In a Lonely Place

Bogart with a beautiful woman, Barton with a mosquito — sounds about right.

What says Christmas better than a dark, sweaty noir about a has-been Hollywood screenwriter who may or may not be a vicious killer?

I don’t know what forces prevented me from watching Nicholas Ray’s 1950 masterpiece of paranoia, heartache and broken dreams, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. And about two-thirds of the way through, it struck me that In a Lonely Place would make a smashing double feature with the Coen Bros’ Barton Fink.

The parallels between the two movies are too many to be mere coincidence. In some cases, the Coens have kept elements of Ray’s movie intact, in other cases they’ve ingeniously inverted them.

Both movies are about luckless screenwriters in Hollywood. Lonely Place‘s Dix Steele (a porn name before there was such a thing) is a washed-up has-been, Barton Fink is a neophyte. Both screenwriters are hired to work on a piece of formula garbage they feel they’re above, a situation which brings them both much angst. In both cases, the Powers That Be (the studio people, the producers, the agents, the directors) keep encouraging the screenwriter to take the easy path, follow the formula, don’t get fancy, don’t get artsy, but the screenwriter can’t help himself — he’s a creator, he can’t just churn out a bunch of crap.

Both Dix and Barton consider themselves superior beings in the Dostoyevskian sense, and their sense of superiority gets each of them into drunken brawls. Dix fights with six or seven different guys over the course of Lonely, while Barton confines his brawling to one USO dance. Both Dix and Barton have drunken has-been friends: Dix has his “thespian” pal Charlie Waterman, the kind of actor who goes around intoning Shakespeare in plummy tones while wearing a top coat and carrying a cane, Barton has the Faulkneresque W.P. Mayhew.

And both land in trouble with the police. In Lonely, Dix is too depressed to read the novel he’s supposed to adapt, so he asks a hat-check girl who’s read it to come over to his house and tell him the story. Similarly, Barton Fink, desperate for inspiration, calls Mayhew’s secretary, lover and de facto ghostwriter Audrey Taylor to come over to his place to help him prepare for his pitch meeting. In each case, the poor woman winds up dead, the victim of a brutal murder — Lonely makes its killing the inciting incident while Barton, in true Coen form, makes its murder the end-of-second-act twist. And, in each case, it’s not necessarily clear that the screenwriter is entirely innocent of the murder.

In each movie, the murder of the woman is, largely, beside the point of the story. In Lonely it’s a jumping-off point for the filmmakers to examine the precepts, dreams and flaws of Hollywood; Barton does all that and then goes someplace much stranger. It both expands upon the themes of Lonely, pulling in World War II and the Holocaust, but also makes the story more intimate, burrowing inside Barton’s head, so to speak. In each case, the screenwriters’ struggles with their unworkable screenplays are given much more weight than any murder investigation.

In a final inversion, the producers in the two movies have wildly different reactions to the screenwriters’ final efforts. I’d say more but it would be telling.

Lonely is also, of course, a love story, which, I’dhave to say, Barton is not. It’s a very unhappy love story, which I suppose any movie about a screenwriter in Hollywood would have to be. Dix meets and falls in love with Laurel, the woman who lives across the courtyard from him, partly because she provides an alibi for his whereabouts during the murder. Later, we find that she provided the alibi as an excuse to get to know Dix. This, for me, immediately threw suspicion on Laurel as the killer: no intelligent actress in Hollywood would think she could advance her career by making a pass at a screenwriter.

For more on Barton Fink, I direct you to this analysis. (I can’t believe I didn’t get the fire/water symbolism — it’s not like it’s not referenced in practically every scene.)

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6 Responses to “In a Lonely Place”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I think Gloria Grahame’s performance in this film is incredible, the equal of her fine work in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat a couple years later. How she plays the last act of the film is nothing short of astonishing.

  2. teamwak says:

    Sounds good! Another one for the list.

    Happy Christmas, Todd to you and yours, and all your readers 🙂

    Just watched Its A Wonderful Life, and The Railway Children, so feeling all Christmasy – alright, and National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (but we wont talk about that!)

    • Todd says:

      It’s a Wonderful Life has one of the greatest all-time screenplays — it hits the ground running and never stops. You can feel the tension ratcheting up scene by scene throughout the first two acts, then they flip the switch and let it go in Act III — an incredible screenplay, often imitated, never duplicated, ask for it by name.

    • craigjclark says:

      For my part, I got in the holiday mood last night be watching Gremlins, which is my favorite Christmas movie. And tonight I have some TV specials on tap, including SCTV‘s “Staff Christmas Party” episode, “A Space Ghost Christmas,” “A Very Venture Christmas,” and Moral Orel‘s “The Best Christmas Ever!” And if I need an antidote, there’s always Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (not the horrid Jim Carrey version).