Tuesday, January 31, 2012
All I ever wanted to be was a writer. I knew that from very early on. And things haven’t quite worked out the way I would have liked them to but that’s neither here nor there for the moment. And just as this year was starting with me honestly feeling a little burnt out like I needed to take a few weeks away from this blog, which I guess I’ve sort of done, several things happened all at once that seemed almost symbolic for the beginning of a new year as if someone was saying to me, “So want do you want to do now, schmuck?” I get haunted by way too many things in the dead of night, I know this. But it’s just the way I am. I wish I’d done more by now. Over the holiday break I was walking down Hollywood Blvd. on the Thursday between Christmas and New Year’s feeling listless and bored, wondering what to do. As I passed Musso & Frank I remembered that Thursday was the night their Chicken Pot Pie, which I’d always wanted to try, was the special. “Yeah, I’m going to have to get around to doing that eventually” was went through my mind and then, as if I was slapped by someone, suddenly I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk thinking, “Wait a minute…” So I turned around, walked in and sat down at the counter where I ordered a pot pie and a Beefeater martini. Probably the highlight of my week. Sometimes there’s just no point in waiting anymore. So now I’m trying to figure out what I want 2012 to be, what I should even attempt it to be.
For a long time now I’ve said that I loved IN A LONELY PLACE because it featured Humphrey Bogart as a screenwriter who goes to bars and gets into fights. After all, isn’t that the sort of life I should be aspiring to? Instead I’m just sitting at home. Anyway, it’s a sort of flip way to describe the film and now that I’m a little older I’m beginning to understand just how much thinking of it that way is underselling it. I’ve been watching it a great deal lately and I’ve come to realize that like some of the best films IN A LONELY PLACE feels like a dream, one that maybe you’ve had before and one where the things you wish would happen all go wrong. It’s maybe best seen in the dead of night with many of the emotions that are revealed seeming to make absolute sense and yet playing with almost no pure logic at all. Maybe that’s what Los Angeles is. A city where you fall in love in a way that is impossible and the emotions that burst out of you when that happens never fully leave. As for the movie, it seems somehow apart from other films of this era set in Hollywood—since the story never takes us to a studio lot the ‘industry’ is mostly kept in the background and the story stays in its own internal world, ignoring the gawking fans who just think of it all as places to get souvenir matchbooks. For its characters the allure of Hollywood really is feels like some kind of secret code that only they are privy to. “Just like show business. There is no business,” says the proprietor of Paul’s Restaurant cheerfully, knowingly, when asked how things are. Bogart’s screenwriter Dixon Steele seems insecure, self-loathing right from the moment we meet him and as we see him teasing those kids waiting for autographs he’s able to joke about where his rung on the ladder is as well. We like him from the start, it’s Humphrey Bogart after all, but this is no cynically wisecracking nightclub owner. His unspoken bitterness feels more real, more lived in. Maybe this character is more what Bogart really saw when he looked in the mirror. In the dead of night. In a lonely place.
If you don’t know Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE, released in 1950, I don’t know what you’re doing reading this but Bogart plays Dixon Steele, veteran Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a young woman named Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) he briefly had over to his apartment to tell him the plot of a novel he’s being asked to adapt and the relationship he quickly develops with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) the actress recently moved in across the way in his complex who serves as his alibi for part of the evening but willingly says within minutes of meeting him how she also likes his face. As the Beverly Hills Police, who include Dix’s old war buddy Grub Nicholai (Frank Lovejoy) begin their investigation, their romance moves fast, reenergizing Dix as he begins to work on the screenplay but it also becomes very clear just how dangerous his temper and jealousy is, making Laurel wonder if there’s something she really doesn’t know about what went on that night.
It’s hard for me not to wonder what Dixon Steele has been doing shortly before the movie begins. After first glimpsed seconds into the film, seen in his convertible's rear view mirror as the actor’s name comes onscreen, we meet Dixon Steele as he drives down the street as the opening credits end—is that Santa Monica Blvd? I wish I knew—but it’s as if right before the Columbia logo came onscreen he was just sitting at home in the darkness for a period, not venturing out, not answering the phone. I can’t help but think about Richard Brooks’ DEADLINE U.S.A. another film from this period where Bogart played a newspaper editor. The film—and Bogart—is about as enjoyable as it probably sounds and there’s something very comfortable in the old movie-ness about seeing that star in such a role. But IN A LONELY PLACE avoids that sort of comfort, moving quickly past the character’s knowing self-deprecation into a zone that gives a feeling that there’s a sense of bitterness the actor connects with here more than usual. Even if one of the first things he does when we meet him is try to start a fight right in the middle of the street there’s something about his knowing cynicism I connect with instantly, maybe because I’m also at a point in time where I feel just as unwilling to answer the phone as he is. Why? To actually talk to people? The movie also places us into Dix’s shoes for a few moments—unusual for a film to do it just once and in such a subtle way—as he deals with the yammering of the soon-to-be-murdered Mildred Atkinson as she drones on with the telling of ALTHEA BRUCE (I imagine early Sirk or maybe a Joan Crawford vehicle directed by Vincent Sherman) and all the words she agonizingly mispronounces, causing any interest he may have had at getting her to do anything other than tell him the story of the book evaporate within seconds. Maybe since we know that Gloria Grahame is waiting out there on a nearby balcony we also want her out of there as fast as possible. All the friends and acquaintances Dixon sees during the film are seeing him for the first time in days, if not longer, so I suppose when the film begins Dixon really has been spending a fair amount of time alone. And as the film proceeds he quickly moves into his relationship with Laurel without looking back, able to focus on getting this script down on paper with all the help she does, ‘for love’. Almost immediately he thinks—no, he knows—he’s found the one he’s been looking for or as Hadda Brooks sings during her onscreen appearance, “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You.” For just a few minutes during this scene they really do look like the coolest couple ever and I wish they could just stay this way.
I’m not spending too much time on the story but it doesn’t really matter to me. Through every line of forever quotable dialogue (“I didn’t say I was a gentleman, I said I was tired”) and its incisively vivid look into this world (screenplay by Andrew Solt, Adaptation by Edmund H. North, based on the story by Dorothy B. Hughes), the plot is in some ways secondary to what the film is really interested in anyway, as it focuses not on what’s happening between these two, on what the very nature of who Dixon Steele really is. We spend a lot of time in one apartment for something that’s thought of as a great Los Angeles film, but maybe we almost never need to leave that apartment anyway. Laurel looks like a noir girl—she’s Gloria Grahame, after all—but there’s something about her demeanor that lets us tell right away that really does seem like she’s one that’s different. “Have you thought about it a second time?” Dixon asks her when he trying to catch her interest. There’s a desperation heard in his voice, in his look that is unavoidable, something not heard at all when he’s being questioned by the cops for murder and certainly not heard when he describes for Grub and his wife how the murder may have gone down with a little too much enthusiasm. He can’t stop thinking about her. He knows that there’s no one like her and based on how we’ve seen him behave towards other women already, like the insufferable Mildred Atkinson, he wouldn’t act this way with just anyone. For a brief period, Dix and Laurel seem like the perfect couple. That’s part of what makes it all so sad and Bogart seems like he understands this guy down to his bones, maybe more than any other part he’d ever played. Was it the script, working with Nicholas Ray or did the Hollywood setting make things that much more vivid for him? In a 2002 Los Angeles Times article on his agent Phil Gersh, the longtime Hollywood veteran enjoyably recounts Bogart’s average lunch at Romanoff’s, the apparent inspiration for this film’s swank eatery Paul’s: two scotch and sodas, an omelet, French toast, some milk and then, at the end, coffee and a brandy. He then goes on to recall Bogart noticing that Gersh hadn’t brought any scripts with him, sadly proclaiming, “You didn't bring any scripts. Nobody wants me.” Reading that about Bogart makes me so sad for him. Dixon Steele doesn’t dwell on such blatant self-pity but you can almost imagine the running monologue that’s been going through his head about whatever has made him into this person. The apartment complex was modeled after the place where Ray lived when he first came to Hollywood—I wish I could live there. Ray and Grahame, both his leading lady as well as his wife separated during production but kept it secret from the crew. Where do these mirrors end?
In combining certain things like noir, Bogart, Hollywood, a writer for a lead character, lots of booze and a genuinely soulful yearning for what will never be that can be found in some of Ray’s other films like ON DANGEROUS GROUND, IN A LONELY PLACE hits a certain sweet spot for me and comes about as close to perfection as I can imagine—the score which is at times overbearing in the style of any random Columbia film of the period is just about the only drawback I can think of. But never mind. Placed up against each other the two stars do just about the best work of their careers under Ray’s direction and the level of emotion found in their scenes together is still astonishing. There’s some particularly strong supporting work throughout as well, particularly Art Smith as loyal agent Mel Lippman and Jeff Donnell, Sidney Falco’s secretary in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, as Nicolai’s wife Sylvia. And as much time as we spend in that complex there are a few snatches of location footage here and there that give me a rush of what Los Angeles used to be almost as if I can smell the ocean air wafting in, like how that piece of footage of Dix furiously driving away from the beach after spending time in front of a process shot gives me a kick of what that brief stretch looked like then compared to now. There’s an aching in the film which feels genuine that all you want to do is acknowledge the person right in front of you, the one you’ve been waiting for, but the person you really are means that it ultimately doesn’t matter as much as it should. This relationship that seems so right at first that goes so wrong, with almost everything signified in that one insert shot in the speeding car with Dix at the wheel of Laurel’s feet trying to push down on brakes that aren’t there, totally unable to do anything about the moment. The perspective shifts and her suspicion on Dix grows—understandably so, considering how he begins to treat Laurel but he never becomes a stock bad guy, no matter what sort of brutality he seems on the verge of, whatever is really, truly bubbling up inside of him. He has a past, as well as a present, that may not reveal all of who he is but all is impossible to ignore. As anyone who’s seen the film knows, whether he’s guilty or not doesn’t really matter in the end and there are probably few other films that arrive at such a conclusion. Dixon was once alone and while Laurel may be able to help him to focus on his life, on getting his script down on paper, the rest of it isn’t so easy, unable to fully leave aside who he really is when he sits in the dark, in that lonely place he so often finds himself. And where I sometimes find myself as well.
People do leave Los Angeles, hard as that may be to believe, but they don’t always leave your head right away. And sometimes it can be very hard to admit how much you really miss them. If you do, what are you really saying about how much they meant? “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” goes the phrase Dix thinks of without knowing where to put it in his script. It exists outside of it, for himself, the one thing he really wants to express. I suppose Dixon Steele starts nowhere, in the dark by himself, brooding about the nowhere his life is going and I suppose that’s where he’s headed back to at the end as well. We don’t know what happens to him. It doesn’t matter. It never does. I still want to write and I look forward to continuing to do that, just like I now look forward to another pot pie at Musso’s. Some things never change. Maybe they shouldn’t. As for IN A LONELY PLACE, the ending is heartbreaking. And absolutely inevitable. It’s a shattering love story. But there’s still some comfort in knowing it will always be there on those many nights when I don’t want to answer the phone.