Review: In a Lonely Place (1950)

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Director Nicholas Ray customarily takes his material and subverts our expectations or better yet deconstructs the conventions that we often take for granted. But this is also matched with his penchant for showing a very raw and honest percolation of emotion. It causes every one of his movies to leave a perceptible toll on the audience because it’s difficult to have any other response. In a Lonely Place is another textbook example.

Here is a film with a murder plot which would normally be of primary concern. Instead, it ends up falling by the wayside to become nearly unimportant. It sounds almost callous to make such a claim since a life is at stake but then there is a bit of a detached quality permeating the picture.

A brooding Humphrey Bogart is at his most explosive as screenwriter Dixon Steele, a man with some talent, but a very odd way of exercising it. He’s an exasperating case for many in the industry, including his agent. Art Smith provides a wonderfully vivid performance as the agent nursing his ulcers while still faithfully standing by his client despite the turbulent nature of his temper. (Coincidentally Smith was featured in the earlier Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation Ride the Pink Horse).

It’s true “Dix” can be a tough man to figure out. Bogart may have played more appreciated, more iconic characters but there’s something especially raw about him here.

On top of Bogart’s performance, this is Nicholas Ray’s own examination of the Hollywood industry’s mechanisms, spitting out has-beens and flops as much as fame and fortune. There’s the continuous inner conflict between making a smash — the kind of trashy stuff that sells — and then trying to create something of worth on the spectrum of art.

If we had to draw up thematically similar films, All About Eve is a more flamboyant choice and Sunset Blvd. boasts the cynical edge but In a Lonely Place probably deserves to keep the same company with these noted classics from 1950 as a film of truly morose sentiments. It’s not simply cutting through the artifice of Hollywood. It’s trying to provide a deeper study of the people who are cogs of the industry.

After a precocious hat check girl (Martha Stewart) is found murdered it sets off an investigation by the police force. As Steele had requested the girl come over to his home to give him the plot summary of the low brow novel he is meant to adapt, just hours before her demise, he is placed on the top of the lists of suspects.

Conveniently, his neighbor across the courtyard, a bit part actress (Gloria Grahame at her most aloof and restrained), who he hardly knows, is brought in and vouches she saw him and it’s not a lie. He really was at home and he did not commit the crime.

If we wanted to, we could leave the story right there but that’s not all the film is working away at. It unravels in other ways too. In another world, this almost voyeuristic setting could have been made for Rear Window (1954) but this is not that film either.

Frank Lovejoy is the average cop with a thoughtful wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell) — a genuinely nice guy who knows “Dix” from back in their war days. He takes orders but he also has an inherent confidence in Steele as a human being. At any rate, he wouldn’t be prone to killing girls and so Brub helps to humanize this man in the eyes of the audience.

And yet there are still some troubling caveats on Dixon Steele. He owns a history of violent outbreaks but it goes beyond this. There’s a raging darkness that is part of his makeup as a character. He is tortured by hatred and by his own accompanying desolation. We can chalk it up to a number of things. His own personality. His lack of consistency. The often cruel industry that became his livelihood. It could be any number of these things or all of them.

In fact, for a film noir, the outcomes prove to be unique. It has murder but we never see it. There’s an actress who played countless femme fatales playing a slightly different iteration here. Even Bogart, though carrying a simmering temper that goes off on several occasions, is generally not a hardboiled heavy. Just a tormented screenwriter with demons to exorcize.

Beating up a college kid doesn’t go with the glorified and gritty brutality that might crop up in a Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946). It’s just callous barbarity in the normal world. Throwing phones or beating up friends in public is not normal behavior. There’s no other conventional excuse for it.

But this is Dixon Steele for you. He’s just a troubled man. Not an archetypal noir antihero. As much as we fear for the people in his stead, there’s also a mild pity reserved for him. He shows himself capable of love. He simply proves to be very ill-equipped for the endeavor.

The layers go deeper still and more personal as Gloria Grahame’s marriage with director Nicholas Ray was splintering and was finally absolved quietly during filming.

Beyond that, you get the sense, Bogart who financed the picture is playing someone, not unlike himself. Perhaps it’s the closest he ever got. Like the film, he found love in a woman, Lauren Bacall, many years his junior who nevertheless made him very happy. Sure Bogey was a success but it took him a long time to get to the top of the summit. He was a hard-drinker with a notoriously white-hot temper to match. Still, he was a romantic and an idealist in such a way we sympathize with. He’s ardently beloved today as he was in his heyday.

The contents of the story take on an entirely new spectrum of meaning with this personal context. In a Lonely Place wasn’t just an examination of Hollywood and the lives of people who could be real. In a Lonely Place feels far more transparent. It is Hollywood and these are the very people who find themselves caught up in its disillusioning grip.

Loneliness is there’s to have and to hold. They don’t need the prototypical genre conventions of graft and crime — the brand we conveniently label as film noir. There’s really little need for the more darkly cinematic overtones. They have themselves. That’s dismal enough already.

4.5/5 Stars

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Body and Soul (1947)

body_and_soul_1947_movie_posterJohn Garfield was never the most dashing of leading men but nevertheless, he was always thoroughly compelling as ambitious working class stiffs during the 1940s. He had a straightforward tenacity about him like he had to fight his way to the top. At the same time likable and destined for trouble right out of the gates. You can cheer for him and still rue the decisions that he makes. That’s what makes his foray as boxing champ Charlie Davis all the more believable. His aspirations are of a very real nature and they give his character a genuine makeup.

Abraham Polonsky’s (Force of Evil) script for director Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul drops us in the middle of the life of Charlie Davis (Garfield). He’s the big “Champ” of the local boxing world with a fresh bout coming up soon but he doesn’t seem all that happy. He’s restless in sleep, haunted by specters, and everyone from his mother to his girl seems to be distant. We don’t know what it all means and yet in the ensuing unfoldings of the plot we begin to understand the true gravity of the situation.

He comes from a humble background on the seedy side of town where his parents (Anne Revere and Art Smith) run a humble candy shop that barely allows them to get by. He’s handy in the ring and wins an amateur prize. Part of his winnings includes a dance with a pretty gal named Peg (Lilli Palmer). It’s just part of her job but being persistent he looks to get to know her and call on her again. She allows it.

Mrs. Davis wants her son to go to night school, leave boxing behind, and make an honest living. Pool halls and speakeasies are not a place to make a life, much less a boxing ring. And Charlie tries to make an honest go of it for a time, but he’s going nowhere fast.

With the backing of his best bud Shorty, Charlie gets in with a small-time promoter (William Conrad) who still is big potatoes compared to what they’re used to. Soon it’s more wins, larger pots, and then Charlie hits the big leagues when a ruthless promoter named Roberts (Lloyd Gough) comes in his corner. It means heavy payoffs on all accounts. Charlie can put Peg up in a nice place and take better care of his mother. They can sell the family candy store. Even Shorty gets a bigger cut.

But Charlie has finally lost sight of his priorities. When the film establishes itself back in the present, we soon realize that the big time boxer has fallen away, compromising everything that gave him integrity. And as a result, all those close to him resolve to let him find his own path. It’s likely to lose him money or worse yet get him killed but Charlie’s dilemma is far greater than that. This is a fight for his very soul as he struggles to hold onto his morals, grappling with his conscious.

Lilli Palmer is a breath of fresh air as the love interest who is intelligent and refined with a penchant for art and poetry. Her German roots give her a rather unplaceable accent and she’s equal parts beauty and charm. She’s a cut above Charlie but the very fact that he goes for her suggests something about his sensibilities. There’s also a highly sympathetic African American character for that day and age in Charlie’s fellow boxer Ben portrayed with extraordinary grace by Canada Lee.

And you only have to go down the line to notice many interesting performances. The opportunistic Alice (Hazel Brooks) is beguiling as a perfect counter to Peg. Her accomplice and equally sleazy partner Quinn (William Conrad) proves a meaty role for the actor who served as a delightful heavy in many films noir. His visage, build, and voice gives him a leg up on a great deal of the competition. Anne Revere plays the disapproving yet concerned mother with relative ease and Shorty (Joseph Pevney) is surprisingly adequate as Charlie’s best pal, a man who first sees only dollar bills flashed in front of him, yet still has enough gumption to know when to back out.

The Set-Up filmed a couple years later was a fine boxing film along similar lines. But with more to work with and a robust cast, Body and Soul is a fuller study not simply with gritty boxing scenes but also a gripping character analysis indicative of the human condition. It’s precisely the multifaceted drama that its title suggests.  Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s sequences in the boxing ring are especially dynamic supposedly created by racing around the ring on roller skates. The film is also covered by the foreboding clouds of the blacklist that claimed the careers of many of those involved including John Garfield, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Art Smith, and numerous others. But despite the unforgivable blot of the blacklist, Body and Soul still stands as a marvelous example of the potent capabilities of film noir. That remains untarnished.

4/5 Stars

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

ride-the-pink-horse-1Films Noir often find their hooks in lurid titles but also in metaphor. Ride the Pink Horse fits into the latter category as pulled from the pages of Dorothy B Hughes and adapted by Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer. The horse can be taken in the literal sense as one of the wooden animals that go round and round on the local carousel but there’s some symbolism in this opulent creature. In some distant way, it’s the fantasy of a different life that every man seems to crave when he doesn’t have it. But still, he strives and grinds to get closer and closer to it. More often than not he does not succeed in finding so-called contentment.

Whether you get that sense from actually watching Ride the Pink Horse is up for debate, but it’s a film that deserves more limelight for its numerous assets. Robert Montgomery is not necessarily the most agreeable lead at first as Lucky Gagin, a war vet who travels to the New Mexico tourist trap of San Pablo to end some unfinished business for a friend.

But the camera gives the sense of constantly tailing Montgomery as he makes his way through the surprisingly atmospheric streets of New Mexico. The on-location shooting is a credit to the film, in particular, the work inside La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe that gives a certain Spanish sensibility to the film through its very architecture. It has the type of color that you expect to find in a place like Rick’s Cafe or The Mos Eisley Cantina.

ride-the-pink-horse-2And it’s from these opening moments that we try to get a line on Gagin by watching his every move and word. He’s brusque and abrasive with almost crazed features — constantly suspicious, demanding, and sour. He had a little too much cyanide for breakfast (although he does like fruit cocktail). Just as we watch him with interest, his probing eyes case every joint and every person he comes in contact with. Because, if it’s not obvious already, he’s not come to San Pablo for R & R. He’s come to town to avenge his dead army buddy, who was double-crossed and put out of a commission by a very big man (Fred Clark).

Gagin’s looking to get Shorty’s due: $15,000. But he hasn’t thought it out a whole lot; he doesn’t quite understand what he’s up against as is often the case with rough and tumble noir heroes. It can be their undoing. Uncle Sam (Art Smith) is in one sense grandfatherly but there’s also a sly sparkle in his eyes that leads to some question to his motives. Does he really have Gagin’s well-being in mind or is there something sinister going on here? It’s too early to tell.

However, in a dive bar, Gagin meets the jovial local Pancho (Thomas Gomez in a particularly spirited performance) who quickly befriends the out of towner over drinks and simultaneously makes the audience like Gagin a little more by simple transference. We like Pancho right off and if Pancho likes this character then we might as well give him a chance. He makes him into an actual human being and that’s what he’s searching for too. Because, in truth, Gagin is wary of anyone and everyone. The people who are out to get him. The “dames” you touch only to get stung in return.

ride-the-pink-horse-3Just as there is a cultured femme fatale (Andrea King), her counterpoint is the tentative Pila (played sympathetically but rather unfortunately by Wanda Hendrix), who floats in to watch over Gagin even when he doesn’t want her around. She stays anyways.

A merry go round was utilized by Hitchcock a few years later in Strangers on a Train but in a different way. He used the frenetic energy to his advantage. In Ride the Pink Horse it’s the blatant juxtaposition that is telling. Something so pleasant and joyous as a merry go around takes a whole new meaning in the presence of violence.

A grand fiesta makes its way through town that culminates in the traditional burning of the effigy of Sasobra, The God of Bad Luck.  A dozen years later Sam Fuller would use a similarly lively cultural celebration as the climatic backdrop for The Crimson Kimono.

However, what stands out about Ride the Pink Horse is the idiosyncratic roads it traverses. It’s difficult to put a finger on it exactly, as it has glimpses of other films but there’s also nothing quite like it. The way the story progresses, what the characters find time to talk about, even the title, it’s all fascinating for its very uniqueness.

4/5 Stars