by Jim Ridley
In a Lonely Place
Where: The Belcourt
When: Nov. 12-13
In 1950, the same year as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Nicholas Ray directed this equally mordant dismantling of Hollywood dream machinery, as uncompromisingly downbeat a character study as the studio system produced. Both movies concern screenwriter antiheroes, but in Wilder’s film the movie business chews up those who are quick to compromise. In Ray’s, it spits out those who aren’t — such as Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a sour, misanthropic scribe whose inextricable talent and temper have banished him to the fringe. When a coat-check girl at Steele’s favorite nightspot turns up dead, he’s volatile enough to be pegged the chief suspect — not just by his best friend, an LAPD detective (Frank Lovejoy), but gradually by his adoring new girlfriend (Gloria Grahame, then Ray's wife and perhaps the decade’s most underrated actress).
This is the first of Ray’s seething 1950s studies of tormented masculinity, in which the man who doesn’t live (The Lusty Men), feel (Rebel Without a Cause) or succeed (Bigger Than Life) like everyone else is hounded by a system that rewards conformity and mediocrity. In the proto-Prozac Nation of Ray’s ’50s films, the manic extremes of Steele’s “genius” are indistinguishable from insanity (as opposed to the pliant “normal” embodied by Lovejoy’s lug). Amazingly, Bogart, whose production company made the film, shows not a trace of movie-star vanity in the role: his paranoid, self-pitying outbursts are unnervingly raw, the underside of the manly masochism he enshrined in Casablanca. To contemporary viewers, the most surprising aspect may be how unflinchingly Ray, Bogart, and screenwriter Andrew Solt portray this abuser’s cyclical mood swings.