The generation of filmmakers who grew up after WWII came to revere the directors of the studio era. Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fassbinder, Godard, all had tremendous respect for the guys who worked under contract, took the scripts that got handed to them, and still managed to turn out movies that were personal and passionate.
The director who has probably gone farthest in exploring his relationship to that older generation is Wim Wenders. It’s not uncommon in films made from the 70s on to see cameos by the studio veterans. But Wenders didn’t just have these guys do walk-ons. He made them a part of his cinematic world. For him, putting Sam Fuller in The State of Things wasn’t just a nod to a mentor. It was a sign of friendship, and a statement about the continuity from one generation to the next.
Another filmmaker that Wenders was close to was Nicholas Ray. The older director had already appeared in Wenders’ The American Friend. They had not known each other long when Ray was diagnosed with cancer. Within a year his health had deteriorated to the point where it was clear he didn’t have long to live. And that was when they decided to make a film together.
Lightning Over Water isn’t really a documentary, though it is a document. It’s not fiction either, though the people who appear in it do act out scenes. It doesn’t fall into any category, and it’s about many different things. You could say it’s a film about filmmaking, and also about art. Fear pervades the atmosphere throughout, but love is just as present. And death is always just beyond the horizon.
While both men are credited as directors, it’s clear that Wenders is leading the way. Ray is so weak that it’s sometimes hard for him to finish a sentence. He’s wracked by coughing fits. Just lying down in bed is so painful it makes him cry out. And because Wenders realizes that he’s the one in control, he’s overwhelmed by the responsibility. At the very beginning he tells Ray that he’s afraid of exploiting him. Ray dismisses the idea, but it’s clear that Wenders is extremely uncomfortable with this project.
He shouldn’t have been. You can hear the joy in Ray’s voice when he first greets Wenders. This frail old man shouts from his bed, “I’m ready to start work again.” Even if the line was written out in advance, it’s clear that Ray means it. Toward the end of his career he turned to teaching because Hollywood wouldn’t give him backing to make another movie. While he kept himself busy with other projects, he always wanted to get back in the game. Now, when he knows he’s dying, he’s got one more opportunity to make a film, and he’s determined to seize it no matter what the cost.
Ray seems completely at home on the screen. In spite of his weakened, wasted frame, he shows no sign of self-consciousness. He allows the camera to see him at his worst, and never shies away. There’s a strange beauty in this “performance”. He’s confident, even defiant. We can see where many of his onscreen protagonists got their swagger from. This is a man who’s dying of cancer, and the first thing he does on waking up is light a cigarette. You want to grab it out of his hand and throw it away, but you also know that would be pointless. He’d just light another one.
Wenders, on the other hand, is extremely uncomfortable in front of the camera. Aside from the fact that he seems stiff and awkward, you can tell that making this movie was an awful ordeal for him. It’s bad enough that his close friend is obviously very near to death. On top of that, Wenders is constantly concerned about invading Ray’s privacy and sapping his strength. The younger man wants to stop the whole crazy thing. The older man keeps insisting that they forge ahead.
Then Ray dies. And we find ourselves at a wake on a Chinese junk in the waters off Manhattan. The dread that permeated the film up til now is gone. The cast and crew trade stories, share their views the experience, and drink a toast to their dear, departed friend. One of the crew speculates that dying was his final act as a director. “He made us finish it. And the only way he could do it was to die.”
As I write this, I realize that the audience for this film is very small. Only the people who know Ray’s work, or know Wender’s work, could possibly be interested. It doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t offer a clear-cut resolution. The film jumps unpredictably between reality, fantasy and the hazy netherworld inhabited by the people who stand behind the camera. On top of that, it’s a very intense, very painful look at a man who’s dying before your eyes. But it’s also a testament to a friendship that was stronger than death. And a moving portrait of two men who loved each other very much.
This is how In a Lonely Place begins. I’m not talking about the film, but the novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes in the late forties. To my mind it’s one of the most radical books of its time. The main character, Dix Steele, is a serial killer, and the focus is on him throughout the entire book. Though Hughes writes in the third person, she takes us inside Dix’s mind so that we can understand this angry, lonely, complicated man.* The title could refer to Los Angeles, the city of the alienated and the displaced, but more importantly it describes this man’s absolute isolation from the world around him. He is desperately lonely and wants to be loved. When he meets Laurel Gray, a young woman who lives in his apartment building, he feels she’s the one who could rescue him. But Dix’s fantasies have no basis in reality. He pursues Laurel, but he’s so disconnected from the world around him that he’s doomed to failure. He’s a lost man.
Nicholas Ray’s film of In a Lonely Place is completely different from the book. Back in 1950, no Hollywood studio would consider making a movie in which the central character was a WWII vet stalking and killing young women. So Ray and his collaborators took a few elements from the book and reworked it into a very different, but still very interesting, story. In the film, Dix Steele is a middle-aged screenwriter who hasn’t had a success in years. He’s intelligent and creative, but he carries an explosive anger within him. When it erupts, which is often, he sometimes lashes out at his closest friends. He can also turn violent. When a young woman he knew slightly is murdered, the police see Dix as the prime suspect.
While the entire cast is solid, the movie really belongs to Bogart. It’s one of his most intense, complex performances. It’s hard to imagine any of his contemporaries going as far with this part. As Dix, Bogart can be arrogant, charming, aggressive, tender, insolent. He freely heaps abuse on his Hollywood colleagues, and at times even turns on his closest friends. But he is also terribly lonely. As in the book, he meets Laurel, a young woman who lives in his building, and he is immediately drawn to her. And as in the book, the relationship is doomed from the start. Laurel loves Dix, but after witnessing his violent outbursts she begins to wonder if he is the killer. What started out as an idyllic romance is quickly poisoned. When the police finally call to say that Dix has been exonerated, it’s too late. Laurel can’t go on with the relationship. It’s over.
Both Bernard Eisenschitz and Patrick McGilligan have suggested that in some ways Dix resembles Nicholas Ray. The director made several films about angry, violent men, including On Dangerous Ground and Bigger than Life. Ray’s characters often come into conflict with the world around them. Sometimes this is because the world is unjust, but often it’s because the characters themselves are deeply troubled. Ray himself had a hard time fitting in. He was intelligent, iconoclastic and impatient with hypocrisy. In a Lonely Place could be seen as an expression of his views on Hollywood. It is certainly one of the most cynical, scathing movies ever made about the movie capitol. And there are elements of the film that have a direct personal connection to Ray’s life. The courtyard apartment where much of the action takes place is a reconstruction of a building the director had lived in. But the most obvious connection is the casting of Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, as Laurel.
Ray takes care to capture the feel of LA. Appropriately, the first shot gives us Dix’s point of view as he drives along the streets at night, his anxious eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.** Later in the film, after an angry outburst, we see him driving maniacally along a winding road that looks like Mulholland Drive. The building that Dix and Laurel live in is typical of the courtyard apartments constructed in the twenties and thirties. The settings that create the background for the story may not seem completely “real”, but they do capture the feel of the city. Ray understands architecture, and he understands space. While most of the film was shot on soundstages, the director includes location shots that help to define the city.
Andrew Solt’s screenplay, based on an adaptation by Edmund H. North, is tightly constructed and bristling with tension. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography vividly captures the violent contrasts of the drama. I’m not crazy about George Antheil’s score, which seems intent on dragging this startling, original film back into the realm of Hollywood melodrama.
In many ways the film is much more conventional than the book. But by Hollywood standards, it is very much outside the norm for a commercial feature of the time. Ray and Bogart and their collaborators deserve a lot of credit for making a drama that really delves into a character who is the antithesis of the standard movie protagonist. Dix Steele rages against the world, struggles desperately to hang on to the woman he loves, and in the end still finds himself in a lonely place.
I don’t know of any other book from the period that invites us to share a serial killer’s point of view. I’m not a pulp expert, but the only other novel I can think of from the era that does something similar is Jim Thompson’s The Killer inside Me, published five years after In a Lonely Place.
Could this have been an inspiration for a similar shot at the end of Taxi Driver where we see Travis’ eyes reflected in his rear view mirror? I’ve never heard Scorsese mention it, but it seems likely he was familiar with the film.