I have been taking a “time out” from writing, re-writing, and the tedium of after-thought. The fact is, I am bored. The prod for this particular input was my recent viewing, for the umpteenth time, of the film noir classic: In A Lonely Place, which I will get back to later. Most films these days don’t hold much lure for me since special effects can’t begin to compete with plot in my opinion. What interests me more than visuals is a sense of foreboding . . . the blatant presence of evil. I think evil fascinates all of us as it falls outside the realm of most of our lives, but is so tempting to contemplate. And that alone is the essence of Film Noir.
In Film Noir, character is of great importance and the essence of duplicity. It’s heroes’ characters are usually flawed; its women’s characters are invariably evil. It is your everyday schmoo against Medusa: a man, such as you and me, so wanting in character that he can’t resist being seduced into deceit and murder by a woman of no morals whatever. One of the best writers of this genre was James M. Cain and films of his novels are classics. Those films include: The Postman Always Rings Twice, with my favorite version starring John Garfield as the obsessed handyman and Lana Turner as his downfall; Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford and littered with deceitful, disgusting characters, the worst being her own daughter; and, unquestionably my favorite, Double Indemnity. Indemnity involves insurance salesman Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, and the evil tart played by Barbara Stanwick. She wants Fred to gimmick up an insurance policy on her husband and then help her kill him in an accidental death which will pay double indemnity. Of course he is complicit simply because the script says he does all this, not for any logical reason that I can fathom. Barb is about as attractive as a black widow spider yet by their third meeting he is saying, “I’m crazy about you, baby.” Poor Fred, he’s just crazy to fall for her. Of course, this same basic plot, sans insurance, is used in Body Heat, with Kathleen Turner far more attractive but no less deviously addictive than dear Barb. I consider Body Heat and Chinatown to be the two best recent classics. In Chinatown Jack Nicholson is a private eye of questionable character, Faye Dunaway is just a mess, and John Huston is the overwhelmingly evil presence. How can one forget Nicholson slapping the crap out of Dunaway as she confesses, “She’s my sister, she’s my daughter, she’s my sister , she’s my daughter.” Poor Faye, poor Jack; will evil never by punished?
In most cases yes, if you look hard enough. For example let’s take The Maltese Falcon. That was the name of the movie on its third remake and hardly the name of the serialized story written by Dasheill Hammett. Nevertheless, some consider it to be the first of the Film Noirs. It introduced us to private investigator Sam Spade as played by Humphrey Bogart. In the book Spade was an immoral, disgusting character who lived by a code of his own; in the movie he was Bogart. As Bogart he was almost loveable; in both genres he was acceptable only because he was less sleazy than the rest of the characters. In each case the story began with his partner being killed. Slade didn’t even like the guy, he was making out with the man’s wife, he showed little concern about the man’s death other than the fact that it made dumping the man’s wife easier. Instead he was somewhat intrigued and eventually involved with the story’s female lead: a lying, conniving, murderous bitch. In the end, primarily to save himself, he gives her up to the cops with the declaration that she was “taking the fall” that she was “going over for it.” His excuse: “When a man’s partner’s killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” Really?
Sam Spade leads us to his counterpart, Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe was Raymond Chandler’s private investigator. Marlowe was Spade’s antithesis: honest, decent, trustworthy . . . more or less, and ever resourceful. He was portrayed in movies by several actors including Bogart. Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep was a movie that made little if any sense other than mayhem and murder. It was rescued by the presence of Bogart and Bacall. Bacall was the oldest daughter of an elderly and dying oil baron who hired Bogart, as Marlowe, to solve the disappearance of a former employee. Said oil baron was also concerned about his youngest daughter who was a bit wild. The story began with Marlowe entering the baron’s mansion and being met by the youngest daughter who was sucking her thumb, thought Marlowe was cute, and as Marlowe told her father “she tried to sit on my lap while I was standing”. You can take it from there. Among other movie portrayals of Marlowe, I consider Robert Mitchem’s takes among the best. He even did a version of The Big Sleep in an entirely different setting, yet I cherish his performance in Farewell, My Lovely. He was maginficent throughout the beating, dopings, murders and mayhem. He was trying to find Velma for an ex-convict client, Moose Malloy. Ah, had Marlowe but known that the knock-out portrayed by Charlotte Rampling was not merely the sluttish wife of a millionaire but also Velma. It was a very good movie right down to the gun blazing, dispicable end! Shame on you, Velma; Moose loved you!
Which brings me, at last, to In A Lonely Place. What do you do when you suspect the man you love of murder? That is a problem for Bogart, a screen-writer with vicious temper, and his love, Gloria Grahame, to sort out. Will the truth come in time, or will all be lost? Who can say? The facts are that the girl was killed after visiting Bogart’s apartment and the cops are certain he’s their guy. His displays of unreasonable and distructive temper scare the you know what out of her. The main thing missing from this film is the great mood music that is always part of film noir. However, it almost makes up for that with dialogue. Bogart quotes from the screen play he is writing throughout all this turmoil: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
Ahhh, Hollywood. Sometimes you get it right.