COOKIES FULL OF ARSENIC: Film Noir of the 50’s, Week One

“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.)

Nicholas Ray, at the start of his career . . .

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” . . .

. . . and at the end

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.

Wolf in wolf’s clothing? Mildred (Martha Stewart) tangles with Dix

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? 

Grahame and Bogie: Is he or isn’t he? Does it matter?

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. 

The Nicolais are caught up in Dix’s sick fantasy

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. 

14 thoughts on “COOKIES FULL OF ARSENIC: Film Noir of the 50’s, Week One

  1. Sounds like you guys are off to a great start. It’s a hard movie but beautifully done. Can’t pretend I go back and watch it often as it is so cruel and often dispiriting but it’s still a great movie … As for that document that Grahame allegedly signed, which was widely reported in the press in 1949, it has more than a whiff of PR ballyhoo about it. Given what emerged subsequently, it really sounds like there were a truly mind bending set of neuroses at work in that relationship of theirs!

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  2. Odd how the universe has a way of offering up coincidences. I too just read the Joss Wheadon article this morning (a fascinating read even for someone who never watched Buffy and is pretty lukewarm on The Avengers). These kinds of stories are, of course, nothing new, but it fascinating that this film touched upon them with such frankness when it did. Like a lot of foundational noir, I cannot claim to have seen it, but will add it to the watchlist in a bid to correct that oversight.

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    • As someone whose career involved providing young people with a foundation in the arts, I am fascinated/repelled by this prevalent idea that artists are “special” enough to excuse abominable behavior. Clearly, there have been thousands of actors merely within in our lifetime, and the vast majority of them are decent folks who happen to do a job that gets them recognized a lot and who manage to deal just fine with whatever results from that.

      Bogart does a great job depicting the dark places his artistry can take him. When he’s imagining a brutal murder, he becomes ghoulishly obsessed with his creative spark. When he finds the inspiration and the rhythm of writing, he ignores his girlfriend. When he can’t find work, he drinks. There are artists for whom their work is everything, and this might be the case with Dix. He might also have suffered trauma while he was a soldier, but this is never mentioned (his detective friend suggests he was a good guy when they knew each other on the battlefield, but his repeated attempts to contact Dix after the war were met with silence).

      I’m puzzled by the silence that seems to have surrounded so many performers’ long term bad behavior. I guess it comes down to money? The most recent case is Chris Noth, who I enjoyed in Law and Order, Sex and the City and The Good Wife. The accusations against him span many years. Sure, it’s possible that all the folks who worked with him didn’t know about it, but I kind of don’t believe that. I know a drama teacher who got caught molesting a student, lost his job, and went to jail for a year. But it turns out he had been molesting students for years and years, and what’s more, an untold number of people knew and did nothing about it. He had created a cult of silence, and some of that had to do with the success of his program. To this day, that baffles me because he damaged many lives.

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      • I hazard to make comparisons since, again, I have not seen In a Lonely Place , but from your description it does sound like the film chooses to leave its opening somewhat open. It reminds me of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt which I had the great honor to perform in at college. Playing a character like Father Flynn was a challenging, even draining process (one of the greatest challenges of my acting career but one of the most rewarding), but beyond the preparation that it took to play the role, I also found myself researching to a greater degree the composition of the play. The play also leaves the fate of Flynn unreserved – did he carry on improper relations with a school student or not – and I discovered that Shanley very much wanted the “second act” of the play to be the audience’s discussion as they tried to come to terms with everything they had seen; the audience participation becoming an integral part of the narrative.

        Our production also addressed the issue of the cult of silence and, without delving into the specifics too much, our director decided to highlight the patriarchal system of the Catholic Church to account for the silence of so many who were represented by Sister Aloysius. Her disenfranchisement is what has precipitated so many unspeakable acts to continue over time. There’s a reason Shanley’s play is subtitled A Parable .

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  3. I am a bit puzzled by that quote from Ebert, as I think that the movie has more than “the look, feel, and trappings” of a film noir. The notion that the two main characters can’t be happy together because of Dix’s deep uncontrollable urges makes him, and the woman who loves him, doomed … ‘born losers.’ Isn’t that outlook the *essence* of noir?

    I agree with you that Grahame looks fantastic in this movie.

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  4. Erm, I know that this is completely off-topic, and a few weeks late at that, but since I am not on Twitter, I wanted to say how excited I was to see The D.A. Calls it Murder in your (partial) TBR pile! I have a soft spot for the Selby books (which I’m still working my way through) which I get from my mother, who introduced them to me. The plotting in them is in my opinion more complex than in the Perry Masons, and with fewer novels there is more time for series-wide characterization – and Madison City is itself a pivotal character. Come to think of it, there was a TV movie of The D.A. Draws a Circle starring Jim Hutton as Selby, so I guess there’s a connection to your Ellery Queen posts!

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  5. An interesting sequence follows, where we’re not exactly sure what Dix’s motives are.

    That sums up the movie. The essential element that drives the plot of Hughes’ story was removed so you’re left with a plot that makes no sense and a lead character whose motivations make no sense. The script is a shambles.

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    • Sorry, d, but I couldn’t disagree more! The script is alternately witty and haunting, and – like Hitchcock – Ray is taking source material and transforming it utterly into a piece that deals with his favorite themes of loneliness and alienation. I think he accomplished that in spades here.

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      • It’s a movie about a neurotic miserable narcissistic self-pitying writer who thinks he’s a genius. He makes a mess of his life, as such people always do. But it has a happy ending for him. Now he can sit down and write a novel about how tough it is to be a neurotic miserable narcissistic self-pitying writer. The critics will eat it up.

        The murder stuff makes no sense. It’s an example of the shambolic nature of the script. In reality the cops would never take him seriously as a suspect. He’s so obviously not the type, He’s just a guy who loses his temper and slaps people around.

        Dix is a pig who is lonely and alienated because he wants to be. It makes him feel like a real writer.

        Like all Nicholas Ray movies it’s a mess.

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        • I’m fairly new to Ray’s work. I’ve never liked Rebel Without a Cause; it has certainly dated badly, but part of my opinion might be my seeming inability to get caught up in the James Dean spell. But I liked They Live by Night – I thought Farley Granger was wonderful. And I really enjoyed Johnny Guitar, one of the weirdest, most homoerotic Westerns I’ve ever seen.

          I think the storyline of In a Lonely Place gives us plenty of evidence that there’s something terribly wrong with Dix that goes beyond mere ego or self-pity. Maybe the war helped it along, but he is a damaged soul, albeit a talented one. I think the film does a good job of making us go back and forth as to whether Dix killed Mildred. His over-the-top reactions to other people’s faux pas, his flat affect when he delivers that “we’re in love” speech over the grapefruit. I find so many wonderful scenes here to enjoy, even though this is a really tough film to watch (or, I’m sure, watch again.) It’s totally fine that you don’t like Ray’s films (I might not like many more of them as I watch them – I’m still not sure about our bonus film, On Dangerous Ground), but we’ll just agree to disagree.

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          • I think the storyline of In a Lonely Place gives us plenty of evidence that there’s something terribly wrong with Dix that goes beyond mere ego or self-pity. Maybe the war helped it along

            That’s another fault with the script. There’s a throwaway line that suggests that it was the Army that turned him violent but the theme was never developed. It needed to be.

            I hated Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar so much. A Woman’s Secret is shockingly bad. So is Party Girl. Born To Be Bad has a definite so-bad-it’s-good vibe. It’s like watching a trainwreck. Ray’s movies were silly high camp melodramas.

            But everyone apart from me thinks he was a genius. I guess that really puts me in a lonely place. It might even put me on dangerous ground. Maybe I was just born to be bad.

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