Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Noir by way of Maron: Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950)

Comedian Marc Maron, on his brilliant WTF podcast, has a gift for exposing the raw, the dark, and the hidden, for hitting on personal fears, failures, and neuroses  with his guests, perhaps in great part because he himself seems so willing (some grumpy skeptics might say too self-obsessively willing) to discuss and analyze his own weaknesses with his guests and his listening public. 

Todd Hanson, one of the original writers of The Onion, spoke with Maron in detail about the day (and the aftermath of that day) he tried to commit suicide (an attempt that Hanson’s doctors said should have worked); Conan O’Brien shared personal insecurities in a way that was real and unexpected for someone so much in the public spotlight; and in a more recent interview, actress-comedian Aubrey Plaza (Funny People, Parks and Recreation) told Maron about the stress-related stroke she’d experienced at 20 and admitted that her deadpan, non-committal persona – something she was projecting even during the interview – was a cover or protection from desperate internal fears.  Maron is, perhaps, primarily interested in the fact that the best comedy most often comes out of a well of fear, anger, sadness, dysfunction, out of, in short, deeply messed up people.   But I believe fans of Maron’s comedy and those of who have discovered Maron’s podcast, possibly by way of the New York Times write up about him, love Maron, not because he and the comedians he interviews are so much different or so much more messed up than we are, but because Maron faces - honestly - failings and fears and neuroses that are, very simply, human, and common in some way to us all even, even if most of us don’t use comedy to deal those weaknesses.

Humphrey Bogart, or affectionately, Bogie, with such roles as he has in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and even The African Queen, offers us a kind of parallel to the dark side of humanity that Maron explores and exposes with his comedy and his interviews.  Bogie’s roles as Sam Spade, Rick, Philip Marlowe, and Charlie Allnut, respectively, from those films above, offer us leading men who are quite dark in various ways. 

Each of them is more or less tough, anti-social or alienated, wry or drily witty, world-weary, cynical.  Bogart perfectly fits these roles, and while I’ve always thought Bogart had an odd, rather ugly face, with his sagging checks, high creased forehead, and thin wet lips, somehow his characters and his own personality make him, undeniably, one of the best romantic leading men of all time. 
Each character, though often dark, has an unmistakable, winning quality, a charisma, something that emanates equally, surely, from Bogie himself as much as the character, and something that draws us, as willing participants into the character’s darkness.    Film noir, literally, “black film,” describes a group of films from the 40’s and 50’s – including The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep – that generally “reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period” and demonstrated attitudes of “[f]ear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia.”  The films contain anti-heroes rather than heroes, and these characters might be described as ”violent, misogynistic, [and] hard-boiled,” and throughout the films there is often a “strong undercurrent of moral conflict [and] purposelessness . . There were rarely happy or optimistic endings in noirs” (   With actors such as the magnetic Bogie as anti-hero, film noir becomes all the more compelling if often uncomfortable because we are drawn into the blackness and we come to see it from the inside out.

It is possibly odd to connect Maron’s comedy with film noir, odd to connect comedy and tragedy, but there can be a very thin line between the two (indeed, most of us are familiar with the idea that “comedy equals tragedy plus time”).  It strikes me that Maron often looks blackness in the face and embraces it with his comedy in order to make it knowable, manageable, maybe even redeemable, and film noir, likewise, looks blackness in the face by giving us a protagonist, whom we ought to find repellent, but who is, instead, magnetic, someone for whom we root, someone with whom we sympathize.  Both Maron’s comedy and much of film noir acknowledge, expose, and draw us into the experience of real human darkness and we come, I think, to see something of ourselves there, a vision that’s rather disconcerting. 

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Bogart as Dixon Steele  and Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray, 

offers just such a disconcerting vision, and it is Bogart in probably one of his darkest roles.  While the film also offers a critique of the Hollywood film industry, portraying it as an industry that’s more interested in money, youth, and celebrity than artistic integrity, it is the film’s psychological aspects that I am most interested in here. 

Bogart’s Dixon Steele is a well-known, but lately unsuccessful, screenwriter, and we are, in the very first two scenes introduced to his violent, short temper, a temper that is also well-known to anyone who knows “Dix.”  The first scenes are interesting for a couple of reasons: first, the introduction to Dix’s temper is a bit obvious, not at all subtle.  When he moves very quickly from arguing to using his fists on an arrogant but not completely offensive director, another patron of the restaurant comments, “There goes Dix again.”  A clunky way to inform the audience of Dix’s history.  The clunkiness of this worked to distance me (perhaps simply because I am a film viewer from the 21st century) from the film at first, and so at that point, metaphorically speaking, I sat back a little skeptically: “Right, then, you’re going to have to work to convince me now that you can be more complex and dark than that.”  It did.  More on that later.

As second point of interest, in these first scenes, we see Dix’s clear sympathy for those Hollywood has left behind, here in the restaurant, Dix sides with a once famous, brilliant actor who has turned into an alcoholic and something of a fool.  Dix stands up for him when he is refused service, and Dix’s clear love, respect, and sympathy for his actor friend are genuinely moving; the emotional depth subtly evident in the friendship between the men here hints that the stagey fight with the director will not overshadow what the film has to offer. 
At this point in the story, Dix’s motivations for defending his friend seem fairly clear: the actor is his friend; Dix is angry that fickle Hollywood has so quickly abandoned a person it once idolized.  But as the film goes on, the nature of Dix’s temper and the motivations for all his actions seem less and less traceable.  In the case of his actor friend, we never doubt that he does love his friend, but we begin to suspect that that love might be mixed with a kind of recognition, the idea that his broken friend is a being not so far removed from himself.  And Dix’s eruptions into rage are both less predictable and more weighty: less predictable because Dix takes on complexity as we begin to see more of him and more weighty because we begin to care more and more about Dix and about the characters who we see love him.

But I should go back a bit to the action that sets the central plotline in motion.  In the beginning, Dix is offered the opportunity to write a screenplay based on a piece of pop fiction.  Dix sneers at the book – “I won’t work on something I don’t like” – but decides to consider writing the screenplay anyway, getting around reading the book himself by asking the restaurant’s coat check girl, Mildred, home with him so that she might give him a synopsis of the book.  She goes home with him, explains the plot and then leaves; in its entire, it is a scene where we see his clear contempt for her and the book and we see his delightfully witty sarcasm (all completely lost, of course, on the naïve Mildred). 
Next morning, Dix is awakened early by a police officer friend, who informs him that Mildred was found dead – murdered – and Dix must go in for questioning.  Dix is let go on lack of evidence, but the police, even Dix’s friend, clearly, still suspect him, and more uncomfortably, so do we.  Or rather, we’re not sure whether to suspect him or not. 

At this point, he’s won us over; his deadpan, witty repartees and sarcasm; his dry Bogie charm; his apparent unconcern are magnetic, delightful, hilarious.  But. We recognize, for all that charm, a man contained, difficult to read.  He is wholly, apparently, unemotional upon hearing of Mildred’s murder, and as his police officer friend, says of Dix in their war days, “It’s hard to tell how Dix feels about anything.  None of us could ever tell.”  It is that mixture of containment, that barrier Dix places between the world and himself and that possible capability to erupt at any moment into brutal violence that makes us increasingly uneasy; we are drawn to him, but we cannot really read him, and where we might have thought him innocent of the murder at first (though contemptuous of Mildred, he didn't seem unkind to the point of violence), we become less sure of when Dix is joking or serious, less sure if how just how far his containment of himself extends.  For his jokes extend to the discussion of the murder case, and when Dix sets up a scene with his policeman friend and wife in order to demonstrate how the murder might have been done, it's difficult to tell if Dix is truly gruesomely relishing the imagined murder or if he is only sarcastically playing into his policeman friend's suspicions of him.    

The more we see of Dix, the more we know that he is both a master of control and a man whose rage might disrupt that control at any moment.

In the midst of the continuing plotline to discover evidence about the murder, Dix meets his new neighbor, Laurel Gray.  Even in the first moment of their meeting, an unspoken moment, in which their eyes meet as Dix takes Mildred to his apartment, we know that Dix has met his match. 
Miss Gray’s still, cool, direct, knowing gaze stands in stark contrast to Mildred’s giddy naïvete - Grahame is the perfect co-lead with Bogart.  One of the great joys of film noir is the crackling dialogue between the leading man and leading woman – there is a quick bantering wit in the screwball comedies, too, but the wit in film noir, as here, reigned in by but slyly working around the Hays Code has an invigoratingly dark edge, laced with double entendre, electric sexual tension, and subtext.  Bogie and Grahame here, sizzling up the screen, rival the best of Bogie and Bacall.

Laurel Gray herself, unlike most of the other characters, is wholly unintimidated by Dix in the beginning, and it is her lack of fear, her cool confidence that makes her such a good match for him.  We want to believe with Laurel, that there is, truly, nothing to fear, that Dix has a dark side that can be managed or changed if he has someone who will both love him and stand up to him.  But Dix and Laurel’s relationship is tinged for us as viewers, from the beginning, by our real unease with Dix, an unease that only grows and that Laurel comes to share.  Dix tells Laurel in one of their first conversations, “I’ve been looking for someone for a long time . . . and now I know your name, where you live” – a statement that could be innocently and genuinely spoken by someone smitten but on the lips of Dix feels dangerous, even if we are still charmed by him.  The dark undertone of this statement is later echoed after Dix and Laurel are together, and he tells her, again, we suspect only half-jokingly, “You go when I tell you to go - and not before.” 

But still, we hope, that Dix and Laurel’s relationship, will prove to be Dix’s lasting redemption, that his fatal flaw –whatever it truly is, wherever it stems from –will be vanquished at last.  But the power of the manic pixie dream girl, the moralizing influence of the angel in the house, the love of a good woman – those are not the happy, easy, and ultimately unsatisfying answers with which this film settles.  Though one character tells Laurel, “Dix needs you,” and we believe, too, he does, that he has, indeed, found in Laurel his match, that in her he might find true companionship rather than the combative isolation he’s build around himself, the problem is that Laurel cannot truly cure him.  She might be his muse, for he begins writing again, with joy, when he meets her,
and they are kindred spirits, but she is only human herself, not a miracle worker who can transform the warp of Dix’s soul. 

We want to believe that Dix can change, that the litany of aggravated assault cases the police have on their records about him are things of the past; we’ve come to love him, be charmed by him, sympathize with him.  We want to excuse his violent temper as artistic temperament – we even wonder if his friend and agent is right - that he wouldn't be the same wit, the same brilliant writer without that darkness: “You don't want normal.  You knew he was dynamite. He has to explode sometimes . . . If you want him, you’ve got to take it all.”  The question the film leaves to Laurel and to us up until the final moments, where the answer is made devastatingly plain, is whether Dix really is as dangerous a piece of dynamite as indicated by his past and if so, whether anyone can make a home with that dynamite.

Much of the film’s genius lies in the way it plays on our desires and hopes for Dix, the way it plays on our guesses about him, our fears about him; up until the last moments, we don't know whether or not he murdered Mildred, we do not truly know – or we don’t want to admit –exactly how far he will go into the dark, relative to Laurel.  Director Nicholas Ray shot two endings to the film – both endings, as common with film noir, are black, but one is blacker.  I will not give away which ending Ray chose, but by the time we get to that ending, Dix’s specific actions – just how far he goes – do not really matter.  Dix’s tragedy has been opened wide to us, and we cannot get away from it any longer. 

Characters, variously, throughout the film say of Dix, “He’s a sick man . . . there’s something wrong with him”; “There’s something strange about him”; “Dix doesn’t act like a normal person.”  But categorizing him as separate from others – as abnormal, as wrong in the head – isn’t, ultimately, what the film decides about him and we can’t decide it either.  We’ve come too close to him, loved him too much for that.  We know he is, certainly, not heartless - he is capable of true love and friendship - and he has wit, charisma, and artistic integrity, possibly genius.  But it is those endearing things about him that make his besetting flaw all the more tragic, and Dix, in the end, while unique as an individual is, we know, even in that darkest place, fully, tragically human, nothing more or less. 

Sometimes, with Marc Maron, we can laugh in the midst of that dark tragedy - using that tragedy to create something good - but sometimes, with Dix, we must acknowledge the suffocating alienation of our own fatal flaws.  And that is the crushingly honest, lonely place to which this film brings us, and it is what makes this film as piercingly relevant in 2011 as Maron's dark, honest comedy.   

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