Monday, April 14, 2008

Cinematheque shows the film in which Bogie is called a "blind, knuckleheaded squirrel"

Saturday night we saw a real treat at the UW Cinematheque -- a sparkling restored print of the Nicholas Ray film, "In a Lonely Place." The epithet hurled at Humphrey Bogart comes during a really over the top moment in the film. An enraged Bogie is driving wildly through the night in the Hollywood hills, costar Gloria Grahame at his side, when he sideswipes a car driven by a young man. The other driver jumps out of his car and screams at Bogie that he's a "blind, knuckleheaded squirrel." The words are comically inappropriate, but they enrage Bogie further. He attacks the other driver and almost kills him.

Maybe that's one reason the film notes describe the film as combining noir and screwball comedy elements. It may also be one reason the movie wasn't very successful or well regarded at the time of its release. For example, Pauline Kael was no fan -- in "5001 Nights at the Movies" she totally dismissed "In a Lonely Place."
Humphrey Bogart, as a cynical, tired Hollywood screenwriter named Dixon Steele, in an atmospheric but disappointingly shallow murder melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray.
But eventually the French New Wave turned their attention to Nicholas Ray, who became one of their iconic American auteurs, a favorite of both Truffaut and Godard. "In a Lonely Place" has been growing in critical esteem on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. By 2005, Time magazine named it to its list of the All-Time 100 Best Films, although in 1950 their critic had written, "'In a Lonely Place' is a Humphrey Bogart melodrama that seems to take forever getting to the point and just about as long driving it home."

Director Nicholas Ray was a Wisconsin native, born in Galesville, and his pre-Hollywood years intersected with some other famous Wisconsin native sons, including fellow director Joseph Losey (they attended the same high school in La Crosse), Thornton Wilder and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Born in small-town Wisconsin in 1911, Nicholas Ray's early experience with film came with some radio broadcasting in high school. He left the University of Chicago after a year, but made such an impression on his professor and writer Thorton Wilder that he was recommended for a scholarship with Frank Lloyd Wright, where he learned the importance of space and geography, not to mention his later love for CinemaScope.
Film writer David Thomson wrote an admiring essay in The Guardian about the troubled Ray. "The Poet of Nightfall," he called him. He especially likes Ray's early films of the forties and early fifties.
None of those films did especially well. They were all black and white. But they are filled with anguish and ecstasy and a kind of framing and lighting and camera movement that steadily deepens the routine script material. In a Lonely Place is less showy than Sunset Boulevard, but it is the truer portrait of Hollywood compromise and hypocrisy. The love affair between Bogart and Gloria Grahame fixes on one of Ray's characteristic situations: lovers who are bad for each other. It was a situation from life. The marriage to Evans had broken down, and Grahame became Ray's second wife in a partnership doomed from the start by infidelity and mistrust.
If there was a lot of Nicholas Ray in Dixon Steele, there was also a lot of Humphrey Bogart. In her memoir "Lulu in Hollywood," Louise Brooks devotes an essay to Bogart, a friend in her Hollywood days. It was called "Humphrey and Bogey" to distinguish between the private and public man. The latter, she thought, was eventually undone by what she saw as Bogart's "fundamental inertia." She thought "In a Lonely Place" gave him the opportunity for one of his greatest screen performances because it drew heavily on his own personal traits.
However, before inertia set in, he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey's own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character's, the screenwriter's, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.
I first saw "In a Lonely Place" late at night on television more than ten years ago. I thought the "knuckleheaded squirrel" remark was bizarre, and that was about all I remembered. This time I was blown away, and the the film remains vivid in my memory a day later -- a rare event these days, most films being so forgettable. The performances of Bogart and Grahame (now perhaps best remembered for her role as bad girl Violet Bick in "It's a Wonderful Life") are among their best, and Nicholas Ray puts them in the spotlight on his own distinctive dark stage.


Jeff said...

Very nice piece, MG! Lucky you to see a restored print of this ... it's been my favorite Bogey of all time for many years ... there's so much going on there with a ton of memorable scenes and lines. The one that really sticks with me after all these years is the scene in the kitchen near the end involving a rather sinister grapefruit. Of course it doesn't turn out like we fear, but that scene always gives me chills. Only other sinister citrus I can remember immediately in film is that tense scene with Angelica Huston and her thug boss in The Grifters ... "causes internal injuries and doesn't leave a mark...."

I miss the old cinema culture of Madison!

Ilsa Lund said...

In a Lonely Place is one of my 5 favorite films of all time and the one underrated film that I feel the need to advocate. It's always nice to hear positive words about it. I can't believe how badly Pauline Kael missed the boat on this one, as Ray's masterpiece is probably the most fiercely emotional of all film noirs and anyone who's seen it would know that it's anything but "disappointingly hallow."

I also heartedly agree with Thomson who said that even though Sunset Blvd. may be more flashy and outrageous, Ray's film is more subtle and as a result more truthful in its depiction of Hollywood, especially when you compare the two directors. I don't mean at all to sound like the moguls who thought in 1950 that Billy Wilder should be "tarred and feathered" for his warped view of Hollywood, but the reason I feel that Sunset Blvd. works much better as a dark comedy than a diatribe against Hollywood is because Billy Wilder, even though he later complained of directors misinterpreting his scripts, as a director he was never in a position where he was taken for granted; almost all of his films were huge hits and he had a good amount of control over how they turned out. Nicholas Ray made an extraordinary debut with They Live by Night and in any other time it would've been a success and his career would've turned out much differently, but he signed at RKO just as Howard Hughes was taking over (something The Aviator never went into was Hughes' slow death of a promising studio); his debut sat on the shelf for 2 years and with some exceptions, was forced to do hack jobs that were clearly below him. Ray knew all too well what it was like to be the victim of the industry that made you, and his alter ego's anger is only more justified and raw because of it.