Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: In a Lonely Place

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: In a Lonely Place

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

And here we reach a turning point in the series. No longer will our films concoct excuses for Hollywood's abuse, no longer will the cynicism be paired with an aw-shucks wonder at the glitz of it all. Yet at the same time, Nicholas Ray's 1950 film In a Lonely Place exists on the periphery of Hollywood, just as Hollywood itself exists on the periphery of its story. After nearly decking a fellow driver, Humphrey Bogart's Dixon Steele arrives at a nightclub and is confronted by junior autograph hounds. "Know who I am?" he asks, bemused, as the kid shakes his head. Steele is a screenwriter who hasn't had a hit in years, and if being in Hollywood rubs off a little glamor on him (the kid still wants him to sign the book) it also casts a shadow on his existence. Steele's director pal, when confronted with the fact of his hackery, merely shrugs and tells the so-noble-he's-broke screenwriter that he doesn't try to fight it. In a Lonely Place may not be a film "about" Hollywood, but that only makes it a more stinging film about Hollywood.


Though it's the earliest of the 50s films about films, In a Lonely Place is also one of the most clear-eyed. It's about a number of things before it's about the industry: a murder mystery, a doomed but passionate love story, the chronicle of a disintegrating, wounded psyche. In a round-about way, this increases the movie's credibility vis-a-vis "the business" - unlike most Hollywood-does-Hollywood pictures, it doesn't act like the film industry is the center of the world, around which all other problems circle. The screenwriter struggles, but with some variations his struggles could be that of any professional. True, his friends are all certain Hollywood types. There's the aging, grandiloquent ham who starred in silents thirty years ago and is now a washed-up drunk. And the nebbishy, good-hearted agent, exasperated and fascinated by his client's more dynamic personality. Or how about the hat-check girl who mistakes her own naivete for carefree nonchalance, not realizing she's a dime a dozen? Or even the man on the outer zone, living in the "normal world" - fascinated with the drama of film professionals but ultimately relieved to be apart from it (here he's a cop and old war buddy of Dixon Steele). But aren't these types translatable into other fields as well - doesn't their recognizable humanity transcend the Hollywood hills?

Ironic, then, that In a Lonely Place was the film that inspired me to initiate "Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood." I think it's partially the fact that Hollywood looms ominously over the proceedings, casually yet unmistakably. Hollywood showed so little self-consciousness in its early days, with rare exceptions, that to see it dealt with so coldly and nonchalantly is a little jarring. That can be attributed, in part, to director Nicholas Ray who has a way of penetrating the thick skin of formal convention to get at that quivering, vulnerable heart of his characters and their world. Leave it to him to relegate the dream factory to a backdrop for all-too-human foibles and struggles.

Most of In a Lonely Place is consumed by two simultaneously unfolding plotlines: a murder mystery involving that hatcheck girl and possibly Dixon Steele, and a growing love between Dixon and his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham, whose right eyebrow seems to have a life of its own - a trait I've not noticed in her other performances). The two stories are always intertwined - in fact, the couple are introduced through the murder investigation - and in the end they bleed into one another, becoming indistinguishable. To the extent that In a Lonely Place is a film about film, its subject is the medium more than the industry - and especially the medium on the level of storytelling.

Dixon's screenwriting occupation plays into both storylines. It's a part of the romance because Laurel inspires him to write again - he's soon happily typing away and finds a kind of domestic contentment in the process - and it's a part of the murder mystery because Dixon finds a discomforting relish in playing the role of suspect. He teases the investigators and even his friends about his guilt, even encouraging his cop pal to reenact the crime with his wife. Ray teases us in the audience as well - crucial information is left out and even as we sympathize with Dixon's passion and pain, we're often left wondering just how trustworthy he really is. Dixon's creative intelligence, which makes him a great writer and a fascinating human being, also makes him a potential murderer. Ray equates creativity, the lifeblood of Hollywood despite the industry's rampant greed and ignorance, with a certain asocial personality. Dixon summons up more emotion describing the possible mechanics of the murder than he does upon hearing that a recent acquaintance has been brutally killed.

But ultimately Dixon becomes a part of his own story and almost fulfills the role that others have cast him on. Overcome by jealous rage, he is nearly strangling Laurel when a phone call interrupts. It's the cops, apologizing for all the harassment - turns out the real culprit was someone else all along. The first time I saw the movie, I had an overwhelming feeling of dread - I was sure that Dixon was going to kill Laurel, only to find out afterwards that he'd been exonerated of the first crime. Instead, the situation is stopped in time but the knowledge that it could have gone further is enough. Artists like Dixon Steele play with fire, it's the nature of their work, and ultimately they and the ones they love get burned.

The movie opens with a rearview mirror reflection of Dixon Steele's wounded eyes, held in relief against the almost abstract high beams and street lights of a Hollywood boulevard. Hollywood is that lonely place - as is any place were sensitive souls gather to use and abuse one another. It's a reflection of the lonely place inside Dixon's mind, the place he tries to fill with love and with his work, but which is also inhabited by a strange, uncontrollable passion and pain. Singin' in the Rain celebrates the hidden average humanity of Hollywood players, The Bad and the Beautiful shakes its head but ultimately admires the dealmakers whose chutzpah keeps the engine running, and A Star is Born upholds and ennobles the almost metaphysical transformation of a person into a star. In a Lonely Place delves into the brain behind the dreams - the twisted mind that creates the playground within which solid professionals, scheming moguls, and godlike stars go about their business. It's not a pretty place, but in Ray's hands it feels real and very powerful.

Previous: A Star is Born
Next: The Barefoot Contessa

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood starts here.

2 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

Another literate and interesting review. Dix loneliness and easily-triggered anger is a manifestation of depression and anxiety - bordering on psychosis - and a virtual prison. Ray uses bars everywhere in Dix's apartment to epresss this alienation and psychic imprisonment.

MovieMan0283 said...

Tony, what did you think of Bigger Than Life (had you seen it?) Given In a Lonely Place & the early parts of Rebel Without a Cause, I was expecting something that took us further inside James Mason's head but was disappointed by how distanced I felt from his predicament. But luckily, though I erased it from my DVR, it was on again and I re-recorded & plan to watch it again when I get the chance.