Pick of the Week:
In A Lonely Place (Criterion)
Some actors have range. Some have personas and make careers offering variations on the same type of character. One isn’t better than the other and with an actor like Humphrey Bogart, it’s the subtle shifts on his familiar presence that make a performance powerful. Bogart became a star when he figured out he was at his best playing the world-weary S.O.B. Sometimes he teased out a hidden cache of untouched idealism, as in Casablanca and The African Queen, playing men who used their hard-bitten exteriors to mask their inner nobility. Other times that nobility just wasn’t there.
Released in 1950 and directed by rising star director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life), In A Lonely Place gave Bogart one of his best roles — and found him inhabiting one of his most miserable characters. As Dixon Steele, a once-in-demand screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since before the war, Bogart smokes, quips, and punches his way through Hollywood. His talent, however dormant, still commands respect. His personality inspires fear. And one night he takes home a coat-check girl to describe the plot of a movie he’s supposed to adapt — or at least that’s the ostensible reason. The next day, she turns up dead.
Dix didn’t do it. We know this from the start, just as he knows it, and just as Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman across the way who witnessed the victim leaving his apartment, knows it. Soon Dix and Laurel fall in love, Dix starts writing again, and his mood lifts. All is going well. And yet, the cloud of suspicion refuses to lift, and as the murder remains unsolved it holds Dix up in an unflattering light. He’s violent and unpredictable. Maybe he didn’t kill her, but maybe, under different circumstances, he could have.
In the supplements included on this new Criterion edition, several commentators point out that Ray drew on his own real-life marriage to Grahame — which fell apart over the course of the film’s production — for material. He turns it into an awful journey of self-discovery. Laurel comes to see Dix differently, but the real horror in this noir-drenched film is the way Dix comes to recognize the darkness inside himself. And it’s disquieting how familiar that darkness looks. Ray lets us take satisfaction when Dix slugs a boorish, young producer early in the film, then demands we make a distinction as his violence grows worse and targets more innocent victims.
Or, as Ray puts it in the ’70s documentary I’m A Stranger Here Myself, also included on the disc, “My heroes are no more neurotic than the audience. Unless you can feel that a hero is just as f*cked up as you are and that you would make the same mistakes that he would make you can have no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act. Because then you can say, ‘Hell, I could have done that too.'” And when that hero doesn’t commit a heroic act, sometimes we see ourselves there as well.
And speaking of morally dubious characters, the superhero movie got an unusual entry with a hard-R adaptation of one of Marvel’s more unusual characters, the self-aware Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). What happens next should be interesting to watch. Will Deadpool (and its inevitable sequels) be the for-grown-ups-only exceptions or will we soon see the market flooded with self-aware superheroes wreaking profane havoc? We’ll have to wait and see.
The Boy (Universal)
It’s not always easy to try to break into movies when you’re starring on a hit TV show. You kind of have to take what’s available during the narrow window offered between seasons. Will any of the stars of The Walking Dead break out beyond it? We probably won’t know until the show ends (or major stars start to leave the show). Until then, it’s not surprising to see them popping up in projects like The Boy, a mid-budget, January-debuting horror film that puts Lauren Cohan against a deadly doll. She’s faced worse.
Father of the Bride (Warner Archive)
The 1991 film Father of the Bride, starring Steve Martin, has its charms, but it’s also a case of a remake failing to live up to the original in almost every way. Directed by Vincent Minnelli and starring Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Bennett, the film mixes warm humor with bittersweet observations about the march of time as Tracy’s suburban dad prepares to give his daughter (Taylor) away in marriage. It’s at once sweet, moving, and true.
Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley)
Too Late For Tears (Flicker Alley)
Made for a major studio with big stars, In A Lonely Place represented noir at its most prestigious. But it was often the work of smaller studios using the budget-shaving possibilities of the shadow-drenched sub-genre to their advantages. A lot of these films have fallen through the cracks over the years, but enthusiasts like the Film Noir Foundation have made an effort to bring them back. Woman on the Run (directed by Norman Foster) and Too Late For Tears (directed by Byron Haskin, later of War of the Worlds fame), are two such efforts, presented on these discs in versions restored by the UCLA film archive.
Creative Control (Sony)
Writer/director/actor Benjamin Dickinson set this crisply shot black-and-white film in the near future, where advances in technology have done little to curb loneliness and alienation — and might even have enhanced it. It’s a sharp, demanding film that plays at times like a lost prequel to Her.