Monthly Archives: December 2017

  • In a Lonely Place

    Nicholas Ray (1950)

    The title refers to the site of a murder central to the plot and to the psychological situation of the protagonist, Dixon ‘Dix’ Steele (Humphrey Bogart).  Dix, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s not had a success for years, becomes a prime suspect in the police investigation of the murder of Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a hat-check girl at a Los Angeles night club.  Dix goes there for a meeting with his agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith).  Both en route to the club and inside it, Dix demonstrates a nasty temper – first in an altercation with another motorist, then in reaction to a movie director who derides Dix’s friend Charlie (Robert Warwick), a superannuated, alcoholic actor.  Mel Lippman is trying to persuade his client to adapt a novel for the screen; Mildred, who overhears their conversation, tells them she’s currently reading the book and engrossed by it.  Dix invites her back to his apartment so that she can tell him the plot.  He hears enough from her to convince him the novel is trash, and gives Mildred her cab fare home.  Next morning, he learns from Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an old army pal of Dix’s and now a police detective, that Mildred’s dead body has been discovered, ‘in a lonely place’ on the highway.  Police captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) immediately advises Dix that he’s a suspect, although the evidence against him is only circumstantial.  Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) are worried by Dix ’s behaviour in the aftermath of the killing, however.  Over drinks with them, he muses aloud how Mildred might have died – so vigorously that Sylvia, especially, is alarmed this isn’t merely a writer’s imagination working overtime.

    As Dix and Mildred approached his apartment, they passed another tenant in the courtyard – a new tenant, whom Dix hadn’t seen before.  This was Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), an actress whom Dix discovers is as down on her professional luck as he is.  Laurel testifies to the police that she saw Mildred leaving the apartment complex unharmed – this is not enough to allay Lochner’s suspicions, which plant a seed of doubt in Laurel’s mind.  She and Dix nevertheless fall in love and his feelings for Laurel invigorate his writing:  as Dix works relentlessly on a script for a love story, he’s enthused by the prospect of creating and sustaining one in real life.  But Laurel is increasingly scared by Dix’s unnerving volatility and propensity for violence – increasingly oppressed by the fear that he could be a killer.  Her fearful betrayal of Dix drives them apart.  He also believes his completed screenplay to be worthless.  Two last-minute pieces of good news – a film producer gives the script the thumbs-up, another confesses to the murder of Mildred Atkinson – arrive too late to redeem the situation.

    The dual problem of achieving a happy ending has been signalled well in advance, when Dix comes up with the following lines for his screenplay:  ‘I was born when she kissed me.  I died when she left me.  I lived a few weeks while she loved me’.  The lines reflect, of course, his own experience with Laurel and accurately predict its conclusion.  Ray’s film noir is freighted with a sense of tragic predestination and the inevitability of an unhappy ending.  These noir conventions often leave me cold but In a Lonely Place is very well done.  It features one of Humphrey Bogart’s most attractive performances:  the unstressed but striking urgency of his physical movement seems to make him more emotionally transparent and needy than usual.  Dix Steele finds it easier to feel remorse than to voice apologies and Bogart makes this surprisingly touching.  He and Gloria Grahame have a strong, easy connection while the romance between Dix and Laurel is (briefly) going well.  Not for the first time, Grahame too impresses with her quick movement.   Both she and Bogart make the most of the abundance of witty lines in the screenplay (by Edmund H North and Andrew Solt, based on a 1947 novel by Dorothy B Hughes).

    Pauline Kael’s dismissal of the film as a ‘disappointingly hollow murder melodrama’ is harsh but she was right that the supporting acting isn’t, for the most part anyway, up to much.   Exceptions include Frank Lovejoy, likeable as the conflicted Brub, and Ruth Warren, who’s good as Laurel’s grumpy cleaner, and Bogart helps to make other bits work.  After Dix has lost his rag, hit Art in the face and damaged his spectacles, the conciliatory exchange between the two men in the gents’ is remarkably tender.  The theatrical drunk Charlie is less tiresome than he might be, thanks to Bogart’s affectionately dry line readings, which counterpoint Charlie’s sonorous Shakespeare-quoting.  Nicholas Ray ratchets up what’s at stake for Dix and Laurel very effectively.  Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is especially expressive in the nocturnal car-driving sequences.  Like its exact contemporary Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place lays into Hollywood.  Ray’s  critique is less emphatic and ornate than Billy Wilder’s but no less effective in presenting the Dream Factory as a piece of nightmare machinery, heartlessly disposing of the people it no longer requires.

    30 November 2017

  • The Big Heat

    Fritz Lang (1953)

    The Big Heat is a lean, exciting melodrama – Fritz Lang’s balance of film noir types and tropes with plot and character is very satisfying.   The screenplay by Sidney Boehm is an adaptation of a story by William P McGivern (which first appeared in late 1952 as a Saturday Evening Post serial and was published as a novel the following year).   The only scenes that seem – while they’re happening – to go on a little too long are those describing the happy home life of the protagonist, homicide detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), with his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and their young daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett).  Once the Bannions’ car is blown up and Katie killed in the explosion, we understand why Fritz Lang took time showing the domestic bliss that has now been destroyed.  By lingering on Katie cooking a steak for her husband, Lang ensures this stays in the viewer’s memory, that Bannion’s determination to avenge his wife’s murder is always edged with an awareness of his personal tragedy.

    The car bomb is Bannion’s punishment for standing up to Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), the snake-like boss of a local crime syndicate that virtually runs the (fictional) city of Kenport.  The corruption extends to the police department, including Bannion’s immediate superior Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) and the force’s commissioner (Howard Wendell), as well as Tom Duncan, the officer whose suicide catalyses Bannion’s investigations and whose widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) is a key figure in the plot.  After Katie’s death and a showdown with Wilks, Bannion hands in his police badge but not his gun – as he points out in the resignation scene, the weapon is his own.   The hero becomes a vigilante yet we always have the sense that he’s in reluctant exile from organised law and order.  It makes emotional sense that, in the film’s closing scene, he returns to work in a cleaned-up police force.  The blurring, in the meantime, of the line that divides officers of the law from unofficial upholders of it is captured well in a sequence that leads into The Big Heat‘s  climax.  After her mother’s death, Joyce Bannion goes to live with her aunt and uncle.  When he learns the police guard has been taken off their house, Bannion hurries over there.  As he climbs the stairs, a man leaps from the shadows and they struggle together.  We assume the adversary is a member of Lagana’s outfit; he turns out to be a friend of Bannion’s brother-in-law, one of a small group of ex-soldiers helping to guard the place now the police have gone.

    Fritz Lang exploits Glenn Ford’s regular guy persona very effectively.   Ford occasionally looks to be working hard to convey Bannion’s bitterness but, for the most part, his grief and anger seem authentically felt.  Ford doesn’t express the canny but wounded soul of a noir tragic hero the way that Humphrey Bogart does but he’s very persuasive as an ordinary cop and family man, which is more important here.  When Bannion finally rejoins the police, he is back in one of the places where he belongs.  Although Lagana’s stranglehold on the city has been broken, this ending isn’t falsely upbeat, however, and not just because, as a call on his return to the office immediately reminds us, homicide is still occurring.  It’s also because Bannion won’t get back to the other place he belongs – the place where Katie used to be.  This idea comes across strongly because Glenn Ford is temperamentally as much at home in a relaxed domestic setting as he is walking mean streets.   The BFI programme note for the screening of The Big Heat I went to used an extract from a 1972 book by Colin McArthur called Underworld USA.  McArthur writes perceptively about Lang’s use of décor and lighting in the story’s different locations to convey the moral differences  between characters:

    ‘In contrast to the Duncan home [where the opening suicide takes place], Bannion’s is brightly lit; in contrast to the luxury of Lagana’s and [his right-hand man Vince] Stone’s places, Bannion’s home is plain.  … [Bannion’s] leaving home, where his humanity has been defined, is one of the turning points in his move towards violence and criminality.  He goes to live in the twilight world of anonymous apartments …’

    The storytelling is clever.  Lang repeatedly creates impact by not over-emphasising a crucial revelation or event:  the mob’s control of the police and influence on forthcoming city elections; Katie’s death; the subsequent elimination of the car bomber (Adam Williams).  Lang, Ford and Gloria Grahame worked together again on the following year’s Human Desire but The Big Heat is an altogether more successful collaboration.  Grahame is admirably varied as Debby Marsh, the girlfriend of Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).  She moves fast, both physically and emotionally speaking, in her early scenes.  There’s a risky quality in Debby’s vivacity, in the squiffy impudence that riles the man who keeps her.  After Stone, in a fit of violent temper, has ruined one side of her face, Debby is reduced at first to an immobility that’s in startling contrast to what has gone before.  The fragility and destruction of facial beauty in a Hollywood film is apt to reverberate beyond the story, especially when the face belongs to an actress of Gloria Grahame’s era and who played the types of role she usually played.  There’s humour, as well as poignancy, in Debby’s death scene, which the Langs (Fritz and his cinematographer namesake Charles) shoot in profile, on the undamaged side.   Elsewhere, Grahame repeatedly proves her ability to do more than look good, making the most of witty lines – as when Debby describes Bannion’s soulless hotel room as ‘early nothing’ or, in her key confrontation with Duncan’s widow, refers to the pair of them as ‘sisters under the mink’.

    Lee Marvin isn’t a pretty sight but he’s an extraordinary one.  His features – the mouth especially – have a brutal mobility.  It’s not surprising that even Mike Lagana tells Vince Stone that he sometimes finds him ‘alarming’:  Marvin makes Stone a very credible psychopath.  Although its title refers to a police crackdown on lawlessness, The Big Heat is notorious for another high-temperature reason – the scene in which Stone throws scalding coffee into Debby’s face.  What’s remarkable for a first-time viewer of the film is to discover that the notoriety of the scene derives from the act itself rather than the staging of it. Anticipating the moment with a knot in my stomach, I was surprised that Stone’s attack occurs off- camera.  We see the coffee bubbling away on a hot plate – then hear Debby’s shocked (and shocking) screams of pain.  The impact of the violence meted out to women is, as Colin McArthur also points out, cumulative.  Before disfiguring Debby, Stone has stubbed out a cigarette on the hand of a bar girl (Carolyn Jones).  Tom Duncan’s mistress (Dorothy Green) is murdered (this too off-screen).  Katie Bannion is killed by the car bomb.  Yet female characters are also the ones who, in different ways and for different motives, turn the tide:  the secretary (Edith Evanson) who gives helpful information to Bannion; Bertha Duncan, who is in possession of evidence that could expose Lagana et al; and Debby Marsh, who takes out her sister under the mink to ensure that evidence comes to light.

    29 November 2017

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