****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid
screenplay by Andrew Solt, adaptation by Edmund H. North, based upon a story by Dorothy B. Hughes
directed by Nicholas Ray
by Walter Chaw In another time and place, they would've called Gloria Grahame "one sick twist," and the brand would've stuck. There are stories, a few of them true. There's the one about her stepson, and the thing where she keeps getting plastic surgery until her face is paralyzed, which was the alleged goal after Grahame became morbidly devoted to Kuleshov's editing theories. There's the weird book an ex-lover wrote about her last days, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, and indeed, her story has been told largely through the men who wanted her, the men who had her, and the men who ruined her. In many ways, she's the quintessential femme fatale of the noir era, not just for the roles she took, but because the roles she took reflected the traps she was in. She's the patron saint of the way we treat women first as objects of desire, then as objects of disgust. Her late moment as the girl who "cain't" say no encapsulates the perversity of Rodgers & Hammerstein, sure, and the sad decline of a woman who confessed at the end of her life that she never quite figured out Hollywood--though it sure looks like Hollywood had her figured. She is one of the great tragic figures of the age, both microcosm and avatar of that wonderland of image-fixers and dream-crushers. For my money, the film that best captures Grahame in her complexity, in all her multifoliate relationships with the world and her millions of voyeurs, is Nicholas Ray's scabrous In A Lonely Place. It's a masculine confession and an apology. It's hollow. Aren't they all.
Humphrey Bogart is screenwriter Dixon Steele. (Even his name is a macho come-on.) He's accused one night of killing a girl who'd visited his apartment, but he uses his across-the-way neighbour, Laurel Grey (Grahame), as an alibi, just because he saw her seeing him through a window--just because there, there now, there's a good girl. For her part, Laurel agrees with the arrangement, having convinced herself he has a nice face. Bogart has a lot of things. A "nice" face isn't one of them. It's clear from the beginning that Laurel is nuts. Dix confirms it: "You're out of your mind. How could anybody like a face like this?" The question is whether she's more nuts than Dix. In the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which the film is based, Dix is a serial killer with a grudge against women. He's a rapist, too--a gleeful one, sadistic and vile. Hughes tells the story from his point-of-view. Ray significantly alters the source. He makes it so that Dix is merely suspected of murder. He makes it so that what was explicit in the novel is shoved into subtext and suggestion. During dinner with old war-buddy Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), Dix hypothesizes how the murder he's accused of played out. He has Brub sit next to his wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), as he gently goads Brub into choking her. Ray lingers on Sylvia before and after. It's her P.O.V. we're invited to take. She tells her husband that Dix is sick. The women know. Brub, earlier, says that it was always difficult to know what Dix was thinking. It's interesting that we don't spend much time reflecting on how Brub was almost talked into killing his wife. They're describing a sociopath as a means of deflection. Violent men are violent. In the final analysis, you know, maybe Ray doesn't change the novel that much after all.
Dix and Laurel strike up a romance. In the scene of their first physical consummation, he looms over her and puts his hand around her neck. The music is tense. The aspect is sexually violent and threatening. This is Grahame in her natural state; Bogie, too. His dialogue throughout casts Grahame as an item, a calculating minx who wants fame from him and so should offer him some measure of obeisance in return. It's the bargain, the proverbial Hollywood protean exchange: sex for protection. Simple. In one of several "romantic" monologues, Dix tells Laurel that he's been looking for her all his life, that he didn't know her name or face but now he does. And he knows where she lives, too. It's creepy. It's meant to be. The brilliance of In a Lonely Place is that it's completely wise about how dangerous the world is for women. They are in constant peril, even from the men who love them. Especially from them. The title doesn't refer to Dix's solipsistic sense of Byronic Romanticism, but to Laurel's status as a pretty girl surrounded by wolves, as pretty girls tend to be.
The conversation continually revolves around Dix's long losing streak--how his scripts are duds and his vaunted "artistic temperament" isn't doing much to pay the bills. Dix is emasculated. When he cuts someone off in traffic, he pulls the poor kid out of his car and nearly smashes his face in with a rock. He's justified, he maintains. This is not an overreaction. It certainly is for the traffic infraction, but it's the natural response of a great ape that's lost its status amongst its troupe. I'm reminded of a scenelet in Jack Arnold's devastating The Incredible Shrinking Man where our hero Scott's wedding ring falls off his incredibly-shrinking finger. There's explanation here, too, for why Dix takes home the poor hat-check girl (Martha Stewart--not that one) whose corpse ends up by the side of the road. In a painful sequence, she offers to tell Dix the story of a popular book he's supposed to read, having been hired to adapt it. He mocks her as she speaks. Rolls his eyes. Makes it clear that he's her intellectual superior. Then shoos her away. He may or may not have killed her, but his sexual desire and then self-loathing and impotence are responsible for her destruction. Dix is unsuccessful, and that lack of success makes him desperate, ugly. Much is made of his status as a veteran, and noir, if anything, covers the psychological landscape of men sent away to deal in death, then returned to deal in frustration and humiliation. It's fascinating that Ray chooses Hollywood as the scene of his great metaphor for wounded masculinity. And it's horrific that he chooses his soon-to-be-ex wife as the example of how Tinseltown makes chattel of independent women, "fatales" of the prettiest girls fresh off the bus, the better to treat them roughly.
The contract Ray drew for Grahame is frightening. It forbids her from talking back, from expressing opinions, from doing anything contrary to Ray's wishes. As furious as she was, her career needed the role. Ray, for his part, huddled with his screenwriter Andrew Solt (Edmund North is also credited) and refined the dialogue down to a single point. He wanted Laurel's voice to be Grahame's own. He wanted Dix's frustrated manhood to be Ray's. Ray would secretly move out of the marital bed during the shooting of the film and hole up in his office. Not long after, he discovered Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son, whom she later married. It's Greek. It's beyond tragic, something closer to bizarre. The next year, a young stage unknown named Marlon Brando would put the last sword in the back of the Old Hollywood bull with his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Though Bogie would beat him at the Oscars for The African Queen, everyone knew this was a last-gasp gesture of the old guard and that the period In a Lonely Place skewers was almost over. There's a feeling of prophecy in the film. It's as profound in its way as Psycho would be a decade later. This is the movie that predicts the '60s in all its tangles and innuendos, its sexual perversions and anti-heroic violence. I don't know that Bogart was ever given enough credit as the vanguard of the '60s antihero. Without him here, or in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, High Sierra, or even Casablanca, could Hud have been a thing? The Apartment? He's the bridge between Old Hollywood and New, and this picture is the violent rip that inaugurates the rift.
Watch Laurel as she begins to understand that the man she's with, the one she thinks she deserves, reveals himself to be out of control. Pathetic. Castrated. When she takes the phone call clearing Dix's name, she says that if only the news had come just a little earlier, it would have meant everything, but she's looked into the abyss now and it (Dix) has looked into her. In a Lonely Place, the title referred to in the dialogue as the point at which a young woman is murdered anonymously, is about women in every place. It's about the isolation of Sylvia the wife, Mildred the hat-check girl and avid reader, and Laurel the witness. She's told as much by her butch masseuse, Martha (Ruth Gillette), who spends a great deal of time with a naked Laurel, growling warnings about the patriarchy. "Are you decent?" Dix asks, and Laurel says that she isn't. She's with Martha. There are taboo places throughout In a Lonely Place: midnight drives on curving roads where we know young women die at the hands of men; necks in the crooks of husbands' arms; interrogation rooms where women lie for their men even if it puts them back in harm's way. Better the devil you know. Consider the choice the film makes to exonerate Dix of the crime that drives the piece. It's Hitchcock's Suspicion, carried off better by Ray than by the Master, who at that point in his career was still trying to identify with Cary Grant. What would that film have looked like with Bogart? It would have looked like In a Lonely Place.
The closing shot was originally conceived as Dix completing his screenplay over Laurel's freshly-slain corpse. As a metaphor for the vampiric excesses of creation, that's a bit on the nose. So Ray called an audible and shot the ending as it exists now: Dix walking away, broken and unfixable; Laurel watching him go from her window, alone. What murders me is that Dix will find another shell to fill for a while, but Laurel... I have my doubts that Laurel gets back up. In a Lonely Place is about the destructive nature of masculine creation, ego, and sexuality. It's a deeply Freudian film that happens to understand Freud--testament to its enduring, unshakable nature. More, it's about Ray's ego and sexuality and his tempestuous relationship with a woman, Grahame, he never took as seriously as he should have and tried too hard to control, to the irreparable injury of them both. In a Lonely Place is as cogent a cri de cœur as Vertigo, an intimate confession of sin and failure. The picture is a chronicle of our fallen natures. All that chest thumping, and in the end there is only ash. It's Ray's finest moment. Among the finest moments in the short history of the movies, in fact.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Criterion Collection honours In a Lonely Place with a gorgeous 1.33:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation sourced from a 2K transfer that, the leaflet informs, was carried out using a newly-struck 35mm print taken directly from the camera negative. Barring the occasional speck and fleeting white streak, the film looks returned to its prestige lustre. Shadow detail throughout is impeccable and a layer of fine grain lets the image breathe. While the HiDef clarity does throw the rear-projection in nighttime driving sequences into harsher relief, it also makes the texture of fabrics, from overcoats to smoking jackets, transportingly tactile. The attendant uncompressed audio (LPCM) is surprisingly rich, evincing depth despite being anchored to the centre channel. Special features begin with another listening option, a scholarly commentary by Dana Polan, author of the BFI monograph on the film. The track suffers for his impulse to narrate the emotions of certain scenes for lengthy stretches, but for the most part he provides strong analysis of sight lines, editing techniques, blocking, and shot/reverse-shot strategies. I appreciated his remarks especially during the sequence where Dix and Laurel are allowed a moment to be happy at a nightclub: Polan takes care to note the symmetry of the shot, and then the overlapping composition when a plainclothes cop arrives with a date who distractingly resembles Laurel. It's something I've never been objective enough to note myself, and it's revelatory. Nice work there.
David Helpern Jr. & James C. Gutman's I'm a Stranger Here Myself (41 mins.) is a b&w documentary "slightly" pared down by Criterion (who also, I believe, are responsible for the colour inserts of graphical ephemera) that follows Ray as he makes 1973's We Can't Go Home Again with a group of film students hanging on his every word. The scope of the piece eventually expands to include talking-heads with a trio of luminaries: John Houseman, Francois Truffaut, and Natalie Wood. (Knowing that Ray slept with a teenaged Wood during Rebel Without a Cause--and likely James Dean as well--colours the cheery, respectful comments she offers here.) Though mainly hagiography, there are a few choice observations concerning Ray's themes of individualism punished (which were reflected in his exile from Hollywood); and any time spent discussing Johnny Guitar is never spent in vain. In "Gloria Grahame" (17 mins., HD), biographer Vincent Curcio, author of Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame, the best single volume on the actress, covers the basics, from Grahame's unique contract for In a Lonely Place through to her diminished stature in the '70s. Although some of what Curcio states as fact is arguably hearsay and gossip, this interview should inspire the curious to take a deeper dive; Grahame's story is that of Hollywood in the late-'40s as it transitions into modernity. Meanwhile, "In a Lonely Place Revisited" (21 mins.), recycled from the old Columbia TriStar DVD, sees L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson delivering a loving ode to the picture as a fan and Hollywood insider. I've always liked Hanson, and I appreciated the revelation that the main set of the film was a replica of Ray's first apartment in Los Angeles. Next comes "Suspense, Episode 287" (60 mins.), a Robert Montgomery-starring radio adaptation of the Hughes novel that reveals itself as first-person and very, very different from the feature. It unspools over a still-frame of In a Lonely Place's final shot.
Lastly, in addition to a remastered trailer (3 mins., HD), is Imogen Sara Smith's liner-notes essay "Epitaph for Love." Smith takes the brilliant tactic of analyzing In a Lonely Place from a screenwriting perspective, noticing in Dix's boasts of artistic integrity and not just "doing the book" parallels to Ray's radical overhaul of the text. With this approach, Smith finds a different path to attacking the central thesis of any analysis of the film that sees it as a reflection of Ray's mania and disgust with himself/the studio system. It's indispensable stuff that made me pull out her In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City for another read. She's a fantastic critic, and I would never have thought that yanking on this thread would unravel so much of In a Lonely Place. My only complaint overall about this release, and it's a minor one, is that Criterion didn't produce more supplementary material in this academic vein.