Friday, February 25, 2011

In a Lonely Place (d. Nicolas Ray, 1950)

In a Lonely Place (streamed here). Bogie’s finest hour. Nick Ray’s most personal film. And the creepiest meet-cute of the studio era?

Dixon Steele (Bogart) had just been taken in for questioning. The night before, a coat check girl was seen leaving the bar with the sardonic writer, who had asked her to summarize the plot of a trashy book. That girl’s body was found at dawn. In a pickle, Dixon, the most logical suspect, suddenly remembered his alibi: the neighbor with whom he was trading skivvy looks when he showed the girl out.

And so that neighbor, Laurel Gray, is summoned to the police station. She confirms that Dixon showed the girl out. But why did she notice this particular neighbor, the detective asks? “I like his face”, she reveals, nonchalantly, pausing to glance at Bogie’s ravaged face behind her. When a flattered and grateful Steele offers to give her a ride after the interrogation, Laurel immediately brushes him off with a great line, “I always leave with the man who brought me.” Laurel, it appears, holds a black belt in cock-teasing.

There's something extremely creepy about the insouciance of both Laurel and Dixon in the interrogation room. Dix, in particular, behaved strangely: caustic and ill-mannered, he seemed more concerned about his sleep being disturbed than the horrifying fact that a girl, whom she saw just hours earlier, turned up murdered. Dixon perked up only when he saw a chance to hit on his alibi. For her part, Laurel seems way too hard-edged and knowing for a struggling young actress. In the terrific scene following the meet-cute, shown below, Laurel’s self-assurance pegs her as a femme fatale, a woman who seen it all and knows what she wants -- a woman who “won’t be rushed”:

At this point, Ray appears to be carefully lining up all the pieces for a Camus-tinged noir about a guy wrongly accused of murder. But from there, he swiftly rearranges the board, and the movie turns into something entirely unexpected: it becomes a "woman’s film." In the prototypical Wrong Man variant of this sub-genre, the protagonist is unsure about the man she about to choose, or has in fact chosen. In Suspicion, Joan Fontaine spends the entire movie wondering if her rakish husband is actually a murderer. Joan Fontaine falls hard for a self-absorbed dilettante who doesn’t even remember her name in Letter from an Unknown Woman. And Joan Fontaine’s sis Olivia de Havilland finally realizes that Monty Clift is a useless golddigger near the end of The Heiress.

Gloria Grahame*, who plays Laurel, would be the last actress you'd cast in a doe-eyed Fontaine part. With her dismissive sidelong glances and pouty, sensual lips, Grahame exudes a kind sordid worldliness, like someone who might shrug off a date with Cary Grant just to get a quickie with a mobster. It’s no wonder she’s best known for playing bad girls. But Ray gradually shifts our perspective to her, so that we begin to study Dixon the way she does. His confidence and quick wit is attractive to be sure, but he makes her, as he makes us, uneasy. Our guide becomes Ray's frequent reaction shots of an increasingly anxious Laurel.

In a twist on woman's film tropes, the man’s flaw here is a given, both for the viewer and the characters on screen. There's no suspense about the guy. We’re not hanging by a thread trying to figure if Dixon’s a murderer or some other miscreant. Dixon’s innocence concerning the murder mystery was tipped early, and his combustibility was shown at the opening bell, when he clocked an arrogant producer. With his hair-trigger rage firmly established, the drama hinges on a simple question: is love enough to compel Laurel to stay with a loose cannon?

Remarkably, the film has no use for the chimera that the man would fundamentally change for the sake of love. Dix’s no Rick Blaine, a romantic hero in a cynic’s guise. He is who he is: a witty, brilliant asshole with moments of kindness but prone to flashes of insane rage. There’s a lovely scene in which an ecstatic Dixon, swept up in domestic bliss, volunteers to cut some grapefruit for Laurel. But as Dixon awkwardly straightens out the blade, plowing the knife into grapefruit like a serial killer, Laurel, standing by the wall (on the opposite side of the frame) observing him, is consumed by fear. Even performing a small little household task, she can’t trust him.  Laurel was certain to leave Dixon long before the “ironic” phone call (which wouldn’t have saved this relationship even if the phone call was picked up earlier). He’ll never earn her trust, no matter how much she loves him.

In a Lonely Place might have the most adult (or depending on your view, cynical) perspective on love of any movie of the studio era. People don’t change for love. Love doesn’t redeem. You have to either accept the whole enchilada, or walk away.

* Nick Ray’s catches his wife Gloria Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son (from a previous marriage), whom Grahame later marries?!? Holy shit. How did I not live 37 years on this earth without knowledge of this craziness?