Sunday, August 4, 2019
Noir Watch: In a Lonely Place (1950)
Format: Criterion BluRay
Viewing: Second or third
Nicholas Ray has an earned reputation as a director, if, for no other pop cultural reason than Rebel Without a Cause and - for noiristas - They Live By Night. I hadn't realized, til watching the extras on this Crtierion disk, how much Ray's work helped spawn the thinking in Europe that led to auteur theory of film. It's not a theory I necessarily subscribe to anymore, but like anything - some directors are better in general, are more attuned to their work and/ or manage to find work that better suits their sensibilities than other directors. I do get excited when the names like Fritz Lang, Edward Dmytryk, Robert Wise and Jules Dassin (and many, many others) cross the screen.*
And, in some productions, those reputations as the driving force behind the movie makes sense. There's no doubt whose movie you're watching when you're watching a Tarantino movie or a lot of Spike Lee's features, especially when they wrote the thing to begin with.
I don't know that I have that same feel for a Nicholas Ray movie, having has seen a handful of his films (to me, Johnny Guitar does not feel anything like Rebel Without a Cause, and there's not necessarily a direct line between all of these films and On Dangerous Ground). But I do tend to think of In a Lonely Place (1950) as "a Nicholas Ray movie". And that may be for what happens on screen as well as the Hollywood-lore of the behind the scenes realities.
The film stars Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart as two people who seem to find a stunning connection when they meet. Bogart plays a screenwriter, Dixon Steele, and Grahame a woman who fled being trapped into marriage by a wealthy developer. While most of their initial relationship is peaches and cream, there's a lot of room given to "eccentricities" and increasing allowances for mood swings, flashes of anger and an uncovered history of violence that bubbles up from Bogart's character that begin to undermine the relationship - In no small part because the first 30 minutes of the film is Bogart meeting a young woman who can help him with his next script, and Steele and Laurel Gray (Grahame's character) meet when she's questioned at police HQ. Steele is suspected of having had killed the young woman.
The pressure of the police investigation is held at bay for a time, but can't be ignored. Meanwhile the romance and its positive effects on Steele are shared with Gray, who takes pride in what she can contribute. Still... It's hard not to see the patterns of abusive behavior or abusers that have become common information in this era creeping in around the edges.
At the time of filming, Grahame and Ray were separating - and their relationship was so on and off again, I have no idea what phase they were in when this split occurred. But the film doesn't shy from the horror of what it is to realize you've hitched your cart to a time bomb.
Based upon a novel, the script changed major elements and Ray, who disliked the scripted ending (he'd taken a hatchet to much of the script already), had Bogart and Grahame improvise a far different ending. Rather than an airtight Hollywood script, we get something far more believable, buyable and relatable as the ending sees Steele have at least a moment of clarity, realizing what he is and why he can't be with Grahame (or, probably, anyone). And she's given another escape, but not one that feels like a triumph. It's just two broken, f'd up people.
Whether Ray was reflecting his own then-disintegrating marriage with Grahame (all evidence says, yes, he was) or using the information to say something different from a by-the-numbers Hollywood thriller (apparently the original script had Steele not kill Mildred, but he did kill Grahame's character off screen in the film's finale), allowing Grahame's character to survive unscathed and leaving Steele with the knowledge of what he is, the film transforms into something else, ultimately far more universal.
It's hard to think of many films - noirs, thrillers, etc... that leave our lead with the knowledge that what they did, and, in fact, who they are, led to this moment and they don't get the escape of death or even arrest and society punishing them. Instead, they'll be left alone with the knowledge (and what Steele will do next is a wide-open question, but you know Grahame isn't in the picture).
I'd seen the movie before, but Jamie had not, and she confirmed some of what I recalled from my first viewing. Before you realize where this movie is going, which shifts drastically between acts (and I feel it's three discreet acts), it's not hard to follow, but the pieces are scattered. There's a murder mystery, a romance, a sort of oddball cadre of Hollywood losers lurking around the edges... and information trickling in about a character (wisely cast as a top-of-his-game Bogart) that's confusing and doesn't add up. Add in whatever the relationship may or may not be between Grahame and her masseuse, and it doesn't feel like an A,B,C plot. Except that it really is as the pieces come together.
There can be a tendency to dismiss Grahame, I think. And the more you know about her personal life, the fascination can tend to the morbid or prurient.* But it's performances in films like this and Crossfire that remind you what Grahame could do with the right material and director, and how she wound up with an Oscar for the Bad and the Beautiful.
If this is noir (and, arguably, it is very, very noir), it's some of the most thoughtful, but also some of the most introspective. I may have a more visceral reaction to The Third Man, The Asphalt Jungle, or even Grahame's own The Big Heat when it comes to noir, but everything in this movie holds together pushing melodrama into drama and earning the film its reputation (which seems to have grown over the years). In some ways, the movie feels ahead of its time, like it should be part of the late 1960's transformation of cinema, but here it is, a few years after WWII, draped in the glamour-look of the era and the sets, scenes and trappings, but instead becomes an intimate and honest look at two characters that have flaws and edges that would have been handled quite differently in the hands of another director.
*I'll leave it to you kids to look it up