|'Within the narrative and outside of it, as witnessed by us, Ray's film is a beautiful examination and deconstruction of the fiction of death.'|
Hollywood's obsession with itself continues to provide the potential for distance between the narratives studios create and their audiences. Appropriately enough, In A Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray's revered 1950 Noir, has at its core a playfulness around the creation of narratives, which for many will be enough to secure its place as a Classic.
Everything about Ray's narrative revolves around a self-awareness regarding story creation. His 'hero' (or at least central character), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter in need of a hit, glumly disenfranchised with his assignment to turn a trashy novel into a workable script. Steele gives us glimpses into his creative process throughout the film, most famously in a scene where he reconstructs the murder of Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) in a style which makes us question his supposed innocence.
The scene is a fantastic bit of performance by Bogart (and lighting by Burnett Guffey) but, more so, it is immensely clever by Ray in deconstructing the sometimes thankless art of storytelling. Steele here is at the height of his powers, creating something real and meaty, but what does he get for it? Doubt and suspicion, from us and the other characters within the scene. Such is the way of Noir and Steele's life to that point. He is likable, sharp and funny, but he is also fallible, dangerous and, in another film (or maybe even, elsewhere in this one), an abusive murderer. By the time he is sitting in his car, with his arm around the neck of Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), no-one can help but fear for her safety.
The sophistication (grown-up-ness, if you will) of In A Lonely Place is that it has the ability, gumption and desire to allow this sort of question against its leading characters. You genuinely doubt that Steele is innocent. Laurel, meanwhile, also attracts our suspicions, right until the final third. Her flight from a past lover seems steeped in uncertainty, flames only fanned by the mysteriously matronly Martha (Ruth Gillette). Within the narrative and outside of it, as witnessed by us, Ray's film is a beautiful examination and deconstruction of the fiction of death.
It is, however, also a film which wobbles around genres, which presents few, if any, characters whom you wish to root for and one which has an overly keen ear for the sharp dialogue of Andrew Solt's script.
Genre first. In Ebert's Great Movies review, he places In A Lonely Place around Noir, but in Romance. I'd argue that it skirts both but finally, especially within the final third, makes it to the unattractive side of Melodrama. There are too many unrestrained histrionics in the break down, too many leered sighs and frank weepy apologies, and it hurts the film's ostensibly heartless, dry core.
That dryness, embodied by Steele's repartee, is also clinical enough to cut your suspension of disbelief. The character rarely misses the chance for a one-line retort and Laurel rarely misses the chance to set him up for one. It is a film constructed of zinger after zinger; all payoffs and no substance. People only talk like this in Hollywood.
Which, of course, brings us back around to the setting and Hollywood's love of its own slightly grubby visage. To sell that properly - to me at least - there has to be something to love; some golden age, rose-tinted Romance or some genuine undercutting of the glamour. Steele and Laurel offer neither of those things and because of that, long parts of In A Lonely Place felt too cold, too 'Hollywood clean' and, well, too lonely to love.
The Criterion Collection edition of In A Lonely Place is available on UK Blu-ray from Monday 16th May 2016.