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In a Lonely Place (1950)
Excellent Noir Character Study
Director Nicholas Ray's characters always carried a vast amount of emotional weight, as demonstrated by films such as On Dangerous Ground (1952) or the landmark Rebel without a Cause (1956). Emotional complexity was no stranger to his 1950 film In a Lonely Place, a film which showed an uncommon depth for the period while also featuring some innovative commentary on domestic violence. The main character, played by Humphrey Bogart in one of his greatest performances, is the quick to anger, disgruntled screenwriter Dixon Steel.
Steele possesses a temper so brutal that it forces the people around him to consider that he may be guilty of the brutal murder of Mildred Atkinson, a hat-check girl who was last seen with Steele. His temper is introduced to us in the film's opening scene, following a quick dispute with a man driving the car beside him. As the police begin to investigate the murder of Atkinson, previous reports involving a violent Steele arise. Later, Steele's violence is again shown on the screen. This building suspicion causes us to share the paranoia of Steele's girlfriend, Laurel. Though she loves Steele, she is perplexed as to whether it is safe to be with him.
In the beginning, Steele doesn't see anything especially wrong with these fights. Rather, he feels he is usually in the right, and it is only when he begins to realize his violent moods can hurt those he loves that he reconsiders his actions. His eventual remorse makes it easy to sympathize with Dix as it gives the illusion that he isn't a bad person, but that he really can't help himself.
The tone of the film is pure noir, with a very ominous mood that gets darker as the film goes on. There is an excellent and unpredictable climax. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it lacks the stark expression present in other noirs. However, if you're only watching this kind of film for its cinematography then you're missing the point. In a Lonely Place is a dark and suspenseful character study by one of classic Hollywood's greatest, and it still holds up well even after 60 years.
After Aguirre, there was Kaspar
I recently had the chance to watch Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. While not one of the most common works of his early period, I found it captivating and touching. Kaspar Hauser was made one year after Aguirre, The Wrath of God, his first collaboration with the equally brilliant Klaus Kinski. Much like that film, Kaspar Hauser has a certain quality that is mysterious, yet beautiful. Herzog is one of those artists that I can really connect with, and I share his romantic wonder for the world and appreciate his willingness to explore its mysteries. It is through his work that we are able to catch a unique glimpse of the wondrous world we live in, as though we are seeing it for the first time. This is perfectly suitable in this case, because the main character, Kaspar Hauser, really is seeing the world for the first time.
The opening of the film sets the mood perfectly, showing foggy shots of 19th century landscapes and people that seem almost like a symbol of Kaspar's own hazy mind. These shots fill the viewer with curiosity that will assuredly grow as they first see Kaspar Hauser sitting in a dark cellar, not knowing how to speak, write, walk or even stand. Bruno S. did a fantastic job as the lead character, and it is moving to watch as Kaspar puts so much effort into attempting to comply with the society he suddenly seems to be a part of.
Herzog's use of music in his films has always been profound, and Kaspar Hauser is no exception. Although not used throughout very much in the film, the classic pieces of Tommaso Albinoni and Johann Pachelbel are used to their full potential when they are heard. The dream sequences in the film are quite mysterious. Presented with grainy and flickering film, they are seen in a similar way to how we perceive them in life, watching as their details are slowly forgotten.
There is always a very real, documentary quality to Herzog's films which is created through his use of extended shots of people, animals, and landscapes. Also contributing to this quality is his use of real extras rather than actors, and the fact that even the main characters seem as though they are real people. It all combines to create one grand illusion, seen through with more attention and heart than most renowned filmmakers of any generation.