February 15, 2010

0 In a Lonely Place (1950)

Country: US
Director: Nicholas Ray

It's taken me more than one viewing to warm completely to In a Lonely Place. In the film Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who finally gets the chance to work on an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Unfortunately, the novel is clearly trash, and the assignment clearly hack work. Still, it just might jumpstart his failed career. After Dix is wrongfully implicated in the murder of a hatcheck girl from the Hollywood bar he frequents, he begins a romance with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), a neighbor in the Hollywood bungalow court where he lives, who gives him an alibi but isn't really sure he's innocent. (Grahame, who was married to Nicholas Ray at the time, is quite good in one of her rare lead roles—watch the way emotions subtly register on her face in close-ups.) To complicate matters further, during the war Dix was the commanding officer of the detective investigating the murder (Frank Lovejoy), a man whose contented family life and straightforward view of the world are the opposite of Dix's isolation and tangle of confused attitudes.

I think what initially distanced me from the film is something I now see as one of its prime virtues—that while it contains elements of familiar genres of the time, in the end it doesn't really conform to any one of them. It resembles those pictures like A Star Is Born and Sunset Blvd. that show the unflattering side of Hollywood. Like those films, it depicts life in the motion picture industry as a precarious one where it is too often necessary to sell out to achieve career success, where success can turn to failure with one flop, where those branded as failures are shunned as pariahs. It is a story of postwar alienation, of a man who seems unable to return to civilian life and simply resume where he left off. It is also in part a murder mystery, a police procedural, and one of those films in the Hitchcock/Lang vein that show a falsely accused man trapped in a web of circumstance. It is at the same time the story of an unlikely romance between two people very different from each other. Yet the film never settles completely into any of these predictable genres.

Equally unpredictable and category-defying is Bogart's interpretation of Dix. In the end, though, it is his character that ties all those disparate elements together, for ultimately the movie is a character study of one of the most intricate and compelling men to be found in films of the era, a man whose personal and professional lives have hit bottom and whose greatest obstacle to his way back is himself. Bogart makes the most of the role and delivers one of his most intriguing performances. He seems to bring something of nearly every part he had ever played to Dix. With his sudden rages and explosive aggression, Dix can be as scary as any of Bogart's early gangsters, even though these outbursts are always followed by remorse. Dix is as coldly cynical as Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, as disappointed and bitter—but still susceptible to the allure of love—as his Rick in Casablanca, at times as caustically witty as his Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. This is a man whose self-loathing is projected onto the entire world around him and whose mistrust of other people approaches the paranoia of Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Yet Dix is not merely a synthesis of Bogart's previous roles, but rather a unique creation that advances Bogey's screen persona further into anguish and ambiguity than he had ever taken it before.

By the end of the movie, most of Dix's problems have sorted themselves out. But the one thing that can't be put right is his relationship with Laurel. His need to control her—his suspicion, possessiveness, and demands for total, unquestioning loyalty—eventually prove too much for her. "Dix doesn't act like a normal person. . . . I'm scared. I don't trust him," she finally admits, realizing the relationship is doomed. Cleared of a murder charge and with his script finally completed, Dix may be a free man with a revived career. But that freedom and success will not be shared. Dix is a man driven by self-destructive inner forces beyond his control, a man destined to be marooned by his own inability to trust others.


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