Although mostly remembered now by the public for his 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray left behind him a legacy of over twenty feature films. A veritable cinematic explorer, Ray traversed genres ranging from noir, western (most notably his 1954 gender-bending cult Trucolor extravaganza Johnny Guitar), melodrama, epic and experimental film. He dared as few would to shoot in remote and forbidding locations such as the Arctic and Everglades National Park.
What are Ray’s films about? As in his signature piece Rebel, despite Ray’s wide-ranging endeavors in genre and subject matter we are often met with anti-hero protagonists who struggle and rail against authority while lamenting their meaningless and circumscribed existences. In his great work Bigger Than Life (1956) the illness and subsequent drug addiction of the main character (brilliantly rendered by James Mason) becomes a turning point around which all kinds of societal pathologies are expressed, subtly or sometimes not-so, much as in Albert Camus’ classic novel La peste or Jean-Paul Sartre’s La nausée. Here we are given a portrait of a man whose personality is wiped clean, as quickly and easily as chalk off a blackboard—and it all happens because of a tiny little pill. It works on the level of being a very approachable melodrama, but when one is struck by its significance on the level of allegory, there is a frightening truth in acknowledging the possibility that all of us possess such plasticity and delicacy of character, medication aside. Perceived through this added lens, the drama transforms into a much more complex one, bringing into focus veins of comedy and tragedy hitherto indiscernible.
More obviously absurd is Ray’s foray into the Arctic, The Savage Innocents (1960), starring Anthony Quinn as an Inuit man. Of course, the casting and some of the dialog are racist and controversial by today’s standards. However, the film’s absurd gaze is not merely limited to the Inuit, but also deconstructs white society and its own brand of conditioning. To a perspective as detached as Ray’s, everything is alien. In the clash of two very disparate cultures, we can only be met with absurdity, and eventually, with violence. As in other cultures and subcultures portrayed by the director, whether it be people in the Arctic, Everglades, criminals on the lam or fast-living highschool greasers, the cold, detailed and foreign quality of these portraits combined with their sense of veracity always insinuate the same unsettling conclusion—that what we share together as human beings is a profound emptiness and impressionability. Ray’s detached, almost anthropological approach and navigation of many cultures and subcultures makes him both descendent of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) but also precursor to the wave of docufiction, kitchen sink and cinéma vérité movements which would arise in the next decade amongst more artier filmmakers. And indeed, today it is the auteur or cinephile who appreciates Ray’s work as a whole.
In his 1950 noir masterpiece In a Lonely Place we find what is perhaps the director’s most tragic exploration of identity. The film follows Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter who has not produced a hit for some time. Running into his agent Mel (Art Smith) at a restaurant bar he frequents, Mel tells him he might have work writing an adaptation. As the checkroom girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) has just finished reading the book, Dix invites her to his apartment so she can rehash the plot to him. The novel, which annoys Dix in an eye-rolling way, bears more than a small resemblance to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, adapted by Hitchcock in 1940, but with some inversions in narrative and gender. A film which brazenly ripped off elements of Rebecca, but in an earnest way, was James V. Kern’s The Second Woman (1950), a gothic noir released less than two months after In a Lonely Place. Because both films were in production at around the same time or even simultaneously, it seems quite possible that screenwriter Andrew Solt was not just parodying Rebecca but also Kern’s effort, which in hindsight is like a rather mediocre B-list re-visioning of Hitchcock’s classic.
It more than angers Dix to have to consider adapting this “women’s fiction” simply to support himself. Since the narrative also sharply diverges from Dorothy Hughes’ original novel which is much more hardboiled in tone, Dix’s character is perhaps also expressing some of the screenwriters’ snobbery and mixed feelings towards noir as a genre. (We should note that today, of course, both Hughes’ novel and the stories of Daphne du Maurier are granted a measure of literary currency.) It is not nearly the first or last satirization of Hollywood creative struggles—think Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) or Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001). The theme is not even limited to American film. In Godard’s Contempt (1963) although the action occurs in Italy, the ultimate enemy of the screenwriter protagonist reveals itself to be the bigtime American producer. Considering the financial motivations of a large number of directors and production companies (in this case, Bogart’s Santana Productions), and the fact that most screenwriters at least at one time or other have the goal of producing true art, it is not surprising that characters like Dix resurface time and again in Hollywood screenplays. As long as they were woven into a plot which was exciting and digestible to the public (parodied in this case by the rather dim-in-the-head Mildred) these rebellious, autobiographical portraits were tolerated, now standing as something of an historical record of those anguishing in the Hollywood conflict between high culture and mass culture.
At dawn the next morning, Dix is awoken by an old army friend Brub (Frank Lovejoy), now a detective. Brought in for questioning, Dix discovers that Mildred was murdered after leaving his apartment the night before. Questioned by Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid), Dix answers begrudgingly in statements which sound like sarcastic riddles spoken by a psychopath. Because Mildred was found strangled in a canyon after being dumped from a moving car, Lochner finds Dix’s demeanour to be disquieting. Confronted regarding his apathy, Dix responds, “I grant you, the jokes could have been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you. That is, unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion.” We assume Dix is innocent, having seen Mildred leave his apartment quite alive. So his behaviour is baffling and painful to watch, although there are many indications that he is estranged from society and deeply depressed.
Enter his new neighbour Laurel (Gloria Grahame) who encountered Dix and Mildred the night before. Their places situated vis à vis, when Dix had opened the window, Laurel and Dix could see right into each other’s apartments. Despite Mildred’s crying “Help!” in front of the window while re-enacting the plot of the potboiler and which could have easily been misconstrued, Laurel testifies to the police that she saw Mildred leave Dix’s apartment safely. She also says he looks interesting and that she likes his face. For the time being, Laurel’s statement gets Dix off the hook.
Although Dix doesn’t even protest his innocence and makes jokes about what happened, Laurel follows her initial instinct of trust and fascination towards him and they begin a romantic relationship. Dix also reveals that he had an immediate liking for Laurel and had thought: “There she is, the one that’s different… She’s not coy, or cute, or corny. She’s a good guy. I’m glad she’s on my side.” Dix says he had been looking for some unknown woman for a long time—because of the good fortune of a girl having been killed, he had found what he had been looking for. Admittedly, a rather morbid perspective. Dix’s hands cradle Laurel’s chin and throat tenderly, and we are reminded of Mildred’s death by strangulation. “Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look,” Dix rejoices. As beloved object, Laurel fulfills desires which were strong but unformed.
As the relationship develops the couple goes back and forth between their apartments in the same complex. One might note the striking and conspicuous visual theme of grids in Dix’s apartment not present at Laurel’s. It illustrates how well Ray uses a limited space and the grids, as in some of his other features, starting with his first They Live By Night (1949), transcribe so well the sense of confinement and alienation experienced by his characters. When Dix speaks on the phone by the window, our eye is met with a muddled clash of balusters, curtains and blinds which seem to echo the Chinese box of entrapment which is Dix’s life. It also mirrors the layered nature of the narrative: Dix has suddenly become enmeshed in a story within a story, his own life an eerie mimesis of the plot he had scoffed at when read to him by the murder victim. Dix has literally become engulfed in what he perceived to be banality.
But the figure of Laurel has become Dix’s new reason for living despite all these persecutions, summarized beautifully in a reference to Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet, recited by Dix’s drunken thespian friend Charlie: “Come, royal boy. When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, / And look upon myself and curse my fate,” he says, walking with his arm about Dix’s shoulder. The shadowy figure of the beloved at the end of the sonnet, as Laurel does for Dix, gives meaning to the poet in the midst of disgrace:
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,(Like to the lark at break of day arisingFrom sullen earth), sings hymns at heaven’s gate;For thy sweet love remembered such wealth bringsThat then I scorn to change my state with kings.1
Charlie’s appellation of “royal boy” for Dix also reinforces his status as Hamlet figure. When Dix has remarkable insight into the murder, having Brub and his wife Sylvia re-enact what he thought had happened, they find it unnerving and it only serves to make him more suspect. His intelligence is perceived as being madness. Brub, still half-heartedly willing to defend his friend, only angers his wife, who tells him she is happy that he is just “average.” In his estranged state, Dix’s social interactions, like Hamlet’s, are at times highly inappropriate, leading to further and further ostracization and for those around him to believe him to be mentally unbalanced. And from Dix’s behaviour at times, it is difficult to believe he doesn’t want others to regard him as insane.
Despite the couple’s initial happiness, Laurel’s trust of Dix soon dwindles as his history of assault is revealed. And no one who knows Dix helps to dispel her doubts, which soon conflagrate into crippling fears and paranoia. Initially attracted to his independence of character and intelligence, like others Laurel soon finds it to be grounds for suspicion. And what better actor than Bogie to depict such a character? Virtually synonymous and key to the development of the noir outsider protagonist, Bogart emanates both rebellion and aberration. With his stooped gate, mulish features and that way of speaking with his top lip curled under, in a different light one not familiar being shown a clip might easily find him to be an odd-looking character with a mild speech impediment. He would probably never be a male lead in Hollywood today. Yet, many of us are still captivated by Humphrey Bogart. A key part of his charm of course is his singular way of speaking, often sardonic and replete with novel metaphor. In noir as a whole, this kind of language is common, and when one considers the difficulties faced by most noir protagonists, it seems a fitting tradition which has added a texture of dark and witty panache to many of the films. In Rebel Without a Cause one might note the young characters also use the inventive language and adoption of nicknames also common in noir films. In these characters walking a precipice along societal borders, the way they speak is an integral part of their search for identity and an act of rebellion. Because existence does not suffice, and language is part of the machinery of an inept system of authority, there will simply have to be new forms of language.
In his portrait of Dix, Bogart adopts a unique way of speaking. However, the language of In a Lonely Place is distinguished by being less aligned with the campy, hardboiled street poetry of traditional noir, well illustrated by the line from his screenplay Dix quotes to Laurel as they are driving:
I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me… I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
In context, these are some of the most gripping and tragic lines in a noir, and understandably they are oft-quoted. Dix’s striking use of anaphora—the repetition of the original part of a phrase for poetic effect—is also found in his speech in other parts of the film. This is the portrait of a man who, like his friend Charlie, yearns for a life of poetry and self-expression. In Bigger Than Life James Mason’s character utters a distressing existential lament applicable to Dix Steele and so many other characters in Ray’s films: “All right, they’ve reduced the mortality rate. They know how to keep us alive. But they don’t know why.” What is life beyond necessity? Dix wanted to find absent meaning through creative work. But sadly, he is failed by his muse and everyone around him.
In an interview upon being questioned about the nature of love, Jacques Derrida once said: “The difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, separates the heart.” Love normally fails because our delusions about the other slowly disintegrate as we find out more about them.2
If Derrida is correct, and his opinion seems quite reasonable, then Dix’s description regarding his attitude towards Laurel at the beginning of their relationship seems that of the ideal lover. A man who is free of assumptions, simply open to the other. What happens then to Dix in his treatment by Laurel and his friends is the opposite of love. It is evil and ignorant. There is a method of producing sculpture or other objects which involves creating a mould from wax and then draining the wax away when another mould is added. As in such manufacturing, Dix’s identity is malformed into a mould which is shaped by the hysteria and misconceptions of others, and by the interests of mass culture. In the process, he becomes a shell of what he once was or wanted to be, immobilized by urges towards violence, his soul and purpose in life drained out in the process.
1. You can read Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet here. 2. You can find a segment of Derrida’s interview here.