Returning to this one in a Mubi season on American noir.
Steele is introduced failing to recollect a face from his past. The classic theme of your past catching up with you here inversely presented: not a portentous reuniting but an isolated and unknowing man staggering away from a trail of collateral damage. The police later drag up a file of grisly episodes – we feel like we ought not to be eavesdropping.
S’ apartment court reminds me of Diane’s in Mulholland Dr.; Mildred arrives like an even dopier Naomie Watts, stunned to be in the presence of a Hollywood writer, affecting her own creative ambitions. She summarises the book directly to the camera while S is always looking away; some of his best zingers here too: “And there are lots of other little plots and things that I didn’t even mention.” “Thank you.”
The film’s world is sometimes ridiculously 50s – S instructing young African American street sweeper (who calls him Sir) to send flowers to M. Sylvia’s intuitions about S, in an argument with Brub, mentioning her psychology studies and B complaining that she always shoves that “college stuff” down her throat before dismissing her concern based on S’ army credentials. These bits are like the irascible, fag-chewing maid: reflections that look like they’re in a wacky mirror, but you’re just looking straight at a demented hollywood world. They are sketches that enrich the textual depiction of a morally distorted city, ruled by drunken masculinity and economic parasitism.
HB is brooding and brilliant. Takes me a while to get used to Grahame as Laurel, but her languidly alluring expressions and accent begin to take on a tremulous tone, her manners becoming truthfully desperate, kind of as if she had stopped acting and begun to believe the script to be real.
I love the way the ambiguity is handled, shaking our sympathies until we feel as confined as L in the pressure-cooker of her living room with seething S. At their engagement dinner he seems to react to the news of his script’s success exactly as his agent predicted: calming down after hitting him in frustration at all the bottled intrigue. The S we see here is not just violent; he is predictable, pathetically animalistic. But it’s at this moment that he becomes most tender; patching things up with his agent in the bathroom, proper contrite concern on his face. They’re old pals – this is a history of love to match his history of violence.
The editing is first-rate too, especially the quickly cutting scenes of implied violence. There is one shot that stresses how frightening this film is: S’s wild face advancing as L slams a door on him from off camera, the image frozen on our retinas as if we had reflexively screwed our eyes shut at an oncoming terror. The car chase and fight is a classic climax too. This is much less silky and luxurious than Out Of The Past (my mental noir prototype), much more insidious and gripping.
All sorts of interesting paratextual stuff here too. Louise Brooks on Bogart’s magnetic suitability for S because sharing his isolation, his cynical perfectionism and mistrust of popular opinion. Also this from wiki on Nicholas Ray and GG’s own farcically duct-taped relationship:
Grahame and Ray’s marriage was starting to come apart during filming. Grahame was forced to sign a contract stipulating that “my husband [Ray] shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” The two did separate during filming. Afraid that one of them would be replaced, Ray took to sleeping in a dressing room, lying and saying that he needed to work on the script. Grahame played along with the charade and nobody knew that they had separated.
Puts me in mind of Juliet of the Spirits. Here the ending is again lingeringly, perhaps revealingly ambiguous: the final exculpation of S doesn’t excuse his violence throughout the film, nor does it remedy L’s fear that he might be capable of the kind of murderous outbursts that he takes so much perverse pleasure in reimagining.
Really a perfect noir chiller. Dials down some of the genre’s trademark stylisation but replaces it with some scathing reflexive critique of hollywood style.