Do you like his face?
“Brabantio: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see / She has deceived her father, and may thee.” — Othello
Bashing Hollywood on celluloid has a long and rich history, and has ironically birthed more than its share of truly amazing cinema. Films like Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard, Robert Altman‘s The Player, or even David Lynch’s dream noir Mulholland Drive have emptied their respective barrels on an industry often seen as bloodless, calculating and ruthlessly engineered by money types more interested in cashing a check than upholding any type of compelling artistic ethic. More often than not, as reality television has so capably demonstrated, the media image has taken a backseat to the brand image, sometimes to the point that the two are inextricably linked.
This often deadly collusion has provided Hollywood noir with its finest moments; it has also been accused of a self-referentiality that borders on laziness. Think about Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: while she argues that the pictures have gotten too “small” to house her mammoth bankability (and ego), she has done nothing to further her craft besides lie around her withering mansion all day replaying her past triumphs. The same has been argued about metafictional cinema, where movies make movies about, well, movies. So how can a film (especially one featuring massive stars, such as In a Lonely Place or The Player, have something truly credible to say about the image industry?
By using the image, or the eye, against itself, one might argue, something Nicholas Ray has done to perfection with In a Lonely Place. The film is a near-analytic treatise on the danger of reliance upon images, surfaces and facades, and there is no more compelling image than that of Humphrey Bogart himself. Already a screen icon with about 60 films — including classics like Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, to name just a few — under his belt by 1950, Bogart’s onscreen persona was practically inseparable from those he had already cemented in previous films. Like another icon, Jack Nicholson, Humphrey Bogart transcended his roles in a way that would make Norma Desmond overdose on sleeping pills.
So to have Bogie play the aptly named Dixon Steele, a bankable Hollywood writer prone to violent outbursts (if you reverse his name, using the moniker his friends employ, you get “Steele Dix” — get it?), was a canny move on the part of Nicholas Ray and screenwriter, Andrew Solt. After all, what better way to confuse the order of images than to fill the central role with a star literally bigger than life itself, to say nothing of the movies, to play a doomed Hollywood psycho? This type of confluence is In a Lonely Place‘s lasting, ubiquitous gift, and although the film has been championed as one of Bogie’s finest performances, it is nevertheless deeply invested in turning the image inside out.
Take, for example, the film’s central murder, which occurs off-screen. The star-struck Mildred Atkinson (played by Martha Stewart) goes home with Dix to synopsize the boring bestseller he is supposed to be adapting, and is summarily carried away by her own breathless histrionics before disappearing from the film entirely. When Dix is informed by the police that Mildred had been strangled to death, she is remembered only by the crime-scene photos Ray’s camera extensively captures, lingering on them long enough to displace, from every angle no less, whatever memory of her that has been retained by the audience.
Further, when Dix, no dummy, hears her narrating the book’s murder, screaming “Help, help!”, he is torn away from voyeuristic viewing of his next-door neighbor, Laurel Grey (played with a swagger by the wonderful Gloria Grahame), to warn Mildred about her volume. As a man steeped in film lore (in real life? in character?), he knows too well how his “neighbors” might misconstrue her overacting, and, of course, Ray’s foreshadowed wink comes to life when Dix is called in for questioning about her murder. The only thing truly saving him from imprisonment on the spot is the same neighbor he ogled the night before (Ray elevates and frames her through Steele’s window, as if he’s watching a movie); he gets off scot-free when Laurel, who had yet to meet Steele, argues that she’s sure of his innocence because, in her words, “I like his face.”
So the stage is set, literally, for Ray to pull the rug from beneath his star-crossed lovers, because he knows full well, having joined film from a career in architecture, that the culture industry’s reliance upon surfaces and images is no way to build a foundation. Although Grey and Steele have never truly met, they fall in love on sight, before ever really laying the groundwork for the type of trust that would fortify either character against the type of suspicion that falls on Steele like a hammer. Sure enough, Steele’s likeable face fails him, because it does not adequately transmit the untrammeled violence he barely stores beneath that million-dollar surface, one that turned films like The Maltese Falcon and To Have or Have Not into film noir legends. Like the doomed Mildred, who loved images so overtly that she ended up immortalized in a few garish ones, Steele is fated to remain at odds against his amiable facade; it is only there to hide the psychopath beneath.
And, during In a Lonely Place‘s finest moments, Ray lets the madman that you always knew lay buried under Bogie’s most memorable characters out to play with the film’s main signifiers. In an unforgettable dinner scene with his old WWII pal — and officer on the Atkinson case – Brub (Frank Lovejoy), and his wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), Steele re-enacts his conception of the murder, using Brub and Sylvia as actors, so convincingly that Brub almost unwittingly strangles his spouse as he’s listening. It’s a chilling moment, one that you would imagine the director Ray would have enjoyed, especially since he places a miniature spotlight on Bogart’s eyes throughout its duration, the same eyes he highlights in a rear-view mirror during the film’s opening credits.
Simply, the eyes cannot be trusted, not in film noir and especially not in In a Lonely Place, something that is remarkably brought home when Steele beats a UCLA quarterback senseless and almost smashes a rock into his face. This is the chief conflict that causes Laurel to second-guess their love, bringing her reliance upon surfaces full circle: the man whose face she so admires is hiding a demon that gets off on bashing the faces of his targets.
And these are only a few incisive moments of a film fully invested in tearing the image apart, piece by piece, even as it stacks them one by one to make a movie. But In a Lonely Place‘s cleverness doesn’t end there; like Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, Ray’s film could care less about the crime that propelled its story forward; unlike Hitchcock, who exhausted Janet Leigh while shooting Psycho‘s infamous shower scene, Ray doesn’t even bother to show Mildred Atkinson’s murder. Because he is primarily after what effect these missteps exert upon relationships and designs. After all, you can always kill more people, but you can’t always watch a relationship deteriorate so beautifully underneath the nagging weight of suspicion. Shakespeare knew this well, and injected it into almost all of his plays, but most successfully in Othello.
And like Othello, Dix Steele, as hard and tough as he is, is ultimately done in by his face, albeit for a different reason (Othello was black, Steele was likeable). But both shared blame in the conspiracy of the eye, because it is the easiest organ to toy with, to manipulate (as film always does) and to subvert. Ray’s film executes all of the above to the extreme, even if his movie is dressed up as a film noir but delivered as a melodrama. He understands well enough that the monolith called film — and by extension, Hollywood — was built upon trompe l’oiel, a trick of the eye. And he tricks everyone, including his own viewers, with this layered onion of a film until they’re all left confused and crying.