James Ellroy’s Denver Film Series: In a Lonely Place
For the following piece we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. Here’s Jason’s bio:
Jason Carter is an unofficial Ellroy scholar with 20-years of Ellrovian tutelage under his belt. A devoted follower of Ellroy since the age of 14, Jason now has the enviable honor of calling Mr. Ellroy his friend. Although, don’t think of asking Jason for any personal details about Ellroy, as Jason is ferociously protective of Mr. Ellroy’s privacy. Jason, like Ellroy, lives in Denver, Colorado.
“Woof, woof—hear the Demon Dog bark—he’s got a twelve-inch wanger that glows in the dark. I’m the king of writers, woof woof, woo woo, I got a 12-year-old girlfriend strung out on glue. I’ll end this poem and beat my meat, because, cats, tonight, you’re in for a treat…”
Thus began James Ellroy’s introductory comments on the 11th installment of his award-winning monthly Denver film series. This month’s offering was In a Lonely Place, a 1950 film noir directed by Nicolas Ray, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Denver film series is named ‘In a Lonely Place’ after this classic noir, so to hear Ellroy finally give his take on the movie was very special. Over the past year, Ellroy’s series has delivered cinematic masterpieces as diverse as Akira Kurosowa’s High & Low, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Robert Altmann’s Nashville, the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Bo Widerberg’s The Man On the Roof, all preceded by Ellroy’s incomparable commentary.
I once said on this blog that the films Ellroy selects reflect the passionate crimes of the heart which dominate his novels. This is certainly true, but I’ll include that such a sundry lot also dynamically demonstrates the breadth and depth of James Ellroy’s interests and imagination. Ellroy is right when he says he is no longer a crime writer, but a historical novelist… Ellroy certainly knows the story of man, and is never afraid to tell it from the most savagely honest perspective imaginable. If only Ellroy’s detractors could see him like this, they would witness an intellectual passion that runs far deeper than any of Ellroy’s infamously profane Demon Dog performances. (I’m looking at you, Mike Davis!)
“In a Lonely Place the movie is not as good as its source material,” Ellroy continued, referencing Dorothy B. Hughes seminal crime novel. Ellroy was less flattering when describing Bogart. “Bogie was a pissed off little guy nobody would ever mistake for a good guy,” Ellroy intoned, adding “Bogie was, at that time, the Daffy Duck of male movie stars… he thinks he’s cool, but really isn’t.”
In A Lonely Place tells the story of Dixon Steele (Bogart), a has-been Hollywood screenwriter with an explosive temper. Steele takes a coat check girl home with him, and the very next day the girl is found murdered. Steele is interrogated as the prime suspect as he was spotted with the victim by his neighbor Laurel Gray (Grahame). Gray is also brought to the police station, confirms the girl left Steele’s home unharmed, and Steele is released. As Steele and Gray slowly begin a relationship, Steele’s writing ability recovers, and he dives into his work. However, Steele begins to act strangely, and even forces an old army buddy and the man’s wife to participate in a bizarre re-creation of the murder based on the known facts of the case. The police captain who interrogated Steele shows Steele’s lengthy record of erratic and violent behavior to Gray, who, accordingly begins to doubt Steele’s innocence. The film ends with an eleventh-hour twist and the tragic specter of a future which cannot be built on the destruction of the past.
“The movie showcases the great L.A. iconography on top of everything else,” Ellroy said in his introduction. Part of that iconography is most certainly the grand isolation and hapless verisimilitude of celebrity, topics which Ellroy has explored in his novels for decades. As Ellroy himself said in My Dark Places, “Isolation breeds self-pity and self-loathing”; both of which are on abundant and yet subtle display in Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele, who at one point even says “There’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality…”
Ellroy was no less sparing of Gloria Grahame, and director Nick Ray, who were married at the time In A Lonely Place was made. “Nick Ray put evil clauses in the film contract Gloria had to abide by,” Ellroy said, referencing contract stipulations dictating that “my husband [Ray] shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”
Their marriage would not survive the filming. Afraid that one of them would be replaced, Ray began sleeping in a dressing room, under the pretext that he needed to work on the script. Grahame acquiesced, and nobody on the set knew of the separation. Though they briefly reconciled, they would divorce in 1952, after Ray found Grahame in bed “doing the bad boogaloo” with his thirteen-year-old son, a part of the story Ellroy had particularly savage fun in re-telling.
After the film, we gathered in the theater’s bar to discuss it, which has always been my favorite part of every one of Ellroy’s film screenings. With Ellroy at the helm as a deft master of ceremony, the conversations which develop can often become as wonderfully convoluted as any of the plotlines from his novels. Even when jet-lagged (Ellroy had just returned to the states after a visit with his international publisher in France), the Demon Dog is still an indomitable force. On this particular evening, Ellroy regaled us with sordid tales from his roaring 20’s, including numerous run-ins with the LAPD. Speaking of running—don’t do it. “Never, ever run from the LAPD,” Ellroy warned us. “They’ll catch you, and kick your ass!” Ellroy then told us of a time when he ran after committing a petty theft.
“Ask me anything about politics or Hollywood,” Ellroy said, seamlessly shifting gears. One patron mentioned the Kennedy clan and Lyndon Johnson. “The Kennedys are stale bread,” Ellroy denounced. Ellroy does indeed have an encyclopedic knowledge of politics, Hollyweird, and all forms of sleaze in between. However, I’ve sworn never to repeat online most of what he’s told me.
I mentioned—to Ellroy’s surprise—that Curtis Hanson had shown In a Lonely Place to Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe as part of a mini film series to prepare the then-unknown Aussie actors for their roles in L.A. Confidential. (Ellroy actually began his Denver film series—in September, 2015—with L.A. Confidential.) Continuing in the Hanson vein, I told Ellroy I heard the Demon Dog had a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it cameo in Hanson’s 2000 film Wonder Boys. Ellroy said that yes it was true, adding with typical Ellrovian pizzazz, that the film’s crew put him up in a hotel swarming with bedbugs. We were quite shocked to learn of Curtis Hanson’s untimely death just one day later.
Eventually, the conversation came around to an assassination attempt on legendary L.A. gangster—and Ellroy mainstay—Mickey Cohen in which the Mickster jumped on his pet bull dog to protect him. (Both Mickey C. and the dog survived). I held up my DVD of Reinhard Jud’s 1993 documentary Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, and asked Ellroy if this is what he meant when Ellroy said in the documentary how Mickey was good-natured, despite his profession. Ellroy grinned at me and chuckled, leaving the question as open to interpretation as the endings of most of his novels.
After 20 years, I should expect nothing less.
I was a fan THEN.
I’m still a fan NOW.