Wednesday, February 17, 2021

In a Lonely Place

Nicholas Ray (left) on the set with Bogart

Ray on the set with Bogart and Grahame

Nicholas Ray and Gloria Grahame



































IN A LONELY PLACE         A                                                                                                      USA  (94 mi)  1950  d:  Nicholas Ray

I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.     — Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart)

As the era of McCarthyism gained momentum in 1950, Hollywood had an opportunity to reexamine itself by churning out lurid, anti-Hollywood melodramas that cast a cynical light on the movie industry as an unsavory business, where in the same year that Nicholas Ray’s film reflected a world-weary uneasiness with a self-loathing Tinseltown, two other releases followed suit, Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), revealing the downside of fame and illusion, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), which dissects the cutthroat nature of the business, all exposing a cruel underbelly of show business.  Not sure these films can be separated from the Cold War Hollywood blacklist dividing the industry against its own artists, as instead they are reflective of the times, revealing the impermanence of fame and acclaim as well as the disintegration of the all-powerful studio system.  In this backdrop, Ray produced what might be his most personal film, with the wrenching agony of his personal life intruding into the depths of the remarkably sculpted Humphrey Bogart lead character, a violent and wounded soul always on the precipice of disaster, yet clinging to his craft as a screenwriter as the lifesaver of a sinking career, the only shred of pride and dignity left in an industry that creates has-beens as quickly as it worships new faces.  Bogart unleashes what may arguably be his best career performance, struggling with the demons of his past in much the same way as the director is examining the disintegration of his own marriage, casting his soon-to-be separated wife Gloria Grahame opposite Bogart, creating an ungodly amount of tension on the set, yet the frayed nerves seem to electrify the two lead performances that dominate this film.  Adapted from a Dorothy B. Hughes noirish crime novel by the same name, with the title aptly describing the protagonist’s deep and crippling alienation from the movie industry and its inner workings, offering a less than flattering view, very much ahead of its time, becoming an existential exposé on the art of screenwriting, as Bogart plays Dixon “Dix” Steele, a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter with a hair-trigger temper who has not had a hit “since before the war.”  Hiding behind the veneer that he’s writing a novel, Dix routinely castigates his fellow colleagues in the business for selling out, producing hackwork in the “popcorn business,” getting all worked up into a lather when a young, well-connected hotshot producer takes pot shots at one of his friends, a down-on-his-luck, out of work actor, Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman, an old pro, a dapper, poetry-reciting antique with a flair for the dramatic who is drowning himself in brandy at the bar.  Dix is so incensed at what he views as callous ingratitude that he punches out the privileged young producer, who is quickly carried out, leading to a confrontation on the road where he nearly comes to blows with another motorist, so right from the outset viewers see Dix as a hard-driving man with an explosive temper.  But he’s also a charming guy, sophisticated and well-versed with words, socially engaging, handling himself with ease in difficult situations, never buckling under pressure, a man’s man who has a gift of sizing up any situation, rarely surprised by unforeseen events.  Eliminating the inner voice of the novel, where a narrator offers an omniscient vantage point, voicing the protagonist’s inner thoughts and feelings, much like SUNSET BOULEVARD, but instead Ray offers a conventional storyline that actually subverts the book’s original intent with film noir elements, expanding the influence of the film industry itself and the injurious effects it has on Dix, where an unseen factor felt throughout is the pressure to remain relevant in this business, where success is often fleeting.  By eliminating access to Dix’s inner realm, Ray creates an aura of ambiguity surrounding his character, whose true motivations viewers can never be sure of.  His emotional detachment is also reflected in the world around him, where the opening shots driving down the street at night in the city of Los Angeles that draw us into his subjective point of view are reminiscent of the God’s Lonely Man portrait in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), especially the garishly lit street views passing by that offer such a “lonely” vantage point. 

The entire picture is steeped in Hollywood atmosphere, from autograph seekers to restaurants that cater to industry insiders, where Hollywood as an imaginary fulfillment is synonymous with the American Dream, with its promise of wealth, success, and fame.  When Dix is awarded the assignment of adapting a book to a Hollywood screenplay, viewed by his agent Mel Lippmann (Art Smith, blacklisted after director Elia Kazan named him) that it might be his “last chance,” he’s loath to actually read the book, believing it’s dreadfully superficial, preferring instead to invite a young hatcheck girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who’s actually read the book to describe it to him instead, as she’s obviously enthused by the contents, describing it as an epic.  Asking her to break her date with a boyfriend, he drives her home to his snazzy Beverly Hills apartment (actually using Ray’s first Hollywood apartment), running into a new neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) purely by chance, getting more sidetracked by viewing her on a balcony across the courtyard instead of listening to the story, but he pays the young girl for her services, giving her cab fare home, claiming he’s tired, suggesting there’s a cab stand just around the corner.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens until he’s awoken at the crack of dawn by a police detective, an old friend and army buddy Brub (Frank Lovejoy) who brings him down to the station for questioning, as Mildred Atkinson never made it home last night, the victim of a brutal murder, dumped from a moving car after being strangulated to death.  According to Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid), Dix is at the top of the suspect’s list until a young starlet named Laurel Gray is hauled in as well, offering an airtight alibi, as she saw the young girl leave the apartment on her own accord from her balcony, claiming she was eying Dix at the time, concluding “he looked interesting, and I like his face.”  Bogart’s screen charisma comes from identifying with male loners who are up against the wall yet insist on going their own way, ignoring all safe havens, yet here he’s more than a little troubled, edgy, overly defensive, with a streak of violence hiding his mannered politeness, where it’s clear he’s exceedingly smart, but also full of self-loathing, the spitting image, apparently, of a Hollywood screenwriter.  A torrid affair develops between the jaded Hollywood screenwriter and the beautiful aspiring actress, and, you guessed it, like clockwork, his decade-long writer’s block is placed in the rear view window, as he’s up all night with continuous writing, which she is transcribing, where a budding screenplay is a sexual metaphor for their passionate romance, never out of one’s sight for days on end, becoming the kind of love affair one can only dream of while also developing an inspired script.  Though she’s fallen under Dix’s spell, Laurel has some lingering doubts, exacerbated by the continuing suspicions of Captain Lochner, Dix’s history of Hollywood brawls, and the broken nose of a former girlfriend, leaving a dark suspicion in the back of her mind, wondering when this side of the man will become evident in her own dealings with him, as everyone has warned her about him, none more powerfully and more provocatively than her masseuse Martha (Ruth Gillette), with suggestions of sexual overprotection, as she keeps calling her “Angel,” telling her things like “You can’t be a nurse-maid and a sweetheart, a cook and a secretary.  You have to think of yourself,” then literally scaring the bejezus out of her before being summarily dismissed.  But her fears grow out of control after witnessing Dix take a dramatic turn from a romantic, oceanside dinner with Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), stunned by the knowledge that Laurel was re-interviewed by the police without his knowledge, hightailing out of there in a cloud of dust, driving like a man possessed, running repeated stop signs until finally making an illegal turn directly into another car, causing a fender bender where he was clearly at fault, yet Dix’s reaction is to pulverize the young kid driving for having the audacity to blame him, beating him to a pulp, nearly killing him before Laurel intervenes. 

Bogart, of course, wanted Lauren Bacall for the role, which would have been a completely different picture, but Jack Warner insisted upon Grahame, who had a wide range and an edgy sense of humor, viewed as both tough and vulnerable, highly appealing throughout, right from the initial police questioning, exerting her own fierce independence, matching Bogart frame for frame, considered one of her finest performances.  After her divorce to Ray in 1952, she later married his son Anthony, her former stepson, allegedly caught with him in bed together in 1950, a scandalous revelation that effectively ended her marriage with Nicholas Ray.  Imagine making this film with her after that discovery and you have some idea of just how extraordinarily personal this film actually is.  Dix in this film is a stand-in for Ray, as he and Grahame were on the brink of divorce during the shooting (intentionally kept secret on the set or the actress would undoubtedly have been replaced), with Dix continually showing signs of bitterness, rapid mood changes, and internal resentment, becoming over controlling, where his treatment of Laurel reflects a lack of trust that was very apparent in the director’s own marriage.  The film sends out all the warning signals of domestic violence, rare in its day and age, where Steele’s agent Mel Lippmann was concerned his client may have had something to do with the young girl’s murder, which remains unsolved, though he is thrilled at the upturn of events with Dix writing again, never really seeing him this happy before, thinking a good script is the answer to everyone’s problem.  When Dix makes suggestions of marriage, presuming Laurel is on the same wavelength, he starts charting their future together, which leaves Grahame stunned and paralyzed like a cornered animal, never more isolated and alone, as she’s too afraid to reveal her actual fears, thinking that might set him off, afraid he may actually kill her, so she begrudgingly goes along with whatever he plans, even agreeing to marry him while secretly making her own plans to disappear on the first flight out of town, but she’s constantly smothered by Dix, needing her own space, afraid of being confined in a toxic atmosphere of lingering paranoia and fear.  It’s an abrupt shift in storyline, as the two were obviously very much in love, but this seismic shift is perfectly expressed by a doomed line of dialogue that Dix has been trying to work into the screenplay, the personification of romantic fatalism, “I was born when she kissed me.  I died when she left me.  I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”  Guided by this noirish turn, dreadful uncertainty lies behind every move, tainting any possibility of success, where parallel stories of romance and a developing screenplay are happening simultaneously, beautifully reflected at an intimate piano bar sequence with black jazz singer Hadda Brooks singing a sultry version of “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You,” sigfrid monleon on Twitter: "I hadn't anyone 'till you, I was a ...  YouTube (2:01), reminiscent of an eerily similar scene in Ray’s They Live By Night (1948), both enthralled by the sheer romanticism of the moment which quickly comes to an abrupt end (with Brooks notable for being the first black woman to host a TV show).  Also, significantly, the earlier focus on Bogart’s character subtly shifts to a growing interest in Grahame, a revelation who dominates the final scenes, where fear and jealousy intrude into every aspect of their lives, poisoned by their alarming mistrust, extinguishing all that’s left of their relationship which literally disintegrates before our eyes.  It’s a magnificent tribute to both Bogart and Grahame for pulling this off, shot extemporaneously, with the director having the confidence in them both, basically improvising the finale on the set to achieve those last chilling moments.  It’s a devastating picture that leaves an emotional impact, no longer feeling like a Hollywood motion picture but resembling the aching horrors of real life, capturing the essence of Dix’s inadvertent farewell message ending it all.  This murky portrait of Hollywood steeped in a disturbing atmosphere of paranoia reflects the darkened state of Hollywood just prior to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, with the industry exhibiting bad faith by turning on its own artists.  Dix’s psychological disintegration mirrors the broken voices who were censored and silenced by the Hollywood blacklist, ultimately reflecting Ray’s own view of Hollywood, where the corrosive effects of suspicion destroyed many people’s lives.

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