Monday, April 19, 2010

#6: In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Released: May 17, 1950

Director: Nicholas Ray; Screenplay: Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes; Cinematography: Burnett Guffey; Music: George Antheil; Producer: Robert Lord; Studio: Columbia Pictures

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Capt. Lochner), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicolai), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman), Morris Ankrum (Lloyd Barnes), William Ching (Ted Barton), Steven Geray (Paul, the Headwaiter), Hadda Brooks (Singer)

- “I was born when she kissed me… I died when she left me… I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

The further I dig into the work of Nicholas Ray, the deeper my appreciation of his craftsmanship grows. His visual style is well-documented, and one need only watch something like his aerial shots in They Live By Night to immediately grasp the fact that he had an eye for space and camera movement on par with anyone else in Hollywood. Such technical skills certainly impress me, but what comes through most in his work is the passion. Everything the man directed seems to ooze intensity, whether it is a passionate relationship, a boiling anger, or an unbridled obsession. Nearly all of his films feature characters that openly display this type of raw emotion, which Ray would expertly balance with moments of compassion. This resulted in characters that felt not like players in a film, but fully-developed, lifelike people – sometimes likable, sometimes reprehensible; sometimes gentle, sometimes violent; sometimes caring, sometimes heartless. Like you or me, like real people. For all of the talk of certain types of films or filmmakers creating “ambiguous characters,” Ray’s films remind me that _all_ people are morally ambiguous at some point; some just have a penchant for leaning more toward the dark than the light, or vice-versa.

This comes through loud and clear in what I consider the finest film Ray ever made, 1950’s In a Lonely Place. Big-screen idol Humphrey Bogart gives the darkest performance of his career as Dixon “Dix” Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t seen success in years. He previously enjoyed success, but then reached the point that he could not churn out mundane scripts at the rate that studio executives demanded – he contends that he has to find a story that he truly believes in. So rather than filling his time with work, Dix’s life begins a continual cycle of alcohol and violent eruptions of his legendary temper. One night at popular Hollywood hangout Paul’s, Dix’s agent (Art Smith) tells him he has a novel that a studio is asking to be adapted for the screen. They want Dix to write the screenplay, but Dix shows very little interest in doing any work. Since he refused to read the actual novel, he decides to bring hatcheck girl Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), who recently read it, to tell him the story. After a couple minutes, Dix quickly comes to the conclusion that it is another disposable story and sends Martha on her way. When he awakes the next morning and is greeted at his front door by longtime friend Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), a police officer, he is told that Martha was murdered shortly after leaving his house.


Dix naturally becomes the lead suspect in the case, but an unlikely witness provides him with enough of an alibi to convince the police to release him pending further investigation. Struggling actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) recently moved into Dix’s apartment complex and testifies that she was up late that night and saw Martha leave the apartment alone. After his release, Dix grows closer to Laurel and a torrid affair begins. The love interest spurs Dix’s creative muse, as he sets off on his most productive writing sessions in years. This results in his producing a brilliant script and plans for marriage with Laurel. But the murder investigation hounds them at every turn, and the more that Laurel learns about Dix’s past – including multiple arrests for assault and other violence – the more she questions the relationship. Is it possible that he really did murder Martha? Even though she doesn’t think so, the question threatens to plague any future plans they make.

The movie runs barely over an hour and a half, which I point out because the economy of it all is astounding. Over the 94-minute running time, Ray guides the viewer through a maze of emotions and interpretations. When the mysterious murder is announced, it is actually pretty obvious to the audience that Dix is not the culprit. We saw Dix give Martha the cab money, send her on her way, and then retire to a hibernation-like sleep. So unless you think Nick Ray is going to pull off one majorly unbelievable swerve, then it is obvious that Dixon did not commit the murder. Or is it? Writers Edmund North and Andrew Solt expertly pace the revelation of details concerning Dix’s violent past, while Ray perfectly times the inclusion of brutal outbursts to ensure that the suspicion festers. The greatest example of this, and arguably the best scene in the entire film, takes place when Dix visits Detective Brub Nicolai and his wife for dinner. While discussing the case, Dix argues that as a longtime writer of murder mysteries, he could solve the crime easier than could the police. Dix sets up a recreation of the fateful car ride, instructing Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) to act it out. As Dix describes the horrible actions, he becomes completely caught up in the storytelling, in the process getting Brub overwhelmed as well. As Dix gets more amped up in describing the strangulation, Brub loses his own self-control and begins squeezing his wife’s neck to the point that she screams for help. The sadism that can be seen in Dix’s eyes as he narrates the murder makes the question seem even more up in the air.


Still, like Laurel in the film, the viewer is likely to remain at least somewhat confident that Dix did not commit the murder. The greatness of the film derives from the fact that solving the mystery becomes unimportant. The question eventually becomes not did he do it, but does it even matter? Even more terrifying for Laurel is the realization that he is certainly capable of doing something that wicked. That awareness, even without confirmation one way or the other on the actual murder, is enough to keep her from committing. Grahame’s performance as the alluring Laurel is, in my opinion, the finest of her career. The conditions under which she worked on this film are also legendary, as her marriage to director Nick Ray was already starting to fall apart when filming began. It is amazing to consider how their deteriorating relationship mirrored the doomed affair of Dix and Laurel. As Dix began to enter the greatest creative outburst of his career, his relationship with Laurel crumbles under the pressure. So too did the marriage of Ray and Grahame, who separated during filming and would divorce two years later.


Also fascinating is how In a Lonely Place provides commentary on the effect that the Hollywood culture can have on those around it. This is a different interpretation from what is done in another 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. In that film, Wilder examines how Hollywood treats past stars, the people that are no longer profitable to those in power. In a Lonely Place looks at what can happen to entertainment personalities who are right in the middle of it all, trying to make a living and get by in that same world. It seems to show that even those who are finding work, who are still productive, can find it just as isolating as those that have been cast aside.

Little more needs to be said about Bogart’s performance – others have said it more articulately than I can. I still maintain that while Rick Blaine is certainly his most iconic role, his performance as Dix Steele is his best. Only Bogart’s turn as Fred C. Dobbs even approaches the same level of darkness seen in Dix. Watching him fight inner demons for the entire film is both unnerving and spellbinding. This is not necessarily a pleasant film to watch, but the craftsmanship on display from the Ray, the principle actors, and the great Burnett Guffey make it so powerful that you can’t help but return to it.

15 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly about Ray's biggest asset being his passion. I don't know what it says about me that artistic self-immolation has an inexorable pull, but I I know I'm not the only one. He seems to put everything in his movies, and it's a wonder he ever made more than one given the obliterating Romanticism on open display in his work.

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  2. I recently saw this one and loved it - great review, Dave. I think I probably agree about it being Bogart's darkest performance, and definitely one of his finest. That dinner scene is absolutely chilling, as is the road rage incident. Gloria Grahame is brilliant too. I need to see more of Ray's work.

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  3. Another superb masterpiece of film noir. Bogart and Grahame are outstanding. Indeed this is Bogart's darkest role, and one of his best, as a self destructive and unstable personality. Ray keeps you on edge throughout the entire film. You constantly think Dix is going to go over the edge but he never quite does. Ray makes you hope that somehow these two damaged souls can get together and be happy. Some nice parallels you point out between Dix and Laurel and Grahame's real life with Ray.

    ...and hail to Burnett Guffey, is one of the great cinematographers!!!

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  4. Dave, another wonderful pick and great post. This line rings especially true to me:

    "The movie runs barely over an hour and a half, which I point out because the economy of it all is astounding..."

    IN A LONELY PLACE blew me away the first time I saw it and is one of the most emotionally involving of any noir I've ever seen.

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  5. I must rewatch it. Saw it a few years ago, during my Bogart crush in 2005 and 2006. Didn't like it much then (yeah, 'cos I prefer Bogart as a "good guy").

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  6. Unquestionably a masterpiece of the cinema, one of Ray's two greatest films (with ON DANGEROUS GROUND) and like Jeffrey Goodman says "one of the most emotionally moving of all noirs." On the technical front, John Greco is dead-on with his effusive praise for Burnett Guffey's superlative cinematography. No nir fan could argue this placement either. I was fortunate enough to see this film several months ago at the Film Forum's Nicholas Ray Film Festival, and again I was enraptured, taking in the most engrossing viewing yet I've ever experienced with this film. Bogart's Dixon Steele is one of his most complex characters, and Louise brooks once opined that his performance here was "the closest he's ever come to the real Bogart."

    Your examination here of theme, character and technical artistry is exceptional.

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  7. Another great essay. You are right when you say that Nick Ray was a master of passion -- emotion -- creating characters who are desperate to connect, but unable to overcome their own emotional demons.

    What I find extraordinary about "In A Lonely Place" -- besides Bogart's courageous choice to expose the 'dark side' of the 'tortured romantic loner' persona that made him a star -- is how the movie defies any kind of genre stereotype. It rightly belongs in this 'noir' countdown, but it's not a 'noir' in the way that, say, "Pitfall" is. It's a drama...it's a tragic love story...it's a detective story...it's an incisive character study. Nick Ray clearly doesn't care about fitting the film into a stereotypical marketing 'box.' Brilliant movie from a one-of-a-kind filmmaker.

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  8. This may be my favorite noir ever. It is definitely in the top 3. Bogart gives perhaps the best performance of his career. The ambiguity of Dix Steele and his possible guilt really drives this film forward. The acting is wonderful throughout and by everyone. The cinematography by Guffey is truly wonderful. Nicholas Ray made 4 or 5 great movies and this is his masterpiece. Dave you mentioned how its only slightly longer than 90 minutes and "the economy of it all is astounding" that I never realized how short this picture really is. It always felt longer but in a good way. My Favorite Bogart roles........

    1. Dix Steele
    2. Fred C. Dobbs
    3. Philip Marlowe
    4. Sam Spade
    5. Rick Blaine

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  9. ..........M.Roca

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  10. I'm completely with you on this, Dave. Rick Blaine was Bogart's most iconic role, but Dix Steele was his greatest performance. And what a terrific movie In A Lonely Place remains even today - a masterpiece from Nicholas Ray, no doubts whatsoever on that. A dark, disturbing & utterly nihilistic character study that delves deep into the darkest recesses of the human mind. As you can very well understand, this happens to be one of my favourite movies too.

    The movie, for me, forms the perfect cinematic parallel for Camus' The Outsider (i remember mentioning that in some thread, but don't remember where). The inherent themes for both happen to be how judgemental society can be, not on the basis of what a person actually does, but how he behaves. In Camus' masterpiece Meursault got punished not because for the crime he committed, but because he didn't cry at his mother's funeral. Similarly here, Dix is assumed to be a criminal not any proof of his criminal activity, but because he happened to be a volatile character who might have what it takes to commit a crime, and perhaps also because he was unmoved by the girl's death - a reaction at odds with how the society would have him behave.

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  11. I'm with everyone here. This is one of my favorite movies, and features my favorite Bogie performance. I haven't read it, but apparently the original novel is closer to the more typical noirish potboiler everyone has pointed out In A Lonely Place is not.

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  12. Jake - You're right, it's amazing that Ray had the energy to be as prolific as he was... he's the kind of guy you could imagine shooting everything he had in just a couple of efforts and then having little or nothing left.

    Judy - Yes, Ray's work is one that I've gone through more extensively in recent times as well. It's easy to see why the leaders of the French New Wave considered him such a giant.

    John - Agreed on Guffey, has been all over the countdown of late! The parallels to the real-life relationship of Grahame and Ray was very intriguing for me to read about as I was writing this. I knew a little about it, but not much on specifics.

    Jeffrey - You're dead right, just a great film.

    Quirky Character - Even if you don't "like" Bogart in the film, I think it's impossible not to appreciate what a great performance he turns in.

    Sam - This would be a great one to see on the big screen. I had read that quote from Louise Brooks before too and find it very intriguing. Bogart the man is someone I need to learn a bit more about, I need to search out a good bio.

    R. Lee - Wonderful thoughts here, and you're right. This movie could fit into a number of different categories, which Ray seems completely unconcerned with. I agree with you on Ray. The more that I get into cinema in general, the greater my appreciation for his work grows.

    M.Roca - This one made a strong bid for the Top 5, but the others ahead of it are classics as well. But I hear you and would not argue with anyone who ranks this one even higher than me. I love how you didn't realize what a short running time the movie had. It's so involving, it feels like it takes weeks to get through.

    Shubhajit - More outstanding insight from you. I haven't read Camus, so I can't comment on the parallels, but your analysis is very insightful.

    Doniphon - I haven't read the novel either, but what you say here makes me appreciate what Ray and the screenwriting team did even more. This movie is just spectacular and has no need to be moved into the typical pulp or potboiler realm.

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  13. Of course I appreciate Bogart's performance -- here and in everything he did. The one and only film of his I totally HATE is Huston's "Beat the Devil" (1953).

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  14. The reviews of this movie were generally positive , but many questioned the marketability given the bleak ending.I cannot say my opinion because I have not watched the movie!

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