Wednesday, May 11, 2016

IN A LONELY PLACE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1950) Criterion Collection

Humphrey Bogart officially entered the emeritus phase of his career with Nicholas Ray’s blistering pseudo-noir pressure cooker, In a Lonely Place (1950); a gritty, often sadistic exposé, superficially speaking, about fickle Hollywood’s callous treatment and disposable nature of fame and its stars. Ah me, ‘show business…like no business I know.’ And Bogart, who with this movie, perhaps more than any other, disavowed his hard won status as a romantic leading man (typified by his iconic world-weary Richard Blaine in Casablanca, 1942 and superbly fermented thereafter in his frequent teaming with wife, Lauren Bacall – To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage), delivers a calculating and vicious performance as Dixon Steele; a hot-headed Hollywood has been – a writer, the lowest form of celebrity, already circling the bowl of his own oblivion; high-handedly mistreating the women who come and go from his life, and, giving virtually every indication he is capable of practically anything – even the murder of bubble-headed hatcheck girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart). 
In A Lonely Place is perhaps the most disturbing ‘love story’ ever put on the screen; Bogie’s belligerence turning on a dime with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), the platinum fantasy plaything; glacially cool on the outside/a red-hot pistol whipper lurking just beneath the surface. But Laurel has a heart – a commodity Dix neither possesses nor harbors a yen to foster in any of his relationships. Dix is a loner. Arguably, he prefers this God-spot, smug superiority frowning down on everybody else. His ego is titanic even as his soul is bankrupted. Whether or not he is willing to acknowledge as much, Dix desperately needs a woman like Laurel to provide a solid center to his amoral compass. But can she steer him through every labyrinth his crude tetchiness invites? Arguably, no. And why should she? Dix has a brilliant mind - alright. But it is preceded by a champion pair of hard-clenched fists, far too eager to blacken the eye. Anger management issues do not begin to describe this ‘loose cannon’.
Set against a jaded post-war America movie-land, paralyzed into submission by cracks in its seemingly indestructible – if superficially glamorous façade, director, Nicholas Ray’s carefully triangulated crossfire of repeatedly missed romantic opportunities builds into an almost Shakespearean-like tragedy of self-destruction. There is a thread of moral ambiguity that hacks like a cleaver into virtually every moment Laurel tries to reach her lover; perhaps, even more indicative of Bogart’s own soured good nature; by 1950, in the producer’s chair with Santana Productions after having challenged the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington; a humiliating experience. As with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (release the same year), In A Lonely Place exploits Hollywood’s imploding den of iniquity as mere springboard for another hellacious crime – murder. Both movies begin in mysteriously shrouded death, though only Wilder’s finishes with an extended confessional flashback. Ray’s sad-eyed summation never quite gets around to this. Neither does it matter because somewhere along the way the Black Dahlia-esque killing of Mildred Atkinson bleeds a more telling trail back to Laurel’s grave concerns for Dix; his sinister zeal to keep ole pal, Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) dangling on a string with speculations, just a game Dix plays as he skirts the particulars of his own innocence…or guilt
At least in the movie, Dixon Steele is innocent. Not so in Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 novel where he does in fact kill Mildred Atkinson and several others who cross his path in varying fitful psychotic episodes. Interesting, Andrew Solt’s revision turns Dix’s unbridled rage inward; the anger seeping through as manic, angst-driven depression; the more explosive episodes written off as part in parcel of Dix’s volcanic temperament. And Bogart is absolutely brilliant in managing his own star persona with this counterintuitively repugnant man of privilege. Bogart can inflict more devastation and transmit more kilowatts of menace with a single penetrating stare than any amount of gratuitous violence could spell out. Consider the moment when Dix first begins to suggest to Brub how Mildred’s murder might have been committed; Dix getting Brub to test his theory on his own wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) and Brub, so enraptured by Dix’s hypnotic piecing together of the clues he damn near garrotes Sylvia during the investigative process.  
In a Lonely Place is, as its title unabashedly implies, an intriguingly bleak affair; arguably, the darkest exorcism of human foibles yet achieved on the screen. That it manages to narrowly avoid virtually every pitfall that otherwise could have brought down the heavy sledgehammer of screen censorship, while remaining vague about Dix’s ethics (he likely has none or very few scruples to draw upon), creates a tantalizing tightrope, offset by Burnett Guffey’s noir-ish cinematography. Even the early dawn looks oppressive in this movie. Setting the plot against the patina of a Hollywood suffering the slings and arrows of its own disquieting collapse adds yet another subtext of perversion to this already desperate tale. Exactly who killed Mildred Atkinson? It probably wasn’t Dix. But even the audience is never entirely certain. The Edmund H. North/Andrew Solt screenplay takes appalling pleasure and great pains to reveal nothing except how brutal and nasty Dix can be in a pinch, given only an ounce of provocation. After all, if a kid on a joyride can provoke such a confrontation (in an ensuing roadside fistfight, Dix nearly pummels a teen to death with his bare fists; Bogart, caught with a sadist’s wild-eyed glint of pure evil; a middle-age madman unexpectedly exposed from under an otherwise very transparent veneer of rank, cynical respectability) might a naïve girl like Mildred Atkinson, rejecting his advances, create an even more volatile mixture of self-loathing and castrating rage; the perfect Molotov cocktail for murder?
Dix takes Mildred home on a whim to reprise him of a synopsis to a soapy novel – what Mildred calls ‘an epic’, after his agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith) suggests this could be the winner they have both been waiting for to put Dix’s career back on top. Alas, after enjoying a ginger ale and some lightly sarcastic badinage, somewhere between Dix’s gated bungalow and the cabstand, dear ole Millie is whacked by an unknown assailant. The discovery of her strangulated remains in the wee hours of the next morning raise more than a few eyebrows and questions, placing the last 24 hours of Dix’s whereabouts under a microscope as the police’s number one suspect, despite his utter lack of motivation. In Dix’s corner are old wartime buddy, Brub Nicolai, presently a detective sergeant on the L.A. police force, and, Laurel Gray; a scissor-legged, silken smooth cross between his gal Friday and the traditional sultry femme fatale. In time, Laurel is revealed as the true innocent of this piece – figuratively bloodied, but unbound; Dix’s credibility – both public and private – left in tattered ruin as he laments, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
In A Lonely Place teeters on the verge of becoming just another psychologically dense puff piece a la the likes of a Spellbound (1945) or Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) in which all of the woes plaguing our protagonist can be – and generally are – resolved, simply by connecting the psycho-babble dots in a past regression. Instead, Nicholas Ray eschews any sort of concrete deconstruction to get to the truth, neither analyzing nor probing Dixon Steele’s thought processes; ditching the elegant psychoanalysis in the former example, but never veering quite so completely into the grotesqueness of Grand Guignol that is truly horrifying in the latter. The parallels between Dixon Steele and Bogart cannot be dismissed – Bogart, scarred by the lacerating critical backlash incurred from his defense of the ‘Hollywood 10’; forced to publish an ‘admission’ he being ‘duped’ by their Communist influences. Bogart – the man – if not his career, was wounded by this enforced compliance, causing him to temporarily recoil in shame. The episode would continue to haunt Bogart privately for the rest of his life. The irony was perhaps not lost on Nicholas Ray; a one-time card-carrying member of the Communist Party, never investigated, much less indicted by HUAC for his former alliances; quietly left to observe the malaise swirling around Bogart’s naïve altruism. “He was more than an actor,” Ray would later concur, “…the very image of our condition whose face was a living reproach.”  
In A Lonely Place owes a lot to Bogart’s remorseless portrait of Dixon Steele. But the ballast of its success goes to Nicholas Ray’s casting his soon to be ex-wife, Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray, a part originally intended for Lauren Bacall. Bacall had made a start of her career rivaling her husband’s on-screen insolence, barb for barb. But from the moment, Grahame’s ladylike, if diffident, tart sashays into the police precinct to confirm Dix’s alibi on the night of the murder, she emanates an aloof sensitivity that is in complete symbiosis with Dix’s isolation from the rest of the world; her cocoon, the glacial façade of a blonde bombshell, dipped like a soft-centered candy bonbon with an uncharacteristically hard-covered shell. What is Laurel’s story? Hmmm. We get flashes of a more sordid past in Laurel’s infrequent, though tempestuous exchanges with her masseuse, Martha (Ruth Gillette); a beefy pseudo-lesbian type who may know enough to blackmail Gray out of any lasting happiness. For certain, Laurel has been ravaged in ways Dix cannot even begin to fathom. Not that he would care to try. But like the Ado-Annie-ish floozy she would later play in The Big Heat (1953); Grahame herein offers up a weirdly empathetic intelligence, exposing this sadder but wiser girl; imperiously composed at a glance, but far more fragile and careworn on the inside.
After a brief main title sequence, set to the world-weary strains of George Antheil’s score, In A Lonely Place opens with a prelude to the opera that is to follow; Dix, in his convertible, recognized by a starlet (June Vincent) for whom he wrote the screenplay to her feature debut. The gal’s husband (Charles Cane) is unimpressed and provokes a confrontation Dix is only too eager to partake in; the car pulling away and Dix, already perturbed, now proceeding to his favorite haunt – Paul’s; a carbon copy of the famed Hollywood hotspot, Romanoffs.  Almost immediately, he is assailed by his agent, Mel Lippman and director, Lloyd Barnes (Morris Ankrum); fair-weathers, eager to bleed the last drops of his creative genius onto a project as unworthy, but otherwise possibly salvageable with his talents. In short order, Nicholas Ray introduces us to the green hatcheck girl Mildred Atkinson who has been reading the novel Mel hopes to entice Dix to turn into a movie. She refers to the book as ‘an epic’. Dix is mildly amused by how little Mildred knows about great literature or even good writing. In these early moments, we also get a sense of Dix’s compassion for lost causes, perhaps recognizing how easily today’s much-in-demand commodity can become yesterday’s ostracized outcast overnight. Case in point: Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), a one-time leading man reduced to bleary-eyed alcoholic reminiscences at the bar. Barnes and Lippman would prefer a booth, but Dix sits next to this fallen idol adding, “What’s wrong with right here? He’s not contagious.”
It does not take long for Dix’s temper to get the better of him; Barnes’ mild condemnation of Dix’s refusal to work on anything he doesn’t like met with some violent finger pointing. “You know what you are?” Dix suggests, “A popcorn salesman. You haven’t had a flop because you’ve made the same picture over and over again for the last twenty years.”  In short order, an unnamed executive, Junior (Lewis Howard) turns up, gregarious and raving about the prevue he has just attended, in tandem criticizing Charlie as a drunkard that his father once had the misfortune to turn into a star. His comments incur Dix’s wrath. He flies off the handle and gives ‘Junior’ a good sock in the jaw. A full-out brawl is narrowly averted, leaving Dix to illustrate that his disgust for humanity at large is not exclusively focused on the chest-thumping male of the species, cruelly dashing aside the flirtatious invites of a former flame, Fran Randolph (Alix Talton). Not long thereafter, Mildred returns with the book. Dix finds her eagerness amusedly infectious and suggests she accompany him back to his bungalow. Getting the wrong impression, Dix informs Mildred his interests in her are purely professional.  Now relieved, she willingly cancels a previous date to go home with him instead. In the forecourt of Dix’s gated bungalow at the Beverly Patio Apartments we meet Laurel Gray – a neighbor, slinking past them with watchful eyes.
While Dix retires to his bedroom to change into more comfortable clothes, Mildred begins to relay the novel’s plot to him from the next room. It becomes painfully clear to Dix that what Mildred calls ‘an epic’ is actually second-rate romantic pulp of the worst vintage; real trash and B-grade filler that in no way motivates him to write the screenplay. He thanks Mildred for her time, pays her off and sends her on her way. Disgusted by the prospect of committing himself to another flop, Dix retires for the night instead. Too bad for Dix, that in the wee hours of the morning he is awakened by Brub Nicholai. It is not a social call. Since leaving the army, Brub has become a detective sergeant on the Beverly Hills police force. It seems the body of Mildred Atkinson was discovered in Benedict Canyon, dumped from a moving car; the trail leading back to Dix’s bungalow. At the police station, Capt. Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) rides Dix hard, suggesting twenty dollars paid for more than Mildred’s cab fare and that any gentleman would have called for a cab, rather than leave a young girl to go in search of one on her own. “Oh, I didn’t say I was a gentleman,” Dix glibly replies, “I said that I was tired.”
Lochner is unimpressed. Believing he has already found his man, he orders Brub to stick like glue to Dix; certain, Dix will eventually provide the slip-up to effectively announce his guilt. Lochner also calls Laurel Gray in for questioning. Alas, she confirms Dix’s story instead. While Mildred was at Dix’s earlier in the evening, it is also true she left his bungalow alone, exactly as he stated. Mel is horrified to learn his client is under investigation for murder. But Dix delights in tormenting his agent with his noncommittal explanation of his whereabouts. A short while later, Brub invites Dix to dinner at his home; Brub’s wife, Sylvia, unconvinced of Dix’s innocence, particularly after Dix’s reenactment of the crime causes Brub to narrowly avoid strangling his own wife. Sylvia prefers her men conventionally handsome and average. Brub, however, admits he has gleaned more pertinent knowledge of how the crime might have been committed in five minutes from listening to Dix than from all his many hours of investigative legwork thus far. Meanwhile, Dix makes a play for Laurel. She is willing and receptive and soon becomes the muse to inspire Dix to write his best screenplay to date. Laurel could not be happier. But her masseuse, Martha, keeps needling her to pursue a more profitable relationship with a former flame, Mr. Baker.
Dix and Laurel join Brub and Sylvia for a moonlit bonfire on the beach. But the mood turns from palpably romantic to contemptuous when Sylvia inadvertently reveals Laurel has been in Lochner’s office more recently to answer another round of questions. Suspecting Laurel has been getting closer simply to help Brub and Lochner pin Mildred’s murder on him, Dix flies off the handle. He drives like a madman with Laurel in tow, racing down the narrowly winding coastal highway; confronted by a teenage driver, John Mason (Don Hamin) whom he almost sideswipes. Dix and John get into it, Dix pummeling the college football star to the ground until he is unconscious. Laurel can plainly see Dix is out of control. Possibly, she fears for her own safety too. Without a doubt, it is a turning point in their relationship. Laurel confides her fears to Sylvia who suggests she should go away to clear her head and decide either to continue or break off her relationship with Dix. Meanwhile, Dix attempts to make a mends by wiring John money to repair his car. For the next little while, Laurel tries to reach Dix. However, increasingly she begins to fall out of love with him. Thus, by the time Mel arrives to check up on Dix’s progress with the script, Laurel has already made up her mind not to marry him. She offers Mel the screenplay and prepares to pack up and leave. But Dix returns home early, as yet unaware of her intentions, and invited by Mel and Fran to dinner at Paul’s. Regrettably, once again, Dix’s ire is raised when Fran confides she cannot wait to begin work on the new film Dix has written; Mel endeavoring to cover up the fact Laurel gave him the screenplay.
Having once been dishonest and nearly ruined her own chances for happiness, Laurel comes clean and reveals to Dix she gave the script to Mel. When a private call comes in for Laurel, Dix intervenes, suspecting it to be her former lover/sugar daddy, Mr. Baker. Mel tries to reason with Dix but it’s no use. Dix slugs Mel in the face; a humiliating moment, capped off by Dix’s realization Mel was right about his screenplay. It is a hit with the producers and with Barnes, who cannot wait to begin shooting. By all accounts, Dix is back on top; except, the phone call he intercepted is actually Martha - not Baker. Mel is willing to let bygones be bygones. Though demoralized, he will remain Dix’s agent. However, Laurel has suddenly realized Dix will never change. He may not be a murderer, but he is decidedly a loose cannon and a bully. It is time to cut her losses, move out and move on. Meanwhile, Capt. Lochner is chagrined when an unknown man, Tesla, confesses to Mildred’s murder. So, Dix really is ‘clean’ after all. Brub tries to telephone the good news. But Dix is not home, having stormed Laurel’s bungalow under the misguided notion she is cheating on him. Despite her protestations, Dix remains suspicious; unaware she has plans to escape his tyranny with an impromptu trip to New York. When Dix repeatedly badgers Laurel, then threatens her with the possibility of physical harm, she pleads for his understanding. Thwarted in the nick of time by Brub’s phone call; Lochner’s apology comes much too late to make any difference in their future as a couple. The affair that burned searing white hot is at an end. As Dix leaves Laurel’s apartment for the last time, utterly defeated and for parts unknown – certain to come to no good, a tearful Laurel murmurs the memorable line from Dix’s movie script, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me”, adding, “Goodbye, Dix.” 
In A Lonely Place is the purgatory of all truly heartbreaking love stories; the antithesis of romance, for sure. Director, Nicholas Ray builds on an intensity of misdirection; that Dixon Steele has somehow murdered Mildred Atkinson in a fit of rage. Initially, it all plays out as a hunch, blossoming into more than a distinct likelihood until the very end. Even if Dix has not killed Mildred, he certainly possesses both the temperament and predilection towards uncontrollable violence that, left unchallenged, almost resulted in at least one murder – the aforementioned bludgeoning to the brink of death of U.C.L.A. athlete, John Mason. And in these penultimate moments of farewell, Ray does more than hint that without Laurel as his buffer Dixon Steele will come to no good, despite having dodged Lochner’s impassioned police frame-up for this crime. In hindsight, the Red Scare’ is written all over this movie; the tabloid-esque quality of its police procedural and nightmarish fantasy element of its flagrante delicto – I hesitate referring to Laurel and Dix’s brief relationship as either a ‘whirlwind romance’ or ‘love affair’ (more like the Texas-sized tornado of torrid liaisons) – is permeated by political subtext. Without a doubt, Bogart was feeling the sting of HUAC’s heedless spank, in hindsight, most fortunate McCarthy’s slap down did not escalate to career-derailing proportions that had befallen a great many iconoclastic talents along the way. Co-star, Art Smith’s career would not survive this deluge; Smith utterly ruined a few short years after the release of In A Lonely Place when he was fingered as a Communist by his erstwhile ‘friend’, director, Elia Kazan.  
Having narrowly dodged his own run in with McCarthyism, Nicholas Ray would prove an influential figure to the burgeoning French New Wave; his reputation in Hollywood dogged by speculations of rumored – though never proven – bisexualism. By 1960, Ray’s liberal usage of various drugs and alcohol had overrun his clear-eyed professionalism. While shooting 55 Days at Peking (1963) he suffered a complete physical collapse, withdrawing from film-making for almost a decade, by which time it had become rather obvious to his closest friends he was suffering from more than his addictions, his health in very steep decline. Becoming a professor of film studies during these emeritus years, Ray continued to produce and direct modest movies in conjunction with his students. He died of lung cancer on June 16, 1979; ironically the same week as John Wayne, whom he had directed in Flying Leathernecks in 1951; today, regarded as Ray’s least distinguished movie. Ironically, In A Lonely Place was the antithesis of Ray’s own prospects in Hollywood circa 1950, the pendulum of his career decidedly on the upswing. For the briefest of wrinkles in time, Nicholas Ray occupied an enviable position as an irrefutable trendsetter/trailblazer with such daring classics as Johnny Guitar (1953), Rebel Without A Cause (1954), Bigger Than Life (1956) and Party Girl (1958) pushing the envelope on every hell-raising/hair-raising wickedness, from teen delinquency/gang violence, to drug abuse and prostitution, rocking the Eisenhower era’s insular view of America; the beautiful. In A Lonely Place is distinctly a prologue piece to this memorable period in Ray’s career and something of an epilogue to the Hollywood that was – or rather, never was, but affectingly pretended to be during the golden thirties and well on into the 1940’s. It survives today as a blistering piece of post-war American cinema with a shockingly bleak performance from Humphrey Bogart.
I will simply go on record and state that it would have been prudent of Sony to remaster In A Lonely Place in 4K, considering this is fast becoming the technical standard bearer in an industry insidiously pushing for the upgrade, but without actually possessing any truly inspired content to view in this ultra-hi-def format. But no, Criterion's ‘new’ Blu-ray is sourced from a 2K digital restoration done a few years back, overseen and curated in their vaults until now by Grover Crisp’s exceptional team of archivists and restoration experts. I really cannot fault the results. In A Lonely Place in 1080p easily bests the tired old DVD transfer from 2002, offering superior resolution, exceptional tonality and film grain that, at long last, appears naturally thick instead of rather hazily soft and artificially clumpy. Fine details are brought to the forefront while age-related artifacts have been diminished and/or eradicated for a very impressive and consistent rendering. Honestly, there is virtually nothing to complain about here; the limitations of Columbia’s source materials resulting in some less than perfect, though forgivable moments scattered throughout. The scene taking place in the dewy wee hours after Dix’s initial police interrogation, as he offers a young man cleaning the sidewalks a few bucks to send flowers to Mildred Atkinson’s funeral, still looks rough and underexposed, as example. We won’t poo-poo the results, however, because the effort put forth is satisfying on the whole. Criterion’s PCM mono is more than adequate; George Antheil’s score sounding marvelous and dialogue front and center, with a very crisp resonance.
Criterion pads out the extras. We have perhaps come to expect such plush accoutrements from Criterion when in reality we really ought to give sincere thanks to Jon Mulvaney and his team at Criterion, as they remain the only company to consistently apply such a mantra and dedication to virtually every home video release long before the birth of hi-def. Herein, we get a thorough audio commentary from NYU prof, Dana Polan. Aside: I really wish Polan would contribute more tracks like this one to Criterion’s upcoming slate of releases. Honestly, I cannot find enough plaudits to recommend his work both elsewhere and herein. We also get a newly produced 16 minute reflection on Gloria Grahame by biographer, Vincent Curcio; too brief, but nevertheless fascinating in the tidbits of information he provides. Ported over from the DVD is director, Curtis Hanson’s 20 min. ‘In A Lonely Place Revisited’; Hanson returning to the famed apartments where Nicholas Ray shot the bulk of his movie, to retrace the director’s steps and reminisce about the movie and its legacy.
Criterion has also unearthed I’m a Stranger Here Myself; a 1975 documentary on Nicholas Ray curiously condensed from its original runtime of an hour to 40 min. Given allowances for excised TV commercial breaks, I am uncertain exactly what else in the way of actual content was omitted to account for this 20 min. gap. As with a lot of vintage ‘bio’ puff pieces made in the 70s, this one stacks the deck with noteworthy names apart from Ray to provide context and snippets of commentary; Francois Truffaut, John Houseman and Natalie Wood among its cavalcade.  Finally, there is the hour-long radio adaptation from 1948; arguably, more faithful to Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, with Robert Montgomery and Laurene Tuttle as its stars. As expected, we also get liner notes, these featuring a critical essay by Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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