As we continue into the fifties, the following two movies, both produced in 1950, happen to capture the pure essence of the quintessential screenwriter in Hollywood. Both Dix Steele and Joe Gillis embody all of the Hollywood screenwriters who have appeared in the movies before them and provide a prototype for those who will follow. Here, now, are two of the strongest characters the movies have ever known. Interestingly enough, they are characters who write movies.
In a Lonely Place (Columbia, 1950) In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart is a famous film of the film noir genre. Bogart is outstanding as a Hollywood screenwriter who's got a criminal record—and a fascination with killing. He's Dixon "Dix" Steele and he makes the mistake of asking a hatcheck girl, one Mildred Atkinson, home to read to him. Yes, read (just read, nothing else) to him. He asks her to read a novel that a big director wants him to adapt into a screenplay. Mildred innocently does just that and leaves Dix's apartment. When Mildred is found murdered the next morning—in Benedict Canyon (site of the Manson murders years later), Dix is the prime suspect—he's cleared (somewhat) when Miss Laurel Gray, a confident Gloria Grahame, tells the police that she saw the girl leave Dix's apartment by herself.
One of the most interesting parts of this film is the apartments themselves—they become so involved in the story it's as if they are another character. Director Nicolas Ray, who made Rebel Without a Cause shortly after this film, shot Dix's world in black-and-white. The result is a dark, cold environment—a perfect place for a murderer to live. The style could be called California baroque, a Hispanic style known as "Neo-Leo Carrillo" — the scenes are counterpoint, never head-on, while the main dramatic theme is developed in space and time. This is Ray's signature style. The story keeps upping the ante against Dix until even Laurel, who has now fallen in love with Dix, questions his innocence. All the while, Dix keeps writing—some-times all night. Laurel is his good-luck charm — he's never written so well— but all of this changes as the murder engulfs Dix's life and one of the best films noirs in history unfolds.
This film also features a catchy phrase of dialogue, repeated throughout by Dix who doesn't know where to place it in the script he is writing: "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me." It turns out that he lives and dies by this exact line by the time the movie ends.
In a Lonely Place doesn't feature the group scenes and energy of Hollywood as do some of the other films mentioned in this chapter, but it does echo the pathos of Hollywood. Dix Steele's haunting recreation of how the murder could have happened will stay with you well after you've watched this movie. It is his capacity to invoke fear that makes him the excellent screenwriter that he is.
Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950) Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a struggling screenwriter living in the Alto Lido Apartments in Hollywood. The time is the early fifties. Silents have been silent for years. Movies have become a staple for Americans. Joe is the quintessential all-American screenwriter and a classic film noir character. He's a young writer from a generic Midwestern town. He has dreams of making it in the movies. He's handsome. He's savvy. He's confident. And he's dead—at least when the audience is introduced to him and he begins to tell his story.
Joe's career is typical. A few important Hollywood suits know him. He hasn't had a writing job in a while. He's pitched every story he's got. His success has been marginal. He seeks financial help from an agent and a studio head, but to no avail. The guys from the finance company are after him to repossess his car. ("If I lose my car, it would be like having my legs cut off.") A chase ensues, and a flat tire causes him to turn into the Sunset Boulevard driveway, which alters his life forever. He hides his wheels in the garage of a spooky decaying old mansion and enters the big house where a stately older German butler ushers him upstairs — Madame is waiting.
Like so many other tragic heroes, Joe Gillis doesn't have many options when he meets Norma Desmond and her butler, Max. He learns that Norma has a script (doesn't everyone?). He tells Norma he's a screenwriter and "The last film I did was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You'd never know it, because by the time it reached the screen the whole thing took place on a torpedo boat." Norma offers him the job of rewriting her script and although he is righteously indignant, Joe's financial situation forces him to accept her offer to move into the room above the garage and do the rewrite. The fallen star becomes delusional and falls in love with the young, handsome Joe. He tries to escape the creeping paralysis of the house and fails completely. When the TV news arrive to report on Joe's
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death, his body floats in the swimming pool, while the deranged Norma, about to be led away by the cops, primps for the camera ("I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille"). Tragically, Joe is the embodiment of a Hollywood writer circa 1950.
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