September 12, 2018

Going Back to the Garden with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino

By Stuart Mitchner

We are stardust

We are golden

And we have to get ourselves

Back to the garden

I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan. She never moved me the way Kate Bush does when she becomes the spirit of Cathy singing outside Heathcliff’s window in “Wuthering Heights” or the spirit of Emily Brontë herself in all her untapped wildness when she makes albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. But those lines from Mitchell’s “Woodstock” not only capture the best spirit of the Sixties, they speak to the here and now of Princeton in September 2018, where we have a Garden to get back to, and on Hollywood Nights it’s not just a refuge from the breaking-news madness of our time, it’s an escape route to the days when a B-movie gangster became Humphrey Bogart. My wife and I took our time getting to the Garden to see Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), one of the lesser known Bogarts. But Bogart is Bogart, the house was packed, and we were lucky to find seats together.

The Supreme Antihero

I was on my way from a column about Frankenstein to one on Wuthering Heights the night we saw In a Lonely Place, a title that resonates with both novels, and it’s not all they have in common. Played by the screen’s supreme antihero, Bogart’s Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele is a variation on Heathcliff with elements in common with Mary Shelley’s lonely creature. The monster tropes are there, the glaring eyes, the twisted mouth, the catatonic movements of a wounded, enraged human beast making mayhem. This isn’t the Bogart of The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946) or Casablanca (1942); those were edgy entertainers in a diverting mixture of gunfire, existential cool, and hard-bitten repartee no more dangerous than curling up with a good book on a rainy day. In Dix Steele, you get glimpses of Bogart’s demon.

Like it or not, you’re attached to this explosive character the moment the opening credits move across the screen; he’s riding a razor edge of rage and you’re in the passenger seat as he drives into the night, images of film noir LA flashing past; when a car pulls alongside at the first stoplight and someone says something he doesn’t like, Dix is primed for a fight, an ex-soldier who’s still at war.

A Princeton Connection

In a Lonely Place is adapted from Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 mystery novel about a serial killer with a Princeton pedigree. He lives in a Spanish style apartment complex that evokes the Garden of Allah, a Hollywood hang-out for actors and writers, including Scott Fitzgerald. In the novel the place is called the Virginibus Arms, and the Fitzgerald association may have had something to do with the fact that Hughes’s character went to Princeton, working his way through school in a hardware store. His neighbor and lover, Laurel Gray (played by Gloria Grahame in the film), likes to call him “Princeton,” which she associates with “money and social position.” Unlike his rich uncle, who believed that going to Old Nassau “was like being a senator or maybe Jehovah,” Dix had no wish to be “a Princeton man.”

Changing the Narrative

Nick Ray has said that he changed the Ivy League serial killer to a murder suspect because he wanted the film to be “about the violence in all of us.” The same thinking influenced his last-minute decision to modify the ending in which Dix actually does kill Laurel and is arrested even as he completes his screenplay, the film’s final shot a close-up of the last lines: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Those in the Garden audience who applauded In a Lonely Place were responding to the sound of Bogart’s voice speaking those words and perhaps also to the knowledge that the actor playing the shaken, drained-looking man watching the love of his life walk away had only six more years to live.

In her portrait of Bogart in Lulu in Hollywood, Louise Brooks, who had known him since 1921, singles out In a Lonely Place as a film whose title “perfectly defined” his own insolation. Referring to Dix’s “fascinatingly complex character,” she suggests that “his pride in his art, his selfishness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence were shared by the real Bogart.”

Although his union with Lauren Bacall was by most accounts a happy one, Bacall’s memoir includes a mention of one of those “lightning strokes” shortly before their marriage: “I don’t know what happened this time — when or how the click in his brain took place — but suddenly he was fighting with me. I got more and more frightened. He started slamming his fists on the table…I’d never seen fury like that — unreasonable, lashing out. I hated it.”

Bogart and Lupino

The Garden’s upcoming 100th anniversary celebration of Ida Lupino (1918-1995) sent me to Filmstruck to see Bogart’s breakthrough film, High Sierra (1941), in which 22-year-old Lupino plays the taxi dancer with a heart of gold tagging along with 42-year-old Bogart as “Mad Dog” Roy Earl, an ex-con based on John Dillinger. As a film, High Sierra is as loose and baggy as In a Lonely Place is solid and sure. Too bad we didn’t see it on the big screen at the Garden. At home, you can groan at the heavy handed music, cheer as a mutt named Pard (Bogart’s own dog in real life) runs off with the movie, and gush about how Lupino makes it  all worth watching. Although it would be a decade before she became a director, she’s already at it in her own sweet way when she urges Bogart to take the dog along every time Pard chases after the car, even on the night of the big heist.

In 1967, looking back on her career as a director in an essay titled “Me, Mother Directress,” Lupino expresses something like the same sweetness. “With the guys on the set I say ‘Darlings, mother has a problem. I’d love to do this. Can you do it? It sounds kooky but I want to do it. Now, can you do it for me?’ And they do it — they just do it.”

Next Wednesday, September 19 at 7:30, the Garden will be showing The Bigamist (1953), a film noir Lupino directed and stars in, along with Joan Fontaine and Edmund O’Brien. Fans of Hollywood Nights will remember her in another Nick Ray film, On Dangerous Ground (1951), with Robert Ryan, and some weeks ago in a truly crazed picture called Moontide (1942), where Jean Gabin plays a hellraiser with the unlikely name Bobo. Only Ida Lupino could deal with a line like “Oh, Bobo, I love you.” But then who else but Lupino could play Emily Brontë and beautifuly bring it off in Devotion (1946)? “She had a fine sense of humor,” director Curtis Bernhardt remembers. “She always called me ‘Ducky.’”