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Forever Revisited: In a Lonely Place on Criterion

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By Tony Williams.

Whether available theatrically or 16mm, VHS, and previous DVD formats, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) has always ranked high as a great Hollywood film either in the realms of authorship or genre. This year Criterion has added the film to its collection and this version does not disappoint anyone in terms of the reputation this company has. The print is clean, clear, and crisp, the best transfer of the film that has so far appeared. Technical aspects aside, this particular DVD has much to offer in addition to the film: a detailed and stimulating commentary by Dana Polan (who wrote the 1993 BFI monograph on the film) in which he develops certain interpretations further as well as offering new insights on the film, insightful liner essay “An Epitaph for Love” by Imogen Sara Smith, the condensed 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself that features Ray filming We Can’t Go Home Again (1973), an interview with Gloria Grahame’s biographer Vincent Curcio detailing the star’s particular acting talents, a 2002 item with director Curtis Hanson who visits the actual apartment complex Ray first stayed in and which formed the film’s set design, as well as a radio adaptation of the original Dorothy B. Hughes novel that contains an interesting alternative direction that the film could have taken.

Since many of us have the film in one form or another, what incentive is there to purchase yet another version, beyond the masterly transfer qualities that Criterion delivers? At one time or another we have seen reissues of various films with different types of extras that may not cumulatively reach the potential of a quality DVD/Blu-ray release. Since we have listened to some disappointing audio-commentaries in the past, Tim Lucas’s being the more positive examples and Ken Loach on Sweet Sixteen being the worst, and redundant extras that add little to the film itself, it is a pleasure to discover a compilation that adds further pleasurable dimensions of meaning to an already acclaimed film.

Lonely 02“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” which I initially saw at the London Film Festival, is already well known in its treatment of the director as tormented genius for its tributes by colleagues that it needs no further comment. However, Polan’s audio commentary contains relevant information not just on Ray himself and the difficult relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife on this film but also various threads in addition to “film noir” that interweave themselves into this film. In this later interpretation, Polan not only develops many of the nuances that first appeared in his 1993 monograph, but also focuses on In a Lonely Place as a “woman’s film” featuring a heroine affected by male violence in a work that “truthfully dissects the ideology of domestic violence”. He sees the film as something unique in its time, in its exploration of violence against women when men were often excused for their threatening exhibition of this behavior. In this light, Polan not only develops elements of his original monograph written some twenty-three years ago but also shows how a classic work can contain ideas relevant to our own era that have often been overlooked in the past. He also sees the film as a dissection of an ugly Hollywood world, where life is a constant display of verbal duels at a time when the surveillance society of HUAC begins to encroach further upon American existence. Polan notes the intersection of many elements and draws parallels with female-centered films such as Rebecca (1941) and Gaslight (1944) as well as Ray’s other films such as A Woman’s Secret (1949) that also starred Gloria Grahame. Yet we must also not forget that it is a film noir and thus illustrates the not always recognized amorphous features of the style that reach into so many contemporary Hollywood genres.

Hansen celebrates the film for its dissection of the Hollywood myth and as one of the best movies ever made about the industry where making money rather than creativity remains dominant. However, the most stimulating addition to this DVD is the 1948 Suspense 287 radio adaptation of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel that preceded the film version. Featuring Robert Montgomery and Lurene Tuttle, it offers one alternative path that could have been taken that has much in common with the paranoid world of Cornell Woolrich. (In his audio-commentary, Polan often refers to the various screenplays and the fact that Dixon Steele was a serial killer in the original Hughes novel; Grahame gained the role of Laurel in the film after other potential competitors such as Ginger Rogers and Lauren Bacall proved unavailable for one reason or another.) In this radio version, if not absent like Aunt Fanny in the Orson Welles 1939 radio version of The Magnificent Ambersons, Laurel is marginalized in favor of the increasingly unstable character of serial killer Dixon superbly voiced by Montgomery, who also functioned as producer. Such a point of view reflects the fiction of Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis (both better respected in France rather than America), which presents an alternative universe to that school of hard boiled fiction represented by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain with its soft-boiled unveiling of the hysterical male ego lurking like a “secret sharer” within the hard-boiled counterpart. This radio version also provides another possible interpretation of Bogart’s violent male character in the movie, as the broadcast installment suggests elements of deep insecurity with the male role. It is thus not surprising when the following week’s attraction is announced – “Nightmare” by William Irish (another well-known pseudonym of Cornell Woolrich) that would star Eddie Bracken as the protagonist.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is the author of several books and articles, and his book James Jones: the Limits of Eternity will appear in August from Rowman & Littlefield.

4 Comments for “Forever Revisited: In a Lonely Place on Criterion”

  1. Thanks for your brilliant and very helpful review, Tony.

    IN A LONELY PLACE is a real favorite of mine, mixing noir and yes – the “women’s film.”

    I was not entirely sure if I needed to pick up the Criterion. Thanks for the informed nudge!

  2. Thank you, Gwendolyn. In this case the radio version forms a really different counterpoint to the film unconsciously venturing into David Goodis and Woolrich territory.

  3. Another fine review Tony! I stumbled across In A Lonely Place around a decade ago by chance, and it’s one film I’m very pleased to have had the pleasure to encounter. Perhaps it could be celebrated for a moment in which writing, directing and performance forge a significant moment that captures the duality of Bogart the performer, and one essential to understanding and appreciating his star power. The moment I’m thinking of is following dinner at an army friends house who also happens to be working the case of the murdered girl, Steele (Bogart) persuades him and his wife to reenact the murder in the car. In this moment we look upon Steele as the wrongly suspected volatile screenwriter with a track record for public incidents of violence. Yet Bogart through the eyes and facial expressions casts Steele as a personality split between darkness and light. His eyes convey a twisted fascination with murder, even a stimulation at the capacity for one person to hurt another, which leaves us to fear that while he may not have been capable of this murder, is he capable of another. The combination of the stare and the twisted smile, which Ray allows the camera to frame with precision, capturing the explosion of duality commits a portrait of the authentic Bogart of two intertwined onscreen personalities superimposed on one another. And in many ways our experience is of a dual nature in the way that we respond to Steele. While I may be overlooking moments in other Bogart films that have achieved this, my memory (and memory is not wholly reliable) recalls this as a particularly stark moment in my impression of Bogart.

  4. Exactly! This is another instance of “The Actor as Auteur” as proposed in Patrick McGilligan’s book on James Cagney and I used this axiom in my ASIAN CINEMA article on Jimmy Wangy Yu titled “Wang Yu – The Taiwan Years.”. Other examples do exist

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