In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1950)
I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?
In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).
Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful
Seeing it once more for the umpteenth time, I thought Rita Hayworth more glamorous and beautiful than ever. She’s this glossy, luscious, rhythmic, sexually aware and knowing presence, with hair that has a life of its own and is as sexually enticing as any other part of her. Gilda is a totally glamorous film and in its own way very democratic in all its impulses. I love the uncle Pio character played by Steven Geray in that his ‘peasant’ insults illustrate that democratizing aspect of Rita’s character – she always treats him as an equal in spite of being a gal on the make — versus Glenn Ford’s – the more vulgar whore– only to redeem him later. Johnny Farrell learns how to be loved by Gilda as he learns to respect Uncle Pio.
I remember a friend many years ago raising an eyebrow when I told him how much I loved Gilda. It’s been in my life now in one way or another for thirty years. And I still love it. But I now more fully understand why he thought it not a good film: The characters don’t resemble any real people, the plot is ludicrous, the ending unbelievable and pat, a lot of extraneous characters that don’t feel necessary and that not enough is made of. Nothing in it is for one moment believable. It’s all hokum. By one set of criteria, it’s a bad film.
However, if a film inevitably ends up being a collection of moments in one’s memory, this is full of treasured ones: the highly symbolized and highly sexual initial meeting between Johnny and Ballen (George Macready); Gilda’s strip-tease; the introduction of Rita (‘decent, me?’); the moment where Ballin threatens her as she’s lying in bed (the shift in focus and light); the moment after she drinks to damn the woman who ruined Johnny’s life; the moment where Glenn brings her back from the pool and Mundson becomes graphically two-dimensional; the party sequence with the s/m gear. There are brilliant dialogue bits as well (more women in the world than anything else, except insects?) It’s a good illustration of the difference between a landmark film and a great film, between a sociological phenomenon and a work of art, between a cultural memory and the repository of cultural values.
…And yet, films that might not have a direct referent to the world that we live in but that nonetheless tap as deeply and directly into a collective dream world of fantasy and longing as Gilda – a world we might very much wish to live and participate in — are so rare as to constitute their own, very particular, art form. Maybe, as the tagline goes, ‘there never was a woman like Gilda’ but the film sure succeeds in making us wish there were.