting her fear of him, and he comes within a hair's breadth of choking her to death. He pulls back at the last moment, leaving Laurel alive.

Just after this terrifying episode, Dix and Laurel learn that the Mildred was, in actuality, murdered by her ex-boyfriend, leaving Dix cleared of all suspicion. All this is for naught to Dix, though, as he realizes that he has brutally pushed away his final chance at love and redemption in the world.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after one viewing, before any further research):

This movie is incredible. It's been another of the fantastic surprises that have come from this list so far.

The basic “Netflix” summary of the film gives no indication of the many intricacies at play in this story. I thought I was more in for a “movie about movies” akin to something like Robert Altman's The Player. Instead, In A Lonely Place merely uses Hollywood and film-making as a backdrop for a haunting character study.

Dixon Steele (it only took about 10 minutes before I stopped giggling at the “porno name” thing) is a character unlike anyone that I've seen in movies. He may be the most realistic and well-rounded, if tragic, figure I can think of. He is a well-rendered example of a person who toes the elusive line between genius and insanity, and in Dix's case, the insanity is of a violent nature.

Humphrey Bogart pulls off this complex figure amazingly well. At this point in his career, Bogie had carved himself a place as a lovable, world-weary hero in films like Casablanca and even The Maltese Falcon. He had played the odd gangster and bad guy in early film roles, but his turn as Dixon Steele pulls together his ability to be supremely charming and disturbingly nasty in the same figure. He conjured up images of the few people I know of the same attitude: the real-life Jekyll and Hydes of the world who make for no easy answers in terms of loyalty and friendship. I think nearly all of us know the type – lovable in most circumstances, but thoroughly repellent when certain switches are thrown.

Here's the fiercest example of Steele's volatile temper (start at about 1:00 to get the full build-up and impact when he goes off on the college kid):

The story allows Dix's warring halves to be shown exceptionally well. The dark murder at the center of the study serves as the perfect foil for the viewer's shifting opinions of the tortured writer. At certain moments, you totally buy the possibility that Dix may have brutally murdered the innocent Mildred; at others, you almost feel guilty of having suspected the angry but highly principled artist.

In addition to the murder, the character of Laurel offers the other end of the spectrum. She is the oft-distant beauty who elicits Dix's passion and nearly all of the things that make him admirable. Gloria Grahame is great in the role, initially seeming cool but earnest in her attraction for Dix, but growing quickly as impassioned for him as he is for her. As her doubts and suspicions about him grow, she makes the transition from loving to horrified flawlessly.

This movie is yet another in which the supporting cast may be easily overlooked but shouldn't be. Dix's various friends and enemies serve their parts and purposes well, and they add the final brushstrokes needed to complete the portrait. Their own puzzlement at Dix's condition mirrors our own, and they offer some modicum of relief in admitting that Dix is not the complete villain that we at times are led to see him as. Of course, neither is he a man to be envied, despite his artistic gifts.

In A Lonely Place came out of nowhere to offer me a truly engaging tale of the pitch-black side of certain otherwise likable people. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys tense, dark character studies that revolve around romance, slightly twisted though it may be.

Even better, you can watch the whole thing for free, right here.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

In A Lonely Place was not hailed as a masterpiece upon initial release. It was fairly well-respected, but not without its critics, including this one from TIME magazine itself back in 1950. Apparently, some felt that it belabored certain points and took too long in the telling.

But such assessments were few. Over the years, it has grown in stature among noir and all other films. Interestingly, it's less because it's considered a flawless film and more because it seems to have a clear peal of truth to it. Apparently, this wasn't a mystery. Bogart was, by many accounts, not too dissimilar from Dixon Steele himself: often personable, but sometimes frustrated into inexplicable bouts of depression that could lead to drunkenness and anger. No doubt this is why his performance seems so authentic.

Certainly another reason that this movie is not simply heaped in with other, more mundane, dark murder mysteries is the theme and actuality of story adaptation. One of the sources of Steele's frustration is the way that his artistry is regularly stifled by the Hollywood hit machine. Funny then, that this whole element was something completely added by director/co-screen-writer Nicholas Ray to the tale based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes.

This was far from the only change made. In the novel, Dixon Steele is a disturbed stalker and legitimate murderer. The filmmakers somehow saw the potential in a standard murder mystery and altered it into something far more creative and timeless: an existential tale of a man who nearly gains salvation through love and art, only to have the darkness within him blot out the light.

Here's the finale, perhaps one of the saddest and most quietly tragic in popular film history:

That's a wrap. 34 shows down. 71 to go.

Coming Soon: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951):

Stella!!! I've watched this one only once, it was about ten years ago, and I don't remember liking it too much. I'll see if an older, more seasoned me sees it any differently.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.