But how is the direction? That's the stumbling block for me in regards to Ray. So much of my confusion over the actual worth of his work stems from critical appraisals which are bizarrely unrelated to what's up on screen. For example, here are some typical assessments of In a Lonely Place (all taken from Film Forum's brochure):
"An achingly poetic meditation on pain, distrust and loss of faith " Time Out London.
"Ray's psychological portrait stems from a fevered, almost expressionistically dour style." Maybe that one can be disregarded because it comes from the almost expressionistically idiotic Armond White.
"A galvanizing hybrid of Film-Noir expressionism and Cassavettes-anticipating emotional rawness." Not sure whose mistake it is, but former Premiere editor Glenn Kenny's quote spells "Cassavetes" wrong in the brochure.
And those are the words that always come up in context of Ray: Expressionistic. Poetic. Fevered. Raw. Here's what I can't understand: IN A LONELY PLACE IS DIRECTED IN THE EXACT SAME UNREMARKABLE STYLE AS DOZENS OF OTHER HOLLYWOOD FILMS OF THE SAME ERA. I don't mean to say that the direction is bad, it's just entirely, 100% normal. It’s the typical seamless Hollywood style. To call it "expressionistic" implies a level of visual stylization – that aesthetic implication is primary to the word – and that's just inaccurate. It doesn't even approach the normal level of mild stylization associated with Film-Noir in general. A silly shot of Bogart’s eyes lit to emphasize "craziness" is the only thing, ABSOLUTELY THE ONLY THING in the film that could ever slightly be considered stylized. That's it: one shot. And there's not even anything original about the "crazy-eye!" lighting – that's a perfectly run-of-the-mill tactic: to make our character seems nuts, let’s light him up weirdly.
To single out Ray's films for their visual style makes no sense whatsoever, to call them "expressionistic" demonstrates an elasticity of definition stretched well beyond its snapping point. If In a Lonely Place is expressionistic, then the telephone sitting on my desk is expressionistic. Dolph Lundgren's haircut is expressionistic. The delicious chicken wings at the Candlelight Inn are expressionistic. And "Cassavettes-anticipating emotional rawness?" The film clearly belongs to the His Girl Friday, Some Like it Hot model in the early-going and then segues into a Hitchcock-flavored thriller. You know, just like Husbands.
The critical appraisal of In a Lonely Place is mainly nonsense: it's hyperbolic about something workmanlike, ascribing poetic soul to an unrepentantly manipulative entertainment. J. Hoberman's review gets it right in saying it features "one of the most unashamedly romantic lines in any movie."* I'm confused: are there any two forces more diametrically opposed than "unashamedly romantic" and "Cassavettes-anticipating** emotional rawness?" Again, if classical Hollywood romanticism and Cassavetes grittiness are the same thing, then definitions are being distorted so much as to be unintelligible. Same goes for the use of the words "meditation" and "poetic." For comparison: Antonioni and Ozu create meditations, Terrence Malick is poetic, In a Lonely Place is a standard Hollywood entertainment.
So, let's look at some other words that routinely come up in regards to In a Lonely Place: "Bleak" – A.O. Scott (who along with Hoberman has the most intelligent and reasonable appraisal of the film); "Darkest, harshest" – Richard Brody; "Darkly romantic" – AV Club; "Dark, bitter" Michael Joshua Rowan; "Grim sardonic" - Chris Cabin. And finally, "Nicholas Ray's bleak, desperate tale of fear and self-loathing" - All Movie Guide. Those words paint a picture of a notably dark and bleak film. But again, I'm not sure where the hell these descriptions are coming from. The ending is undoubtedly a downer, but the tone of the rest of the film isn't especially grim or bleak or harsh – again, this is a regular Hollywood entertainment through and through (and that's not a criticism on my part!). In general, the film might be harsh or bleak in comparison to say, Christmas in Connecticut, but it wouldn’t be especially dark in comparison to It's a Wonderful Life or The Philadelphia Story.
As for the ending, ever since Ingrid Bergman hopped on a plane with Paul Henreid, the studios had been more than willing to let Bogart walk away without getting the girl. In the 40's and 50's, he was literally the poster-boy for doomed romance and I'd be very hesitant to attribute anything about the downbeat resolution of In a Lonely Place to Ray. Romantic failure was explicitly Bogart's shtick and a proven money-winner, so if the ending of the film is bleak, you could expect just as much from a film starring the owner of Rick's Place. Otherwise, the film simply isn't that dark – certainly not as dark as the work filmmakers like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or John Huston (or Fritz Lang for that matter) were creating at the same time within the same studio system. The film easily feels more "melodramatic" than "bleak" or "harsh."
But does the ridiculous critical stance in regards to Ray mean I should resist the films themselves? To be fair, Godard and the Cahiers critics were never foolish enough as to thoughtlessly abuse terms like "expressionistic" in regards to Ray. For them, Ray represented something essentially cinematic (see the quote on page 2) and do I see any of that here? Well, when I referred to the early going as having a "Hecht and MacArthur" feel, that of course means that these scenes recall other films-adapted-from-plays like His Girl Friday and Twentieth Century. That's a rough start if your criterion is "something that exists only in cinema, which would be nothing in a novel, the stage or anywhere else." As a matter of fact, the whole film is fairly stage-bound with almost all of the action taking place on three sets: Steele's apartment complex, the police station and a schmancy restaurant.
It's not hard to imagine the film adapted for the stage with only the teeniest bit of re-jiggering. There's only one scene which would need to be significantly altered (in which an enraged Bogart drives Grahame through the Hollywood hills) and, even then, the setting could be changed to something stage-bound without in any way damaging the spirit and meaning of the moment. To say the film is "stagy" is not unfair: again to compare, think of the films of Roberto Rossellini and Albert Lamorisse, two favorites of Cahiers H.N.I.C. Andre Bazin. It would be truly ludicrous to suggest that the work of Rossellini or Lamorisse could be adapted into a play – Godard's proclamation about an essential cinematic nature actually pertains to their work in a way that makes its application to In a Lonely Place seem either stupid or dishonest. I'll again cut off some slack here (I don't want to seem like a complete jackass): Godard was writing about Ray in general, not just this film - maybe In a Lonely Place is just off-model.
The only other place I can think to search for spots of Ray's personality is in the fact that the film was adapted from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. The novel is told from the perspective of Dixon Steele; but in the case of the book, he's a serial sex murderer, not an ornery screenwriter. I'll say right up front that I think this is a dead end, even though the novel was altered drastically for the screen. I couldn't find any evidence that Ray was involved in the process of writing the screenplay and changing the story (all of that seems to have come from the studios and producers). And whatever changes were made obviously had more to do with the strict censorship of the era than any ideas Ray might have had about how to improve the story or capture the essence of the book on the screen.
Blargh – I really don't want to start off on a wave of negativity. I enjoyed In a Lonely Place more than I remember liking Rebel without a Cause or Johnny Guitar. For sure, the first scenes of In a Lonely Place are fantastic. But again, I don't find anything distinct or original about them: they immediately call to mind the films of dozens of classical Hollywood filmmakers from Billy Wilder to Howard Hawks to George Stevens to Preston Sturges (well, maybe not that screwball-y.) On the other hand: that's some pretty great company. I could do a hell of a lot worse. And Bogart is truly dynamite when the script and Ray give him an opportunity to take control. Let's make like Albert Nerenberg and focus on those kernels of goodness.
Obviously, the jury's still out but this is at least an intriguing start. As much as I feel like it might be for the best to forget all about the critical assessments of Ray, I remember that's what’s driving me back to him in the first place. Many people are seeing something special in Ray beyond being simply a George Stevens-esque Hollywood journeyman (with some good one, some bad ones, a lot of forgettable ones). So far, from what I've seen of his, the first third of In a Lonely Place is my favorite piece of work from the beloved auteur, so that's something. Having a little glint of affection for Ray is something to build off of, even if the light is mainly reflected from Bogart's dazzling star. At very least, I'm excited to check out the other Bogart/Ray team-up in the series, Knock on Any Door. That film features the iconic line, "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse," which I think we can all agree is fucking awesome and good advice anytime.
Incidentally, I had recently recorded Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt off of TCM, so I went ahead and performed a variation on my high school experience, this time with a double-features of Lang and Ray Films-Noir (instead of Westerns) with an added triple-feature chaser of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle. What's more, the plots of Ray and Lang's films even mirror each other to a certain extent: both are murder mysteries about strangled second-class women and the hoity-toities tangentially related to their deaths. Both films build to final sections hinging on a woman's trust and fidelity to the protagonist. These women's "investigations" take over their films to a large extent and both films stumble to a close as a result. However, it should definitely be noted that Joan Fontaine is 4 times the actress of Gloria Grahame*** (while Dana Andrew is 1/8 the leading man of Bogart. I'm not sure what that math works out to.) Lang's film occasionally employs a bit of stylization which could conceivably be described as "expressionistic," but that would even still be pushing it.
I'll write more about Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in our first installment of "“Canon Fodder: Looking at Filmmakers' Top Ten Lists, film by film" because Godard put it on his "Ten Best of 1957" list (along with compellingly idiosyncratic picks like The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Sawdust and Tinsel and Hollywood or Bust.) For the record, by miles and miles, The Asphalt Jungle is the best of all three Noirs from my triple-feature – obviously not the most unique, but definitely the best.
One final note on In a Lonely Place: there's a bit where Steele explodes in a fit of road rage and beats up another motorist. The motorist turns out to be a star football player at UCLA – we find that out by the front-page headlines declaring "UCLA Football Star Beaten Badly!" I'm not sure what the point of that information is. Are we supposed to be impressed that Steele is such a hard-ass that he can hand out thorough ass-whompings to seasoned athletes? Or is it just to give Steele a convoluted opportunity to prove he's a decent guy with a conscience by sending apology money to the battered baller (which he does)? Whatever the reason, the identity of the stomped collegian is one odd detail in a film disappointingly free of them.
Second Chances: Nicholas Ray continues with Part II (of IV): featuring Bigger than Life and another look at Johnny Guitar.
<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part II >>
* "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
** I know it's a cheap-shot to harp on a typo, but really that misspelling should be as instantly recognizable to any film critic as if he had written "Ferlini-inspired spectacle" or "Bunwell-tinged surrealism." Going after typing errors is the lowest of the low, though, so I will admit I am an asshole. Oh, hell, who am I kidding - "Cassavetes" is a tricky one. I just wanted to write "Ferlini."
*** Could it be that The Asphalt Jungle is the best of all three films because Marilyn Monroe is the best of the three featured blondes? Maybe there's some "best blonde" corollary at work here. I'll need to do further research.
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