As I'm sure all cinephiles would agree, there is a soft spot in our hearts for films about Hollywood, specifically the studio system as a means of demeaning and, above all, dehumanizing those working in it. Yet in all the films known to me about Hollywood insiders, no singular character runs as deeply, as troubling, and as profoundly as Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a soon-to-be washed-up screenwriter, aiming to write his masterpiece.
But that's jumping ahead a bit. The film opens with Steele driving through Beverly Hills. Ray focuses on his rear-view mirror, Steele's eyes cautiously looking at what's behind him. It's a distinctly noir touch, a character who's always looking to the past, longing for the "good-old-days." In what proves to be a tragic irony, Steele hasn't had any good days, now or in the past. His probing look lays an early foundation for his paranoia and ego, his efforts to consistently reinforce his masculine persona, carried out with brute force.
Examples of Steele's short fuse come early; at a stop-light while driving, a male driver demands he quit bothering his wife. Steele wants to have it out with him, right on the street. Later, in a bar, an arrogant producer mocks one of Steele's friends, an aging actor, and Steele takes it upon himself to teach the guy a lesson...with his fists. Yet, as a counter to his rugged side, he waxes poetic to a passing busboy: "There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality." Here's a paradox if there ever was one -- Steele is as alive as any man, ruled completely by his own desires and instincts, but it's these very instincts that prevent him from attaining the happiness he desires.
The narrative places Steele at the heart of a murder investigation: a young woman named Mildred (Martha Stewart), taken home by Steele to summarize a book he's meant to adapt, is killed after leaving his villa. When investigated by police, Steele makes light of her death, answering serious questions with understated sarcasm. Through his seeming indifference, the police chief suspects he's hiding something.
A film this complex requires constant backing up to clarify the layers present. It becomes clear the murder thread of the film is far less important than the impending love story involving Steele's neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, Ray's real-life wife at the time). This concept is presented in microcosm while Mildred briefly summarizes the novel Steele's too tired to read. Mildred's a plain, unimaginative type: "I used to think move stars made up the lines as they went." Steele replies: "When they get to be big stars they usually do." Nevertheless, her telling of the story omits all thematic or emotional depth. She merely hits plot points, beat for beat. She can’t understand why Steele reacts coldly. In a way, Ray is laying out the schema for his own film; he’s saying, if you think like Mildred, with little imagination, you’re not going to get my film. You’re going to be more concerned with the murder angle, where one-dimensional reveals of motivation take precedent over complex and deeply rooted emotions. Mildred wants a movie for the masses. Steele wants to write a movie truly about love. Ray clearly wants his viewer to adopt Steele’s point of view, placing the camera in Steele’s subjectivity for a couple of shots, Mildred speaking directly into the camera. Words cannot do Ray’s level of sophistication justice, since he’s working on half a dozen levels simultaneously.
Announcing the murder plot won’t be his central focus, Ray gives one of the cinema’s greatest romances the screen time it deserves. Give me Bogie and Grahame over Bogie and Bergman, hell, even Bogie and Bacall. Their quick love affair proves imminently believable, each searching for love in, what they think is, the right place. It doesn’t ultimately play that way, however, as Laurel’s suspicions of Steele’s brutality begin to build, first through the recollections of her masseuse, then through her own eyes. After learning of an additional set of questions by the police chief, Steele storms off from a small beach gathering. On the way home, he gets in a scuffle with a UCLA football star, nearly beating him to death. With Mildred’s killer still on the loose, Laurel’s certainty in Steele’s innocence begins to waver. Here, Ray makes a crucial shift. Where earlier in the film we were meant to identify with Steele, at least artistically, now we’re meant to share Laurel’s doubt. Since Mildred’s death occurs during an ellipsis, the viewer cannot be completely certain of his innocence. Perhaps Steele is a murderer after all; his propensity to instantly beat someone to a pulp reinforces her doubt.
But as stated above, the film isn’t about Steele’s guilt at all. It’s about his anger, his potential to commit acts of violence. Ray makes it possible to read his violence as a product of his profession, so detached from actual human beings through his screenwriting, that he can’t distinguish on-screen from real-life violence. No scene better explores this idea than when Steele asks a couple to reenact the way the murder potentially happened. Steele relishes the details, explaining how it might have been with the utmost detachment. Clearly, Steele’s not easily shaken by grisly details.
But to read his actions and profession as having siphoned the life out of him would be misguided, since his love for Laurel is completely engaged and in touch with both his and her desires. Sadly for Steele (and Laurel too), her mistrust of Steele’s innocence, combined with his wildly erratic behavior prevent any potential for long term happiness. Steele sums up their relationship (unbeknownst to him at the time) in a brief passage meant for a goodbye letter at the end of his film: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me. I lived for a few weeks while she loved me.” Like the bent grapefruit knife he mistakenly fixes while preparing breakfast one morning, Dixon Steele sabotages what was already in proper order. The tragedy is he can’t seem to help it. His rage is an act of self-effacement, one which he seems doomed to repeat.