“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me . . . “
No, my friends, I haven’t forsaken books on this blog about them. It’s just that January has been a month for movies and TV. Maybe it’s the rain. Maybe it’s the fact that I had planned on taking a year to review the Ellery Queen series, but re-watching those episodes has felt like opening a bag of really good potato chips. And now, we return to film class, provided online by Stanford University and taught by my friend, film historian, teacher, and ace film programmer Elliot Lavine. Last time, you may remember, we dug deep into all those great Hitchcock films from his American period, and before that we immersed ourselves in some of the great films noirs of the 1940’s. Well, we’re back to noir, and it’s bleaker than ever – because now we’re in the 1950’s, land of McCarthyism and the Cold War and the Great Whatsis (more about that later.)
I had to miss the first week of our ten-week class because I running auditions for a production I will be directing later this year of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile (more about that later, too). But we pick up this week with a stunner: Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). We watched Ray’s debut in our last noir class. They Live by Night featured Farley Granger at his youthful best in a downbeat crime story that mixed Romeo and Juliet with Bonnie and Clyde. It also presaged Ray’s affinity for teenaged angst that would reach its apotheosis in Rebel Without a Cause.
In a Lonely Place is Ray’s fifth film, and it is every which way a movie about damaged grown-ups. Roger Ebert said about it: “It has the look, feel and trappings of a film noir, and a murder takes place in it, but it is really about the dark places in a man’s soul and a woman who thinks she can heal them.” It pairs up Humphrey Bogart, now fifty and much, much older than the protagonist of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which the film is based, with Gloria Grahame, Ray’s soon-to-be ex-wife, at her most sultry and vulnerable. They and their director are working at the top of their game, and I have to say that viewing this film right here, right now, in the midst of a world that has begun to call a reckoning on men in power who abuse women, this movie was just as hard-hitting as it must have been to audiences in 1950, but for different reasons. Knowing that Humphrey Bogart the man bore too much resemblance to Dixon Steele, the hard-drinking, impulsively kind-then-violent artist he portrayed or that to counter the fact that Ray and Grahame were on the verge of splitting up, she had to sign a contract that stated that
“my husband [Ray] shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday … I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail” . . .
Knowing all this forces us – or, at least, it forced me, to look at the film through a different lens. I’m writing this on the morning before our class, and I can’t wait to see hour my fellow students will have filtered this movie through their own modern sensibilities.
The year 1950 saw three classic films emerge that were set within the darkest corners of show business. All About Eve covered the venomous effect of ambition in the world of Broadway. Sunset Boulevard was a noir tragi-comedy that depicted the battle between Old and New Hollywood. In a Lonely Place is based on a 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes that, in a way, foreshadows a later novel by another female writer: Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 opus Strangers on a Train. Had Columbia Pictures gone with Edmund H. North’s original adaptation of Hughes’ book, the film would might have more closely resembled Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 adaptation of Highsmith’s book, for both deal with an attractive young psychopath who murders compulsively until he is stopped. Director Ray had a different idea, however, and ultimately revised nearly every page of the script, crafting a film that, as Ebert says, can’t be easily compartmentalized in the film noir genre, despite all the noirish trappings it contains.
The story: Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele’s meteoric rise has been rapidly reversing since he returned from fighting in the war. Dix is talented but lacks impulse control and has a long string of violent incidents, including some fistfights with studio heads and slapping around female companions, that has badly tarnished his reputation. Still, things are looking up when Dix’s agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) arranges a meeting with a producer in a nightclub to see if Dix might be able to adapt a popular new novel into a screenplay. A young, eager hat check girl named Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) has been devouring the producer’s only copy of the novel, and as he’s leaving, Dix asks Mildred to come to his home to fill him in on the novel’s plot. She agrees and proceeds to break a date with her boyfriend.
An interesting sequence follows, where we’re not exactly sure what Dix’s motives are. Is he a wolf trying to seduce a cute, naïve girl? His actions of changing into a smoking jacket and slippers would indicate that. Is he something more menacing? The director hints at this with a frequent use of POV shots of Dix sizing up Mildred as she recounts the book’s plot. But no, in the end, it’s all about work, and it becomes immediately clear to Dix that the book is a bomb. He would much rather stare at his beautiful neighbor (Grahame), especially since she seems to be staring back than listen to the sweet, simple Mildred rattling on about the plot. He thanks the girl for her service and sends her on her way with cab fare.
The next morning, he is awakened by the arrival of his old army buddy, now Detective-Sergeant, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) who seems to know all about his arrangement the previous evening with Mildred. Brub escorts Dix down to police headquarters where Dix learns that Mildred was brutally murdered. Dix is saved from arrest by Laurel, who vouches for his presence in his apartment after Mildred left.
The rest of the film chronicles Dix’s love affair with Laurel, which is tainted by the police’s continued suspicion of his guilt, as well as his sometimes violent, often bizarre behavior that eats away at Laurel’s feelings for him. Thus, two questions emerge: is Dix a murderer, and, one way or another, can he and Laurel survive this test of their love?
There are three endings to this film. The Dixon Steele of the novel was an outright psychopath, and the book chronicles Laurel’s growing awareness and her efforts, with the help of Brub’s wife Sylvia, to confirm their suspicions and stop Dix from killing again. The original filmed ending goes like this: the Homicide squad finally wrests a confession out of Mildred’s boyfriend, and Brub hunts Dix down to tell him he’s in the clear, only to discover that Dix has murdered Laurel, who, fed up with his erratic, violent ways, was intending to leave him. This provides an object lesson in irony; it’s the stuff of a good “B” picture.
Fortunately, the ending Ray went with is far more complex and downbeat and astoundingly frank for a 1950 drama. Dix can’t help but be attuned to Laurel’s growing uneasiness with him, which leads to a final terrifying confrontation. But just before Dix can strangle the life out of her, Laurel’s phone rings and Dix learns that he has been cleared. The rage drains out of him, replaced by the understanding that he has destroyed what he had with Laurel. He stumbles out her door and down the stairs to his own apartment. Laurel stands in the doorway, looking down at him, and whispers, “I lived a few weeks while you loved me. Goodbye, Dix.”
If this sounds like turgid melodrama, I assure you it is not. Ray makes us experience the devastation of their break-up by first showing us how good they can be together. At the start, the sexual chemistry bubbles between Dix and Laurel (and between Bogie and Grahame), and the screenplay is brimming with wisecracks. Early on, Dix comes on to Laurel, reminding her that she told the police she liked his face:
Dix: You know, you’re out of your mind. How can anyone like a face like this? Look at it . . .
Laurel: I said I liked it – I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.
Laurel’s presence inspires Dix to write again, and what he writes is damn good. He also seeks out friends, going on double dates with Brub and Sylvia. And yet – there’s something off about Dix in his intensity when he works or speaks or feels. He can be downright creepy, as when he forces the Nicolais to act out Dix’s theory of how Mildred was killed. Slowly, Laurel bears witness to the frightening streak of violence that can burst out of Dix without warning. Sure, it’s inspired by the police hammering their suspicions about Dix’s guilt in her ear; ultimately, though, Dix doesn’t need any help to turn this romance to mud.
In a “typical” crime movie, the disturbing aspects of Dix’s character would all serve the purpose of casting our suspicions against him, while his positive qualities – his wit, his creative talent, his kindness toward the alcoholic old actor whom everyone else disparages – cast doubt on our certainty that he is guilty. The tragedy at the end of this film isn’t Laurel’s death or Dix’s arrest – neither of these things happen – but the realization that Dix’s instability has destroyed their future. When Captain Lochner calls Laurel and tells her Dix has been cleared of Mildred’s murder, she replies: “Yesterday this would’ve meant so much to us. Now it doesn’t matter . . . it doesn’t matter at all.”
In a Lonely Place received largely positive reviews when it opened, and Variety commented on Bogart’s “sympathetic role though cast as one always ready to mix it with his dukes.” True, there are moments where Bogart sides with the underdog and is ready to defend his position with his fists (or maybe a rock). But one cannot watch this film today and not see that this is a bad romance, that Bogart’s Dixon Steele is an abusive man, and that his relationship with Laurel is representative of the same sort of bad behavior that has been exposed in men of power again and again, especially so over the past two years.
Coincidentally, I happened to read a long article today in Vulture about the downfall of producer/director Joss Whedon, whose creation of powerful female heroines and championing of women’s rights has been mitigated by an ever-increasing chorus of voices decrying his affairs with younger actresses and his caustic torment of actors and writers who displeased him. An argument is even made in that article – and made by people who suffered under Whedon’s bullying – that the artistic temperament offers an explanation for such behavior, and that while it shouldn’t necessarily be tolerated, it may be unavoidable if one wants to enjoy the output of a genius.
Yes, this is a terrible argument, a specious excuse, but I bring it up because it appears in In a Lonely Place. Dix’s hapless agent Mel Lippman has endured years of perplexing and often frightening behavior from his client, and he has taken it because when Dix is up, Mel feels he himself is acting as a conduit through which the world derives great art. He is crushed near the end of the film when Laurel, whose presence has reignited Dix’s creative juices, tells Mel that she can’t marry him. She asks, “Why can’t he be like other people?” to which Mel replies:
“Like other people – would you have liked him? You knew he was dynamite – he has to explode sometimes! Years ago, I tried to make him go and see a psychiatrist. I thought he’d kill me! Always violent. Well, it’s as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head. He’s Dix Steele. And if you want him, you’ve gotta take it all, the good with the bad. I’ve taken it for twenty years and I’d do it again.”
One can imagine how differently this speech was taken in 1950 from the way we hear it today, as a blatant excuse for bad behavior. Considering Dix in light of the Joss Whedons and Harvey Weinsteins whose reigns of both creativity and cruelty are being, rightfully toppled, I wonder who in our class will feel sympathy for this Dixon Steele. In the end, he is totally broken, trudging down the stairs away from Laurel, in a lonely place for God knows how long. The film doesn’t explain how he got this way, and it doesn’t show us what will happen to him. Instead, we simply witness the man’s despair and share his uncertainty for what the rest of his troubled life will hold.