Sunday, May 10, 2015

In A Lonely Place: Bogie's finest hour

There are a lot of film noir that I can say are among my favourites, but this 1950 classic takes the top spot.

Synopsis: Fading screenwriter Dixon Steele is implicated in the murder of a waitress. Famous around town for his short fuse, Dix remains under suspicion despite an alibi from his new neighbour Laurel Gray. Despite this inauspicious start, Laurel and Dix begin a relationship, while he begins work on a new project that can resurrect his career. However, as time goes on, Laurel becomes increasingly unsettled by her beau's erratic behaviour, and the question of his guilt for the murder that brought them together begins to cause cracks in their relationship...

The Cast: It seems somewhat pedantic to point this out, but Dixon Steele is one of Humphrey Bogart's best, and most underrated performances. At once charming, melancholy and explosive, Bogart is at his most fearless here. Playing Laurel Gray, Gloria Grahame delivers one of her best performances. Both play extremely damaged people, and neither Bogart or Grahame try to make them more sympathetic. They feel like human beings.

Director: Nicholas Ray is most famous for directing Rebel Without A Cause (1955), but he has an extensive series of credits beyond the James Dean classic, including the bizarre western Johnny Guitar (1954), the melodrama Bigger Than Life (1956) and the noir On Dangerous Ground (1952), which is notable for being another examination of a man tortured by his propensity for violence. Ray's work is notable for taking genre material (crime, western, teen) and focusing on the characters. The results are a series of expressionistic, naturalistic movies which feel far more real and less predictable than their plots may suggest. Such is the case with In A Lonely Place, which ranks as one of his best films.

Review: Ultimately, anyone going into this looking for another Maltese Falcon will be disappointed. But that is a good thing. This is a completely different kind of noir -- lacking most of the conventions one would associate with the genre. What it does have is a lead character who is trapped in a spiral toward oblivion, which is the central theme underlying all noir.

In Nicholas Ray's hands, what should be a conventional romantic thriller turns into a macabre character study of a man with no control over his inner impulses. This film, while having elements of genre, uses them as a jumping off point for exploring more complex ideas. The question of whether Dix is capable of murder is the starting point for a broader examination of his character, and what drives him to act the way he does.

The love story between Dix and Laurel, which could have been the most hackneyed aspect of the film, is a solid foundation. It's a cliched thriller plot now, but In A Lonely Place is far more concerned with using this bond as a catalyst for breaking down the facades of both characters -- Dix, the sardonic man's man, and Laurel, the aloof ice maiden -- to reveal the bruised humanity underneath. They are both scared people who have tried to keep the world at bay. While the title refers to the murder scene, it is clear that both the central characters are in their own 'lonely places'.

Although Laurel does her best to bring out the best in him, Dix is incapable of overcoming his own nature, and this puts his affection for Laurel on the line. The ongoing murder investigation is only another strain on the relationship. While it is never clear until the end if Dix is the killer, it becomes obvious that, whatever the case, he is more than capable of becoming one. This disquieting notion forms the backbone of the film, and gives In A Lonely Place an ambiguity that elevates it beyond being just another murder mystery.

Double bill with: Vertigo. With its focus on the psychology of its characters, the obsessive romance and last act twist, In A Lonely Place would make a great double bill with Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece.

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