How Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film blends the two to elevate film noir.
“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
This line, at once steeped in romance, ennui, regret, and, of course, cynicism, perfectly encapsulates In A Lonely Place‘s specific brand of film noir
The film is about Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a depressed, alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t written a hit in years. One night, he brings home a coat check girl, but quickly grows bored of her and sends her home with cab fare. When she’s found brutally murdered the next morning, Dix quickly rises the ranks to end up suspect number one. However, his new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), comes to his defense. She tells the police she saw him in his apartment from her window after the girl left. The two begin a relationship, but as the investigation continues and Dix’s temper sporadically ebbs and flows, Laurel can’t shake the small doubt that remains in her mind about his innocence.
From this description the film’s genre is obvious. But what is “film noir”? And why does it matter that this film, or any other for that matter, fall into this category?
This is a question that critics, filmmakers, and viewers alike have been asking themselves and each other for decades. In the most reductive of terms, film noir is a style (or genre– though, some protest to that classification) of American films released between the early 1940s and mid-1950s that were centered on crime. The term was coined by the French, and specifically, French film critics who were delighted at the new and especially dark American films they’d found waiting for them when they returned from the war. These films broke the Hollywood mold and are therefore essential to film history. So, categorizing any film as such matters for many reasons. Though, a simple guide for making such classifications remains elusive.
A good source to turn to for a detailed yet not overly restrictive definition of film noir is the 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir” by Paul Schrader, writer (of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), director (of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and First Reformed), and film critic. In the piece, Schrader declares that noir isn’t a genre, but instead films released between 1941 and 1953 that were unified by style, and a distinct war-time / post-war pessimism.
Schrader’s essay is a seminal piece of film criticism that is often used as a template to define film noir, noting common stylistic touches among these movies. In general, he notes that the noir style originates from that of the German expressionistic films of the 1930s (think: Fritz Lang). For example, things you’ll notice among noirs are crisp black and white cinematography, scenes lit for nighttime, oblique and vertical lines preferred over horizontal ones, a “Freudian” attachment to water, narration permeated with nostalgia, and so on.
The main take away from Schrader’s piece is that these films prefer style over substance and that they are overwhelmingly unified by one important thing: their pessimistic view of American life. When I said these films broke a certain Hollywood mold when they rolled around in 1942, this is what I was referring too. Noirs were in stark contrast to the many films that came before them which painted a very complimentary and rose-tinted view of American culture. According to Schrader, noirs threw this template out the window. They grabbed viewers by the throat and made them watch and explore what was lost in American culture at this time. (Schrader names a few things: personal integrity, honor, heroes, stability, etc.) Globally, art post-World War II saw a resurgence in realism, and film noir is a shining example.
Schrader’s essay, coupled with the chapter “Klute 1” by Christine Gledhill from the 1978 book “Woman in Film Noir” work together to create a fairly comprehensive definition of what film noir is. Gledhill outlines key characteristics that most of these movies have, most importantly: an investigation (be it into a murder, a missing person, etc.), flashbacks and voice-over as narrative devices, and a femme fatale.
Someone’s dead, someone’s accused, and someone’s going to find out the truth. And if these movies have a prominent female character, it’s a pretty safe bet that she will meet the femme fatale framework. Meaning, a sultry woman who lacks what we view as typically feminine personality traits. She is going to seduce and destroy. And while she may initially seem desirable, and he’ll probably fall for her, her sexuality is to be used as a weapon and god help anyone who thinks they can turn her icy heart.
A movie that best exemplifies what we think of when we think of film noir is Billy Wilder‘s Double Indemnity (1944). Barbara Stanwyck stars as Phyllis Dietrichson, dissatisfied housewife, who enlists Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), insurance salesman, to help her kill her husband for money. Double indemnity: life insurance pays out double in the case of a rare accident, such as Mr. Dietrichson falling off a train to his death.
Phyllis is, of course, our femme fatale, seducing Neff to enlist his help, and then discarding him after lying to him and using him for personal gain. And Neff is our narrator, telling the story with hindsight as he bleeds to death in his office. And all throughout the film, snappy dialogue, production code friendly sexual innuendo, and cigarettes being lit in increasingly stylish fashion surround you. This is film noir. Most of the characters are awful people, you don’t cheer on any romance, and the seediness of urban crime and mystery cannot be escaped. And while you’ll undoubtedly get a dark ending, the characters are guaranteed to look incredibly cool during it.
Consider all of this and return to In a Lonely Place and the iconic line I began with: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
Now, besides the fact that no one but Bogart could ever deliver a line like that, this quote is also indicative of In a Lonely Place’s unique position among many a film noir. The movie, of course, fits the loose criteria of the genre, but it also elevates the noir exponentially with a heart-wrenching love story.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a viewer upset that Phyllis and Neff couldn’t work it out in Double Indemnity. You don’t want them to be together, in fact, most will likely leave the film liking him and hating her (as is often the case with a femme fatale). But In a Lonely Place does something special, you do want Dix and Laurel to be together. In part, this is because the film notably contains a leading female character while entirely omitting the femme fatale framework. In doing so, In a Lonely Place not only runs a murder mystery plotline in parallel with a romance but intertwines the two. The effect is a noir that values equally both style and substance.
The film both re-affirms and deconstructs the genre. Any interest we have in the murder mystery stems from our investment in Dix and Laurel’s relationship. We don’t care who killed the coat check girl, so long as it wasn’t Dix. This shifting of focus from a crime story to a love story –and one that viewers genuinely root for, at that– is a complete change of pace for the noir.
And while the film greatly benefits from this shifting of focus, In a Lonely Place does not neglect its murder plot. The love story remains intricately linked to the crime. Dix’s potential guilt looms over every would-be romantic moment. In this way, the film maintains that classic noir pessimism. For example, take this line, which upon first glance, feels like something Rick Blaine might say in Casablanca:
Laurel: I love the love scene – it’s very good.
Dix: That’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we’re in love.
Romantic right? But watch it in context:
Not only is Laurel incredibly on edge, especially so with Dix waving a knife around, but the way Bogart delivers that last line seems more like a question than a declaration. Anyone looking at us could tell we’re in love… right? He can feel the distance between them growing and is desperate to hang on to her.
It is the film’s incredibly powerful ending which showcases this fatalism best. Laurel is going to leave town because she has concluded that Dix must be guilty. But upon finding her packed bags Dix lunges at her, yelling, “I’ll never let you go!” Fortunately, the phone rings and Dix collects himself before actually harming Laurel. He picks up the phone and then hands it to her. The news: they’ve found the coat check girl’s killer. Dix is, in fact, innocent. But it’s too late.
The former lovers exchange no more words, and Laurel watches from the window as Dix walks away and solemnly says to herself “I lived a few weeks while you loved me. Goodbye, Dix.” There is no salvaging their relationship, even though, in reality, nothing was standing in the way of them living happily ever after. That is until they created something that would.
Interestingly, the original ending of the film would’ve likely been more up keeping with film noir. It entailed Dix strangling Laurel to death (and subsequently killing any chance that a viewer might still call this a love story), only for the cops to arrive on the scene to say they knew he wasn’t guilty of killing the coat check girl, but that he was now under arrest for killing Laurel. Justice would’ve been served, and we’d have been right to have been suspicious of Dix from the get-go. Most importantly though, Laurel and Dix would never have shared anything real. Here’s director Nicholas Ray on why that ending didn’t work for him and how we ended up with the finished product:
“I just couldn’t believe the ending that [Andrew Solt] and I had written. I shot it because it was my obligation to do it. Then I kicked everybody off stage except Bogart, Art Smith and Gloria. And we improvised the ending as it is now. In the original ending we had ribbons so it was all tied up into a very neat package, with Lovejoy coming in and arresting him as he was writing the last lines, having killed Gloria (Laurel). Huh! And I thought, shit, I can’t do it, I just can’t do it! Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way, they don’t have to end in violence. Let the audience make up its own mind what’s going to happen to Bogie (Dix) when he goes outside the apartment.”
In this way, In a Lonely Place maintains one of the most potent film endings of all time by letting us down in a way that most noirs don’t. There was something good in Dix and Laurel’s lives. And it could’ve led them to a happy ending. There really was potential for love to conquer all, but it didn’t. And this stark and realistic look into two deeply flawed and vulnerable human beings, desperate to genuinely connect, yet tragically unable to do so, was just the kind of thing people were craving in 1950. And the film’s enduring legacy as a masterpiece would indicate that we’re craving it in 2018, too.
In “Notes on Film Noir” Schrader maintains that the noir era created some of Hollywood’s best films. This is to say that if you were to pick out a random film among noirs, it’d very likely be a higher work of art than a random film picked out from any another genre, be it a western or a melodrama. And I think that when you look at the best of the best, In a Lonely Place tops the list.