This 1950 film noir thriller directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame literally kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire first and second viewings. This role was said to be the closest to the real Bogie that any of his characters ever came. If so, Bogie was one very complex and difficult man, though none the worse for that.
The film wastes no time introducing Dixon Steele (Bogart), who is going to meet his agent, Mel Lippman, played by Art Smith. Before reaching the restaurant where they plan to meet, “Dix” has a verbal altercation at a stoplight with a man who rudely tells him to stop bothering his wife, although she spoke to Dix first. The man in the other car tells Dix to pull to the curb, in what is clearly an offer to fight, and Dix shows no qualms with that idea. However, the man speeds away and Dix goes about his business without any further issues. An odd scenario to start out with, yes, but we have no reason to assume anything of Dix at this point – he simply responded to the situation as it was presented to him. While waiting for his agent to arrive, Steele is asked for his autograph by a boy hanging out in front of Paul’s, a restaurant where Hollywood types congregate on the regular. Steele agrees, but asks if the boy knows who he is. While replying in the negative, the boy is told by a girl in his group, “Don’t bother, he’s nobody”, to which Steele readily agrees. He signs the autograph anyway and meets up with his colleagues, entering the restaurant.
Once inside, his agent reveals that the coat-check girl (Martha Stewart – no, not that one) is reading the book from which Dix is to write a screenplay. The coat-check girl makes it clear that she wants to read the last few pages while he does his business in the restaurant, and calls the book “epic”, which causes Dix to become amused and quite a bit more cheerful than we have seen him up to this point. He amiably agrees to let the girl keep the book, then goes about his business.
Steele shows a bit more of his anger at the restaurant, between being testy when his reputation is harangued, and then getting into a scuffle with a patron whom he feels does not show adequate respect to an older actor sitting near him. The young patron flicks his ashes into the old actor’s glass after a few lines of derogatory comments, which sets Dix off and he immediately knocks him backward. A lady in the bystanders says, “There goes Dix again”, the young patron leaves, and the owner Paul tells him that, even though the guy had it coming, he’d appreciate it if next time Dix takes it outside. Obviously, this is not an unusual occurrence with Steele, and nobody is that alarmed. This show of anger is also tempered by the fact that it was an honorable defense of a mistreated person that set Dix off, which makes him less threatening and unreasonable to the viewer.
Before leaving Paul’s, Dix asks the coat-checker, who we find out is named Mildred Atkinson, to accompany him home and tell him the story of the book so that he doesn’t have to read it himself. She breaks her date and agrees, telling him the story of the book at his home. They meet his new neighbor Laurel Gray, played by Gloria Grahame (the director’s estranged wife), on the way into Dix’s apartment. He states to Mildred that he does not know her, having never met her before. Later it becomes fortunate for him that this meeting occurs.
During the reading, Mildred is painfully bright and cheerful, albeit also simple and obviously sheltered. She does not drink but is proud to know the name of her nonalcoholic beverage of choice – a horse’s neck, to be precise. (You’ll have to look that up or watch the film, I’m not telling what is in it.) She repeatedly mispronounces the book’s heroine’s name, Althea, as well as several words in the book and the name of the god Apollo. Throughout, Dix remains pleasantly sardonic, helped along by Mildred’s oblivious nature. At one point, he reminds me of Bilbo Baggins at his birthday party. She tells him that there were many plot points that she had not told him. To this he sarcastically replies “Thank you!”, without her noticing anything wrong with the comment.
After the telling of the story, Mildred makes her exit, with Dix having her walk to a nearby taxi cab stand to get a ride home. She agrees, and that is the last we see of Ms. Atkinson…alive, that is.
A few hours later, Dix is woken by the doorbell, and finds his old military buddy Brub (Frank Lovejoy) at the door. Turns out the coat-check girl went and got herself “mugged” after leaving Steele’s house – in this case, choked to death and thrown from a moving car. Steele is not upset and the police are suspicious. When asked to verify his whereabouts after the coat-check girl left his house, he brings up his neighbor, Ms. Gray. When she is brought in for questioning, the tension is thick as she blatantly describes standing on the patio and watching him send the girl off, and admits that she watches Dix a lot, because she “likes his face”. The directness of her gaze is smoldering as she looks at him. Thus begins a back-and-forth game of wits that leads to romance.
Regardless of the alibi given, the police chief continues to believe that Steele is guilty. As the film progresses, we see many facets of Steele – a quick and hot temper, a willingness to fight on a dime, and an unexpected soft side (such as when he buys roses to send to Mildred Atkinson’s funeral anonymously). His agent explains to Laurel that even though Dix is difficult, he is worth dealing with, for over 20 years he has been worth it.
There is a scene where Dix is explaining how the murder occurred, stating he believes the jilted lover committed the crime. He has his friend Brub and his wife reenact his proposed scenario. It is during this scene that the lighting on Dix’s face and the craggy austerity of Bogie’s countenance combine with his skill as an actor to make him look like a complete madman, capable of murder without remorse. He scares Brub’s wife but she shakes it off – which is not so easy for the viewer. That face sticks in the mind, and begins a seed of doubt growing. Maybe he DID kill her? He is violent, moody, and has a long history of being both. It isn’t that farfetched, is it?
Although his friend continues to vouch for his innocence, and the romance between Dix and Laurel continues to progress, the police investigation begins to wear on the couple. After an incident where her masseuse tells her of Dix beating a woman in the past, and then a fight he engages in after overreacting to her being questioned by the police, Laurel begins to feel she needs to escape from the relationship. She does not give him credit for the good he has done, and the person she has fallen in love with, she simply lets the small details smother her. She continues to see him breakdown under the strain of his life and determines she is going to leave him.
Painted into a corner one morning by Dix, she agrees to marry him for fear of upsetting him. He has no idea she is unhappy or afraid, and tells her, “Looking at us, anyone could see we’re in love.” Her expression says it all, but still she agrees. When his agent arrives and is ecstatic, she bursts into tears and tells him she won’t be marrying him. She even states that she isn’t even sure he didn’t kill Mildred. She bemoans him not being like other people. Aghast, Lippman says,”Like other people?! Would you have liked him? You knew he was dynamite. He has to explode sometimes…But he’s Dix Steele, and if you want him you’ve got to take it all, the bad with the good. I’ve taken it for 20 years and I’d do it again.” She feels ashamed, and says so. Lippman tells her not to write, because he doesn’t want to know where she is, and that if she feels like writing she should write to Dix. His fierce loyalty is moving and goes to show the true character that lies under the veneer of violence that Dix exudes.
The movie culminates following an argument at the engagement party. A whirlwind ensues, and the party dissolves. There is a touching scene in the bathroom between Mel and Dix, and a tender reconciliation occurs. The handshake between the two men is fraught with sorrow and understanding. Mel forgives, and Dix leaves. Returning to the apartment, they receive a call from the police which carries a weighty message, one day too late.
One highlight of the movie for me, totally separate from all else, is the character that is disrespected at the beginning of the film, Mr. Waterman. He is a classic actor, and well-regarded by Steele. He arrives at the engagement party in cape and top-hat. The new coat-check loudly tells him he has forgotten to take off his costume. He smartly replies, “This is no costume you ignorant wench! This is the formal attire of a gentleman.” He then joins the party with aplomb. It’s a dashing bit of levity in a downward-spiraling situation.
It is never clearly discussed what has caused Dix to become what he is. Many times it is mentioned that he spent time in the war, including the fact that he has not had a successful screenplay since before the war. Perhaps that is the missing piece of the puzzle – wartime horrors that have plagued his mind without relief. One can only speculate.
This film beautifully illustrates the challenges and rewards of loving someone with a haunted past and emotional nature. The femme fatale may not have the spine to accept the challenges, but his longtime friend knows his worth and understands what it takes to love someone with such issues – that when you know they are dynamite, you have to take the whole package, even the explosions.
“I lived a few weeks, while you loved me.”