Thursday, 3 January 2013

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place is categorised as a noir by IMDb  but the ways in which it is are outnumbered by the ways it isn't.

Since there is a good deal written about the film, most of it glowing (IMDb carries a good many lay reviews and Wiki has a round-up of the contemporary critical reaction) I want to think about it from a specific angle: the notion of centrality.

In a Lonely Place is not so much a dream-noir as a realistic psychological study characterised by ambivalence. There are other films where the central character is potentially a murderer, other films where the question of centrality is complex, but this is different because of the two potential central characters we are offered neither Dixon the scriptwriter (Humphrey Bogart) nor Laurel, the lovely B-film actress and neighbour (Gloria Grahame) fully occupies the centre. The centre remains a kind of echoing hollow, a fascinating spatial problem.

The film begins with the same device as The Killers (see earlier post): we are in a car speeding down a dark road.  Soon we are in a Hollywood bar with Bogart where he gets into a fight with someone who insults an alcoholic ex-actor friend who was once someone in the movies. Dixon's scripts are not doing too well now and he is drifting to the edges of the business but he is deeply principled and has aesthetic scruples about adapting bad books. He is immediately given a bad book to work into a script. The hat-check girl knows the book, so he asks her to come back with him to his house, which she does, and she gives him a summary of the book which he naturally hates. There could be sex but there isn't and he sends her off in taxi. Later she is found murdered and he is the chief suspect. The only person testifying that the girl left alone is the neighbour, Grahame. It all proceeds from there.

Dixon's problem is violence. He is full of suppressed fury  but he is also laconic and removed. He swings between rage and indifference. On one hand he wisecracks and makes, we believe, sound aesthetic judgments. on the other he fantasises about murder,though this is acceptedby everyone as an aspect of his creativity. But when he hears the hat-check girl has been murdered he feels nothing for her at all and accepts being a suspect with the assurance of one who knows he can run rings around the police.

This is strange behaviour. We develop doubts about him. Not becaause we think he has killed the girl (we have seen her go off) but because we wonder what he is capable of. He's more than a tough guy in the old Bogart sense. He is a potential psychopath.

Laurel, his witness, appears cool, ultra-sophisticated and completely in control. She chooses to help him because, she tells us - and him - that she likes his face. She finds it interesting. She takes charge of the relationship: pure silk, pure steel. Or so we think, but as time goes on and she becomes ever more aware of Dixon's violence we begin to fear for her. She moves from predator to victim.

No one is in charge. Both figures have drifted from the centre.

Laurel's toughness and world-weary sophistication is skin deep, Dixon's wise-cracking and aesthetic judgment are based on madness. Madness and weakness have taken the place of potential sanity and strength.

Nothing heroic happens. Nothing is properly solved. The killer of the girl vanishes into the shadows of the script.

The problem of the murder is not the real problem. The real problem lies elsewhere and is unresolved.

This should be very disappointing. There is no catharsis, no clear solution, nothing even faintly tragic except the sense of mutual loss at the end. Even that isn't a real loss because, given the circumstances as we have come to understand them, nothing could really be up for grabs.

And that is precisely what is intriguing. Things slip from our grasp. We contemplate clichés about violent men and domestic violence but there is little or nothing to be learned here. All the conditions of noir - shadows, angles, night, the constant sense of irresistible movement, spectral appearances, dips into dream, losses of consciousness - appear then disappear into mere circumstance

And it is, as everyone says, beautifully acted, photographed, directed and constructed - feasible yet startling. A tease that's also a vision. Consummate.

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