Monday, January 02, 2012

best movies ever — in a lonely place

Dixon Steele, "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." — In A Lonely Place, 1950
Humphrey Bogart is well-known for his gangster bad guys (The Petrified Forest, The Roaring Twenties, Dead End) and world-weary good guys (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), his distinctive way of talking (or lisping), his romance and marriage to Lauren Bacall, and his ability to just look incredibly cool. I grew up watching his movies on television with my dad and love him, whether he is good or bad, weak or strong. In the first hour or so of the point-of-view and gimmicky Dark Passage we don't even see Bogie, but his voice and demeanor are unmistakable. I love that one, too. But probably my favorite Bogart performance is Dixon Steele, in Nicholas Ray's In A Lonely Place, with Gloria Grahame. He has never been more sexy or vulnerable or dangerous or heartbreaking than in this role.

Ray, who was married to Grahame, may have infused the set with his own marital troubles, as their relationship splintered and fell apart during the making of the movie. It's the sort of film that is different on each viewing. When I first saw it, I felt so sad for both his character and hers, Laurel Gray, convinced that they were the victims of bad circumstance and should have been able to find a way to be together. On my most recent viewing I was convinced that he may indeed have been guilty of the murder he was suspected of committing, or at the very least was nuts.

There are so many things to love about In A Lonely Place. Besides the doomed romance, Ray has set the action in an apartment complex, with a central courtyard, where both Dix and Laurel live. It's the perfect setting for his California noir — sunny on the outside, but inside hiding dark secrets and yearnings. In California getting from point A to point B requires a car, and Dix and Laurel spend a lot of their time working out their problems in his car, with the treacherous, mountainous, twists and turns of the road echoing their relationship.

The movie begins with Hollywood screenwriter Dixon "Dix" Steele driving. He loses his temper at another driver before arriving at a nightclub to meet his long-suffering agent, Mel (Art Smith), who is urging him to adapt a popular but trashy novel into a screenplay. It's a book that Dix wouldn't deign to read himself, so he asks hat-check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart), who he notices reading the book, if she can tell him the story. Mildred agrees, and goes home with him.
Mildred, "Before I started to go to work at Paul's, I used to think that actors made up their own lines."
Dix, "When they get to be big stars, they usually do."
As they enter his apartment complex, they pass a new tenant, Laurel, in the courtyard. Dix doesn't make a move on Mildred (it's hard to tell if she is relieved or disappointed), and she tells him the plot of the book, which he hates. Very ungallantly he packs her off with cab fare. He could have at least given her a ride, as it's very late (or early).

The next morning, he finds himself summoned to the police station. Mildred was murdered and Dix was the last one seen with her. He has a friend downtown, police detective Brub (Frank Lovejoy), who is convinced he's innocent. Brub's boss, the police captain, is not. While there Dix again sees Laurel, who tells the police that she saw Mildred leave Dix's apartment — alone. The police may not be able to pin the murder on Dix at present, but his general demeanor and violent history make him the prime suspect.
Police Captain, "You're told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What's your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No. Just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele."
Dix, "Well, I grant you, the jokes could've been better, but I don't see why the rest should worry you. That is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of emotion."

Laurel and Dix are brought together under unfortunate circumstances, but they soon start to fall in love. Dix actually gets started on his script, and for a while, everything and everyone seems happy. But they can't escape the murder investigation that is always hovering in the background.
Dix, "I've been looking for someone a long time ... I didn't know her name or where she lived. I'd never seen her before. A girl was killed, and because of that, I found what I was looking for. Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look."
Dix is a powder keg that can go off at any moment. He uses his writer's imagination to describe how the crime may have taken place "in a lonely place" at the side of the road and upsets Brub and his wife, sowing doubts in their minds. He flies off the handle and becomes violent with another driver who crosses his path on the road. Laurel loves him, but begins to fear his next outburst. She also starts to wonder if it is possible that Dix might have killed the girl.

An oblivious Dix asks Laurel to marry him, as she starts to put together a plan of escape. She confides in Mel, who understands her fears, but is also disappointed that she is even considering leaving Dix,
"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 20 years and I'd do it again."
When Dix discovers her plans he does becomes violent, grabbing her and and almost strangling her. As he pulls himself together, the phone rings, informing them that the true killer has been found — Mildred's boyfriend. But the news has come too late for Dix and Laurel.
Louise Brooks wrote in "Humphrey and Bogey" that Dixon Steele came closest to the Bogart she knew, "Before inertia set in, he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey's own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character's, the screenwriter's, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart."
In A Lonely Place may have been Bogie's Hamlet. A fan of Shakespeare, he would have loved to appear in something by the Bard, but felt his audience wouldn't accept him in such a role. He may have been right. Bogart was such a man of his time. It would have had to been an updated production, preferably one in which he could sport a fedora. Nicholas Ray and Bogart added a complexity to the original novel and script, which had Dix a murderer. According to Ray, "In the original ending we had ... Frank Lovejoy coming in and arresting him as he was writing the last lines, having killed Gloria. Huh! And I thought, shit, I can't do it, I just can't do it! Romances don't have to end that way. Marriages don't have to end that way, they don't have to end in violence. Let the audience make up its own mind what's going to happen to Bogie when he goes outside the apartment."

That is the tragedy of In A Lonely Place. Where do these two people go now? Laurel has left her violent lover, but it is clear she still cares deeply for him. But at least she can possibly move on. Dix's life is shattered. He has driven the woman he loved away because he couldn't control his violent impulses. His screenplay is done, but will he ever be able to write another, or be hired to do so? Is he at the precipice? It's a sad movie, but such a human one. Each time I see it I hope for a different ending, but applaud all involved for making it exactly as it is.

This is the first in a series on some of my all-time favorite movies. Feel free to comment or share some of your favorites in the comments.
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