"The year was 1975. It was 3am in Barney's Beanery, one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles, and the 64-year-old filmmaker Nicholas Ray was sitting on his own at the bar. The director of Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar may have been revered in Europe ('The cinema is Nicholas Ray,' Jean-Luc Godard famously said of him), but back home in the US in the mid-Seventies, his reputation didn't count for much.
That night in Barney's, the new owner was threatening to throw him in jail because he didn't have the funds to pay a $13 bar tab. In the end, he had to be bailed out by an editor friend of his, Frank Mazzola, a one-time LA gang leader who had worked on Rebel Without A Cause.
'He called me,' Mazzola recalls. 'When I picked him up, I actually had $13 in my pocket. The guy said $13.37 or he goes to jail. I said: "This is Nick Ray who kept this place alive for years." He still said $13.37 or he goes to jail. I didn't have 37 more cents and the guy was serious. Luckily, there was a gal who was a sheriff in West Hollywood who threw 37 cents on the table.'
The Hollywood-area gloom of Nicholas Ray's "In A Lonely Place" acts as a narcotic ether from which his cast of characters half-heartedly wander, eventually wandering back into it as irreparable, spectral figures. Humphrey Bogart's amused self-hatred, his WWII-induced antipathy to human feeling, in addition to his steady stream of numbing drinks, allow for a career as a bitter Hollywood screenwriter, divorced from his discipline and ambitions as an artist. Unlike his tragic actor friend who he funds and lubricates, Bogart's Dixon Steele has not yet succumbed to alcoholic dementia; he sees his career, clearly, for what it is: a waste of talent. It is Steele's hair-trigger temper, which leads police to suspect him of the murder of a coat check girl bewitched by celebrity (the true audience for Steele's Hollywood output), that has nevertheless served him for some time as a protective device for his wounded integrity; still, he feels compelled to change. Yet by surrendering his fits of rage to the love of a broken starlet terrified of his murderous potential, Steele unwittingly initiates his own further descent into Hollywood's still darker pits of self-annihilation.
Female counterpart Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame) is almost as alienated as her true love. Crushed by an attempt at entertainment industry prostitution, the starlet carefully attempts to feel something just one more time with Bogart's murder suspect writer. A masseuse character, Laurel Grey's only confidante and an Easter Island monolith of arch lesbianism, condemns the wounded actress's trust of the notorious Dixon Steele during a menacing rubdown, one of the movie's nightmarish noir highlights. Laurel Grey is deceiving herself too; by believing Dixon Steele can transcend his fits of fury, she is convincing herself she can find true love in Hollywood. She can't.
Despite the virtuoso boozing and smoking, self-delusion is the addictive substance of "In A Lonely Place". Nicholas Ray spells it out in the dinner scene in which Humphrey Bogart recasts his old WWII buddy (now a cop on his tail) and his wife as murderer and victim in a recreation of the movie's crime. Bogart's expert narrative account of the killing hypnotizes his old pal until his arm closes around the throat of his loving wife. It seems that, guided by some creative suggestion, people in Hollywood can believe they are capable of anything. Except love.
In the case of Bogart's Dixon Steele, he convinces himself briefly he is capable of a traditional marital coupling. He isn't. It is this final self-deceit that sends him further into the oil slick black palm trees of his never-ending Hollywood night.
As a result of scoring a press pass to the first ever Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, I enjoyed a choppy print of "In A Lonely Place" on a large screen at The Mann 6 on Hollywood Boulevard. Humphrey Bogart's sepulchral presence and leering, cadaveresque grin projected wall-size resonate as transgressive brilliance in this era of shiny android movie men.
After Bogart staggers through the archway of his apartment complex into the cosmic despair that is his fate, I returned underground to the Los Angeles Metro system, where a haggard woman arranged a half-dozen crusty stuffed animals on a row of seats beside a well-coordinated wheeled load of her earthly belongings. She ordered, to nobody and everybody, "Don't kiss me! Or spit on me! Or kiss me! Or spit on me! Or kiss me!"