If you ever wonder whether getting older has its advantages, try revisiting books, music, visual art and movies. Things that we thought we understood and appreciated in youth continue to acquire new meaning as we add years to our lives. I first noticed this in my 20s when I reread most of the books from my high school years. I was amazed to find that my adolescent hero, Holden Caulfield, was the biggest phony of them all. My appreciation for Van Gogh and Jackson Pollack grew so exponentially that they eclipsed my interest in other painters. Singers who I dismissed in childhood as square turned out to be infinitely better than I ever expected. Who knew that Perry Como had anything to say to my generation?
Yesterday I decided to re-watch a film noir classic, In A Lonely Place. I had seen it once maybe 30 years ago, and wasn’t impressed much beyond the star power of Humphrey Bogart. In fact, all these years since then, I’ve considered it one of his dogs. How could the actor who breathed life into Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Charlie Allnut, and Fred C. Dobbs have even accepted this role, let alone produced the movie? So I thought I’d give it another shot. I had DVRed it, so if I didn’t like it, I could turn just it off and delete it from my stash.
It was shown on Turner Classic Movies last Sunday morning as this week’s Film Noir Alley offering. Eddie Muller, the host for the Film Noir series, in his lengthy and informative introduction, cited it as his favorite Film Noir movie of all time. What?! How could I have missed this? I’ve seen hundreds of movies in that genre, and most them numerous times. OK, I was ready to judge for myself. Pretty quickly my skepticism was dashed aside. This movie is extremely well written and acted, and visually perfect. I love every word, character and gesture down to the clothes that Bogie wore.
I think what really grabbed me this time was my identification with Bogie’s character, a middle aged screenwriter who hadn’t had a hit movie or a girlfriend in years. He has his coterie of buddies and women who chase him. Everyone loves his talent and passion, but he often goes too far. He does not suffer fools and refuses lucrative inartistic work. He invites a hatcheck girl back to his apartment late one night for a booty call, but when he first accidentally espies his beautiful new neighbor, he realizes that he is not interested in the booty call, and sends his intellectually inferior date home. Before he has even spoken to his neighbor (played by the perfect Film Noir femme fatale, Gloria Grahame), he knows that she has serious possibilities. He is obsessed. It’s funny how that happens in a split second. At least it has to me. And to Bogie’s character, Dixon Steele.
Where Dixon and I differ is more in degrees than in temperament. He’s more serious about drinking. Where we both are brawlers, my fights are with words and no more. He is quick with his fists. I’d say that I am better at controlling my feelings. At least I never hit anyone, and have never struck a woman, which is more than I can say for Dixon. He flies off the handle quickly, can’t control himself, and then apologizes with gifts and over-the-top generous gestures. This extreme behavior is the first tip off that he is a classic abuser. Most of the time, he is a great guy, so everyone makes excuses for his occasional bad behavior. Plus everyone thinks he’s a genius. That is seductive to both men and women.
He pursues his neighbor, Laurel, doggedly, and within 24 hours they sleep together. In fact they are inseparable from that moment on. He is inspired to write a screenplay based on a trashy novel that he had previously turned down. But now that he is in love, he easily recasts the book, and works around the clock finishing the entire screenplay in a couple of days, whereupon he presses Laurel to marry him that night.
OK, hold on. I get the inspiration part, and working around the clock, and falling in love—I’ve done all that, but marriage after a few days? I’ve cohabitated after a few weeks, but marriage? Like I said, he is more extreme than me. He keeps pushing her. He won’t take no for an answer. She loves him, and is a bit impulsive herself, but she has her doubts. This is moving way too fast. Good for you, Laurel. Someone has to have some sense and live in the real world.
The thing is, any resistance from Laurel brings out Dixon’s need to control her. He’s really smart. Hell, he writes intelligent screenplays. He knows his character, but he can’t stop himself. I know. I’ve been there. The thought of losing the best shot at love that you’ve ever had is unthinkable. That is the beauty of this movie. Dixon is self-aware and still acts in self-destructive ways. In the moment, his emotions overcome his logical brain. His damaged friends always forgive him, and probably most lovers would too. We see dysfunctional couples, who constantly hurt each other, on Dr. Phil and in our daily lives. At a certain point, a healthy person has to call it quits. The healthier they are, the sooner they see the destructive pattern and act on it.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this more than once, and it’s hard to end a relationship, no matter how volatile, while you are still in love. In my younger days I was attracted to women that were less in control of their emotions than I was. I began these relationships as the pursuer (like Dixon), but when I caught them, the roles reversed, and I assumed more of Laurel’s role—trying to keep things sane and together. Needless to say, that didn’t work for either of us. There are always good reasons to stay in a relationship (especially if you are in love), but when it becomes apparent that the relationship is hurtful and unfixable, someone has to be strong enough to say, “Enough.” That has mostly been my job.
What really struck me about seeing this movie now was how finely drawn these complex characters are. They are so attractive and so flawed and troubled. We never learn their backstories. All we know about Dix is that he was a successful screenwriter before serving as an officer in the war. Our knowledge of Laurel is just as sketchy. She had a short and uneventful acting career. When Dix meets her, she has a successful, normal, realtor boyfriend (you know, a square) who wants to marry her, but she can’t commit to him. Dix is more exciting, but ultimately more dangerous. We never find out what in their pasts made them who they are, and I’m not sure that it matters to us.
What does matter is that love must feel a bit dangerous, but like a rollercoaster ride, we need to know that it seems more dangerous than it really is. When the safety line is crossed, it’s very hard to uncross it. The question is: how much danger do we need to be excited, and how much excitement do we need to be happy? Everyone has their own answers, and maybe those can change as we mature. I’ve known many women who have told me about outgrowing the bad boys of their youth. Then again, I’ve known many people who have divorced, only to marry the same person with a different name. Sometimes successive spouses even look the same.
And now for some serious true-life weirdness: In A Lonely Place was directed by Nicholas Ray (Gloria Grahame’s husband at the time). They were separated while the movie was being made. It seems that around this time, Ray’s 13-year old son from a previous marriage hitchhiked from New York to Los Angeles and began a sexual affair with his stepmother. Ray caught Gloria in bed with Tony—hence the separation and divorce. Insane, right? There’s more. After divorcing Ray, with whom she had a 4-year old son, she married someone else, had a daughter with him, and then five years later, when Tony reached 18, she reconnected with him, married him two years later, had a couple of kids and amazingly remained married to him for 14 years. She was 57 when she died from breast cancer.
Humphrey Bogart, on the other hand, had a tempestuous first marriage (they were often referred to as “the battling Bogarts”). He met Lauren Bacall on the set of To Have And Have Not in 1944. Their onscreen chemistry is unmistakable. He was 44; she was 19. A year later, he divorced his wife and then enjoyed a happy marriage with his co-star until his death at the age of 57 from esophageal cancer (which is normally caused by drinking and smoking—two of Bogie’s vices, both in real life and as Dixon Steele). In fact, friends of his have said that he was very much like his passionate, even volatile Dixon Steele character, all the way down to details like twice ordering his favorite dish of ham and eggs.