BY Raj RANADE
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the term “black-and-white” referred not only to the colors possible on screen but to the moral complexity that was permissible. The Hays Code, the censorship guidelines that ruled Hollywood from 1930 to 1968, decreed that “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” and so cinematic criminals were always brought to justice, illicit lust invariably led to catastrophe, and even depicting a married couple sharing a bed was frowned upon.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most enduring films of that era belonged to a genre that adhered to the letter of the law but took a Tommy gun to its spirit. The lingering effect of film noir has nothing to do with the scrupulously moral endings and everything to do with the seething setting. The alleyways of noir teem with murderous lowlifes and wanton seductresses, and the all-consuming force of its cinematic world is corruption, be it political, sexual, or psychological.
It’s the latter type that is the focus of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 noir In a Lonely Place, which plays today at the Kentucky Theatre as part of the Summer Classic Film Series. Place wastes little time setting up the traditional noir trappings. Cynical, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) invites a coat-check girl home to hear a summary of a book she loved which he has been assigned to adapt. She leaves without incident – the next morning, she turns up face down in a ditch, and Steele is the primary suspect.
It soon becomes clear, though, that Ray isn’t particularly interested in the investigation but in the love story it inadvertently instigates. Steele meets his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) when she provides an alibi for him at the police station. They quickly fall in love, but the Steele-Gray relationship is marked by equal measures of passion and pain.
Her issues, mainly a fear of commitment, are relatively run-of-the-mill. His are far more troubling – his lack of empathy borders on the sociopathic (chastised for his petulance and sarcastic humor after being informed of the murder, Steele replies “I’ll admit that the jokes could have been better”) and he is prone to outbursts of violence at the slightest of provocations. Soon enough, Laurel is questioning Steele’s innocence, and Ray cannily leaves the audience in equal doubt, emphasizing on one hand Bogart’s innate star charisma, while continually dropping dark visual hints. When Steele gently caresses Gray’s cheek, Ray shoots from behind Bogart’s head looking down, much as a horror director might film the Swamp Thing looming over its prey.
The charge of the emotional venom that Ray depicts here no doubt had some basis in autobiography. Place was filmed as Ray’s own marriage with Grahame was approaching its own nasty end (which finally occurred a year later when Ray caught Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage), and Ray lived alone on set during filming. But isolation has always been a key motif for Ray. As in his biggest hit, Rebel without a Cause, the principals here are all trapped in the lonely place that is their own minds, shunned from society because of their refusal to abide by codes that fly against their natures, isolated from true connection with others by their own poisonous drives. That our tortured principals reside in the center of the movie industry also seems prophetic – the suspicion with which Hollywood hounds this screenwriter echoes the anti-Communist blacklists that would soon take over the town.
But the film’s most memorable aspect is Bogart’s performance, which may well be his best. Bogart has always been known as the quintessential tough guy, with a voice like gravel and a jaw like pavement. But more crucial to his unique appeal were the perpetual bags under his eyes and the drooping of his lower lip. Fittingly enough for a man whose face was itself a battle between the hard and the soft, Bogart was best when he played conflicted, torn apart by warring emotions. The destructive animal instincts of Steele are the focus of his performance, but they’re haunting because of the true love in his heart. At one point, Steele writes the phrase “I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”
But he can’t find the right place in the screenplay for the words, and like the man himself, they are ultimately left adrift.
Hollywood Classics play on Wednesdays at the Kentucky Theatre at 1:30 pm and 7:15 pm.