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Double Feature: “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “Dark Passage” (1947)

(Due to the sheer number of films devoured by yours truly, Humphrey Bogart Week has been extended.)

“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Art Smith, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid

For actors, playing a character — or, to be more accurate, a type — is tricky business. Do a poor job, of course, and word gets around, the parts dry up; do an impeccable job and there’s a danger of typecasting. In the late ’30s and ’40s, that almost happened to Humphrey Bogart. He slipped so seamlessly into the hard-nosed characters of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade and the weary, unwitting hero roles (Frank McCloud, Capt. Rip Murdock) that this looked to be his niche in Hollywood. Then along came Nicholas Ray’s claustrophobic murder mystery/thriller “In a Lonely Place,” and Bogart changed his game. Violent, tempermental screenwriter Dix Steele may be the richest character Bogart ever played. His remarkably intricate portrayal of this brutish but articulate and likable man is the defining performance of a touchstone-studded career.

From the beginning, it’s clear that what Dix’s friends and agent (Smith) call “artistic temperament” is really a dangerous, hair-trigger temper. In the opening scene he leaps from his car to start a fight with another motorist; not long after, at a nightclub, a stranger insults Dix’s friend Charlie (Robert Warwick), a washed-up actor and hopeless drunk, and gets a beating for it. There seems to be no bottom to Dix’s rage. So it’s no surprise that when friendly hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) who went home with Dix turns up dead, he’s the prime suspect. But his new neighbor Laurel (a luminous Grahame) offers a solid alibi for him, and the two strike up a flirtation that turns into a happy relationship. Capt. Lochner (Reid) believes his friend is innocent, but his boss (Lovejoy) isn’t convinced. And after witnessing one of Dix’s terrifying blind rages (which nearly ends in murder), neither is Laurel.

Director Nicholas Ray creates an intense sense of connection between his two leads with the apartment building setting — confined and communal, but also somewhat detached and somewhat forbidding, everyone living so close but so far away at once. In many ways, “In a Lonely Place” feels a bit like a precursor to “Rear Window,” in which Hitchcock parlayed the idea into a look at voyeurism. Dix even hints at the idea, remarking that Laurel can see into his apartment but he can’t see into hers … and he’d take advantage if he had the chance. The unusual setting contributes a sense of closeness in the early stages of Dix and Laurel’s romance; toward the end, however, the closeness starts to feel like a trap she’s hooked in. The confinement brings out tremendous performances from all the players, notably Smith as Dix’s long-suffering but understanding agent and Reid, who wants more than anything to believe his friend’s innocence. Grahame makes her dilemma palpable, and painful, while Bogart makes his rages towering and petrifying. Underneath all the exploding anger, though, there’s a romantic with a self-effacing sense of humor. Bogart finds a faultless balance of these two personas, and right up to the harrowing conclusion he yanks our sympathies in both directions. His manners disarm and charm, yet there’s no denying his delight in a macabre recreation of Mildred’s murder. The rampaging zeal in his eyes there will haunt you indefinitely.

Grade: A

~~~~~~~~~~

“Dark Passage”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Bennett, Clifton Young

In literature, first-person narration is a technique that lends a sense of immediacy, a hard and fast point of view. Used sparingly, this perspective can translate effectively into film (consider the opening scene of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”). The trouble with Delmer Daves’ noir film “Dark Passage” is that the technique is used liberally. The entire first half hour of the adaptation is filmed from the perspective of escaped convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), and as time ticks by what seemed innovative becomes grating. Thanks to Daves’ unusual methods, the audience has no sense of who the character is. His looks don’t make him, surely, but hiding his face sets up a frustrating barrier between him and the audience, a barrier that threatens to sour the film altogether. This is not a promising beginning.

With that trusty Bogart/Bacall magic worked in, though, there’s less danger of that happening. (It’s unfortunate that in “Dark Passage” Bogart displays a disappointing lack of his usual snap and wiseguy quippiness.) The pair again play would-be lovers connected by, it would seem, by happenstance: Vincent, a convicted murderer, has escaped from San Quentin prison, and Irene Jansen (Bacall) appears like an angel on the roadside, willing and eager to help him hide from the police. She smuggles him through a police check and into her apartment, where he discovers she is one of the few who believes he was erroneously accused of killing his wife. Irene understands her involvement is risky — “Was I insane to pick you up on the road?” she asks Vincent — but has her own reasons for being interested in this convict’s case. With her support, Vincent sets out to uncover the identity of his wife’s killer, a task made infinitely more arduous by Irene’s nosy acquaintance Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who testified against Vincent at his trial, and the stranger (Clifton Young) whose car Vincent stole just after his break.

Film noir and even neo-noir films generally aren’t noted for their true-to-life plots (the riddle that is the script of “The Big Sleep” is as easy to solve as the chicken-and-egg debate). As such stories go, “Dark Passage” is less complicated than most, but there are some threads that seem glaringly obvious and some — like Vincent’s fly-by-night but miraculous cosmetic surgery — that defy logic and strain our willing suspension of disbelief. Still, this would be a conquerable challenge if the chemistry was right and the acting superb. Unfortunately, neither hits quite the right note. Bacall, all wrenching looks and cat-like allure, is up to her usual slinky tricks, but Bogart seems uncharacteristically subdued, even dour and (gasp!) unfunny, alongside his leading lady. Their embraces and glances generate the expected heat; it’s when they aren’t together that Bogart’s sluggishness becomes all the more noticeable. Bennett and Moorehead, as a warring divorced couple, provide the film’s zippiest lines, with Moorehead chomping up the scenery every chance she gets. Only Young, as the unfortunate driver Vincent beats up, looks to have more fun hamming his character to the nines. He’s twice as lively as Bogart, and that’s the biggest shock of all.

Grade: B-

Review: “Key Largo” (1948)

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is through being a soldier. He’s settled into his new life as a drifter, moving from place to place in search of the odd jobs that finance his food, drink, lodging and cigarettes. Frank wants to put the war behind him, wants to make a career of laying low. But a bit of wrong-place/wrong-time bad luck forces his hand and drums into his head what he’s worked so hard to ignore: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

Bogart always could take a simple, unassuming line and give it the weary ring of gospel truth. His finest performances spring from characters who fail to bridge the gap between who they want to be and who they really are. In John Huston’s tense thriller “Key Largo,” Bogart’s tired but resilient ex-soldier is not alone in his ambivalence. The Key Largo hotel Frank has stopped in is populated with people who want something they can’t have or are afraid to want. Though they are the hostages of mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), they’re also hostages, in a way, to their own desires. There is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), whose late husband served in World War II with Frank. She feels an attraction to Frank she’d dare not voice; her eyes give away everything. There is James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), Nora’s ailing and crippled father-in-law, who wishes he was young and healthy enough to take down Rocco and his clowning goons. Saddest of all is Gaye Dawn (a gut-wrenching Claire Trevor), Johnny Rocco’s girl, formerly a hot-ticket lounge singer. When Johnny’s desire for her turned to disgust and cruelty, she turned to alcohol and checked out of reality. Gaye, more than anyone else, knows the burden of carrying the memory of the person you’ll never be again.

So “Key Largo” is a multi-layered character study where much of the action takes place in one location: James Temple’s hotel. The setting manufactures a feeling of claustrophobia that heightens the anxiety; the hurricane raging outside the hotel adds another level of menace. These elements, when mixed with Bogart’s increasingly unsuccessful attempts to seem impartial, ratchet up the tension further. While hostage situations lend themselves to that charged atmosphere naturally, Robinson’s bombastic, smirking performance as the entitled gangster helps things along. He doesn’t make his entrance — Johnny Rocco loves a grand entrance — until his lackeys, Curly (Thomas Gomez) and the wisecracking Toots (Harry Lewis), disarm the local sheriff (Monte Blue) and corral the hostages. Johnny intends to trade some counterfit bills and commandeer a boat so he and his crew can escape to Cuba. He’s supremely confident he will succeed: “I was too much for any big city police force to handle. It took the United States government to pin a rap on me. And they won’t make it stick.” He struts and preens, even tossing Frank a gun and trying to anger him into a shootout. Frank doesn’t nibble the bait, leaving us to wonder if he’ll choose inaction to the end.

Frank McCloud does not represent a new direction for Bogart, but somehow the actor makes the character’s troubles feel new. (That was Bogart’s way.) His slow-growing anger is a dynamite match for Robinson’s cocky, boastful energy, leading to a violent, nerve-wracking showdown that’s a game of cat and mouse. Johnny Rocco is a character, but as a criminal he’s no joke — his sing-for-a-drink treatment of his dame Gaye is purely sadistic, and that scene may be what snaps Frank to action. Or perhaps his motivation can be found in a quieter moment, bar none the most wrenching and beautiful shot I’ve ever seen. The camera moves in slowly toward Bogart, looking down at the sleeping Nora. He reaches out his hand gingerly and strokes her hair. He leaves his hand there. Seconds later, the camera catches him looking at Bacall — and oh, what a look. There’s more longing and romance in that look than can be found in volumes of Romantic poetry. It is a symphony of feeling, and it is the moment where he knows and we know that he can’t play cool anymore.

Grade: A

Review: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

(This review kicks off Humphrey Bogart Week at M. Carter @ the Movies, cooked up solely because I’ve found myself in the throes of a hopeless, all-consuming Bogey obsession.)

They just don’t make couples like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall anymore. From the playful repartee to those lingering glances and smoldering chemistry, Bogart and Bacall in the same spot was a recipe for romance — and not the grating, swoony kind, either. Theirs was a crackling relationship that had smarts and sex appeal. Every time they eyeball each other in “The Big Sleep” it’s like the two are dancing Tango to music only they can hear. They always look to have a dirty secret they won’t let us in on … which is why the Bogart-Bacall pairing is irresistible, and unmatchable.

Their onscreen chemistry is legendary — Bogart married Bacall, 26 years his junior, three months after he divorced his third wife — and evident just about everywhere in Howard Hawks’ wildly convoluted “The Big Sleep.” Though devoid of anything so flirtatious as the “put your lips together and blow” scene from “To Have and Have Not,” there’s one moment in particular, a small one that almost goes unnoticed, that feels positively sinful. The magic happens like this: Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) pays a visit to private investigator Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in his office. Instead of taking a chair, she perches on his desk demurely, trying to look innocently alluring but not, under the gumshoe’s keen gaze, succeeding. She rubs her skirt casually, almost absentmindedly while Philip, never taking his eyes off her, fires off a “go on and scratch.” The skirt gets a tug an inch above her knee; Marlowe gets a peek he doesn’t take, a wry grin he doesn’t shape his lips into. But something has happened. The air is charged. Elicit sex scenes have less electricity than a scratch and a look.

There are scores of red-hot little moments like that between Bogart and Bacall in “The Big Sleep,” and the film’s plot, penned by William Faulkner, works triple-time to overpower them. Because of the strength of the leads, the story, quite blessedly, never succeeds. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s first novel, “The Big Sleep” introduces Bogart’s Philip Marlowe, a private detective who never lets chit-chat get in the way of a scalding quip. He’s hired by Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an aging widower with two saucy daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Bacall’s sharp-tongued Vivian. Sternwood wants Marlowe to get to the bottom of who’s blackmailing Carmen for her latest scandalous act. This appears to be a simple job, which means Marlowe will tumble down a rabbit hole far deeper than he foresaw. The blackmail trail leads him into a much knottier situation. There’s an early murder followed by another (or suicide?), with Marlowe butting heads with casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and a ruthless lackey named Lash Canino (Bob Steele).

Is it possible for any viewers to unravel the intricately knotted threads that comprise “The Big Sleep”? Tougher feats have been accomplished, but even Faulkner admitted ignorance about directions his script took, as if he started writing and the story got away from him. Keeping tabs on all the characters, and how they know the Sternwoods, and what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it, is daunting. Faulkner’s script will test — and likely exhaust — the patience of everyone except the most determined viewers. It’s so complicated that there’s the maddening sense that the writer wants to ensure we never know the final score. And because there are so many layers, more than one character gets shafted in terms of development, like the dangerous Eddie Mars, or Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), paid to tail Marlowe, or Carmen, painted as a one-note sex kitten.

Somewhere in the mess, though, the diversions, chases and beatings (shocking in the ’40s) start to fade into the background. Bogart and Bacall shift into the foreground, and their sexually charged exchanges become the reason to hang in there. Any couple who can turn a discussion about horse racing — Vivian: “You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free”; Marlowe: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go” — into sizzling foreplay deserves top billing.

Grade: A-