There seem to be two huge problems here…
- Deviation #1: The hero’s goals aren’t clear and he’s not the person working the hardest to solve the problem.
- The Potential Problem: Like Casablanca, Bogart once again plays his cards close to the chest, coyly prevaricating about what his character’s goals are. Does he want this adaptation job or not? Does he just want quick cash or is he determined to make art? Does he want to clear his name or does he actually want to implicate himself (out of a perverse impulse for self-destruction)? We never know for sure. And of course we aren’t sure until the end whether or not he killed one of our characters!
- Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. Like The Shining (also about a potentially-homicidal author), this movie pulls off a tricky relay-race. Dix is only occasionally interested in solving his own problem, and when he loses interest, Laurel and his detective friend Frank take up the slack, trying to solve his problems for him (Laurel tries to get Dix to face his anger issues, Frank tries to clear Dix’s name). Writer Andrew Solt and director Nicholas Ray deftly bounce our identification back and forth between Dix and Laurel, symbolizing her vacillating loyalty and his faltering sense of self-preservation.
But wait, here’s another problem:
- Deviation #2: The movie doesn’t show us any images we haven’t seen before and doesn’t satisfy the urges that get people to buy and recommend this kind of movie.
- The Potential Problem: This movie has never been as well-known as it ought to be. This might be because, like Donnie Brasco, it has no unique imagery with which to promote it. Just look at their DVD covers--Would you rent either of these movies if you knew nothing about them?
And even when people see this, they don’t know quite how to describe it. It’s almost perversely frustrating to noir fans: we don’t see the crime, don’t see the arrest, don’t hear the confession, don’t get a physical showdown between Dix and Laurel… It’s sort of an anti-noir.
- Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes and no. It’s hard to blame the movie for its failure to satisfy the urges or noir or thriller fans, since that denial supports the theme: this is a feminist movie (albeit not as much as Dorothy Hughes’s excellent but very different novel, in which Dix turns out to be very, very guilty) It indicts the viewers for our desire to see independent desirable women disempowered and chopped up. The movie intentionally frustrates us by denying those urges in order to make us confront and question those urges. The downside is that the movie is hard to market, and it’s never achieved the household-name status it deserves, alongside The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca as one of Bogart’s greatest movies.
The second problem you describe seems to have been a consistent problem/theme for Nick Ray, with the (gigantic) exception of Rebel Without a Cause, which has an overabundance of icons.
But I can't think of any particularly strong image to associate with They Drive By Night, Party Girl, or On Dangerous Ground. Even visually stunning movies like Bigger Than Life and Savage Innocents are perversely hard to differentiate from the crowd. The titles, too, are oddly un-evocative.
Which is all very strange, since I love Ray's movies so deeply. I wonder if there is any connection with his long-standing disagreements with his various studio bosses and producers.
Dorthy Hughes' 1963 novel THE EXPENDABLE MAN goes this story one better with its "is he or isn't he guilty?" question and the deliberately and ingeniously withheld bit of information that changes everything for the reader. Unfortunately, as per Matt's checklist, the novel never really recovers from the all too early reveal of its spectacular twist.
IN A LONELY PLACE does feel uniquely lacking in compelling imagery to me, but I wouldn't generalize to Ray's other works. There are strong images in REBEL, BITTER VICTORY, and BIGGER THAN LIFE to name a few. And his use of widescreen staging and color, especially in a film like JOHNNY GUITAR still seems original. Just a few of the reasons Godard declared that "Nicholas Ray is cinema."
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