Monday, April 19, 2010


This week my Netflix selection was the Nicholas Ray-directed In A Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart as screenwriter with a violent streak Dixon Steele. It's one of those fascinating quirky mysteries that Hollywood turned out in the years after WWII, when exploring the dark side of human nature wasn't necessarily commercial suicide.

And indeed, it's a very gutsy role choice for Bogart. Dixon Steele is obviously troubled and probably a little psychotic - at the heart of the mystery is the question of whether he's psychotic enough to have killed a near-stranger, or slightly less psychotic. And actors at the time were even more conscious of the concept of "baggage", those impressions left by the roles you play that carry over into subsequent projects. It's another way of saying type-casting, I guess.

What's more, Bogart didn't just accept this role, he produced the movie. Thus he optioned the novel on which it was based and shaped the character to be the monster that it is. You might think that he was just shooting for Oscar recognition but...the talk among many who knew Bogie is that this part was the closest he ever came to playing the real him. By turns romantic, paranoid, easy-going and violent, it's a complex enough part that you can easily see it being true. And indeed, it may be the best work that Bogart ever did.

So this is what it amounts to - Bogart wanted to play himself, and the best option was a mystery about a brutal monster. I have to admit that as an artist, this concept appeals to me. You can entertain people for a while, but when the rubber hits the road you have to start digging in and depicting the ugly things about you that you wouldn't admit, because that's where the good art comes from. You ransom your soul to buy good work.

It may sound awful, but it still beats a real job.

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