As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Weekend Double Feature: Double Bogie

Posted by Hedwig on May 26, 2008

I know, I know, I promised a Gloria Grahame double feature. But that was before I’d seen In a Lonely Place. Now that I have, I realize that it’s more interesting to pair it with another Bogart movie I saw recently, rather than with the Big Heat. Don’t worry, though: I’ll get to the Big Heat next week. I even already know what movie I’ll discuss alongside it. But for now: a Bogie double feature it is.

The movie I chose to pair In a Lonely Place with instead is one made by Bogart in a very different stage of his career: High Sierra. Bogart made many, many movies before High Sierra, and quite a few (including the one that would win him a little gold man, The African Queen) after In a Lonely Place, but there are some interesting similarities and differences between the two, and they can be seen as bookends to his career.

In 1941, when High Sierra came out, Bogie might have already been a familiar face, but he was not yet a star: his breakthrough as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon would only happen nine months later, and Casablanca was almost two years away. He’d played thugs, mostly, crime bosses, crooked lawyers, etc. and rarely got the lead, usually playing second banana to James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft, among others. The latter passed on the script of High Sierra, and Bogie finally got to play a leading part – though he was still billed second to Ida Lupino. He played a gangster again, but one with a heart, who actively seeks redemption. He can be ruthless and kills without regret, but what really brings about his doom is the rejection of the seemingly sweet and innocent girl he helps.

The film is the epitome of the Warner’s ganster picture. It has a robbery, fights, a conflicted hero… Bogart is great in it, giving you all the layers without forgetting that this is a killer, and Ida Lupino is, of course, marvelous: smart, capable, but hopelessly in love. The sense you get is that Bogart’s Roy Earle is essentially a good man, a simple farm boy, but he got caught in the world of crime and only entangles himself more as he tries, more and more desperately, to escape.

In that, he’s almost the diametrical opposite of his character from In a Lonely Place. When Bogart made this one, he was already a big star. He could basically choose any role he wanted, and never had to play the gangster any more. He had developed a fixed persona: he was tough, world-weary, sarcastic, often with a penchant for alcohol, but his heart was in the right place and he beat the bad guys in the end. He never became complacent: his character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre can hardly be called heroic. But his role in In a Lonely Place was different.

Bogie plays Dixon Steele. He almost gets into a fight as soon as we meet him, and later, at a club where he spouts insults at anyone who’ll listen, he socks a guy. He’s a writer, however, and because he’s so articulate and seemingly principled about not selling out, he gets our sympathy. Enough sympathy that when the vapid hat-check girl he took home (so that she could tell him the story of a book he doesn’t feel like reading), turns up dead, you don’t think for a moment that he did it. He’s emotionless under interrogation, sure, and we’ve already seen he’s violent, but a killer?

The thing that makes this movie so gripping is that it sneaks up on you. When Dixon’s neighbour, Laurel Gray (a magnificent Gloria Grahame), strides into the police office and gives him an alibi, you feel like cheering, and you truly root for their blossoming relationship. But of course, if everything ended happy and perky, this would not be a noir classic, and bit by bit, like Laurel, you start getting doubts about Dixon’s innocence. He is very violent after all, and fascinated by violence, to boot. When he directs his friend Brub (who’s also a policeman on the case) to re-enact with his wife how the murder must’ve gone, there is a frightening light in a his eyes, a mania that can’t be ignored.

At the beginning of his career, Bogart wanted to get away from his typecasting as the violent gangster. So it’s interesting that, when established as a hero, he decided to go back to a much darker role, to a much darker, violent part of himself perhaps, too. In a Lonely Place, in any case, is one of Bogart’s best movies, and he’s absolutely fascinating to watch. So is Gloria Grahame: an elusive, composed object of desire in the beginning, she slowly unravels and turns out not to be so secure and untouchable as she seemed.

Bogart had a long, elaborate career. He has an immediately recognizable screen persona, but his work is much more diverse than you would think, and every movie I see I discover a new facet of it. Whether he’s the fundamentally nice guy trapped by circumstances or the seemingly good guy with a disturbing streak under the surface: he’s almost always mesmerizing, and he certainly is in these two.

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One Response to “Weekend Double Feature: Double Bogie”

  1. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen In a Lonely Place.

    I’m not even sure how that happened.

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