The film noir aesthetic of In a lonely place (Ray, 1950) and Twilight Boulevard (Wilder, 1950) consist of cigarette smoke that curls in the air and the neon signs of the city that the main characters drive past. Both films also contain dangerous – and sometimes deadly – inanimate objects. in the In a lonely placeIt’s the doors through which Dix (Humphrey Bogart) slams and bursts. in the Twilight BoulevardIt’s the swimming pool where Joe Gillis (William Holden) ends up dead. Although both films are film noir, each film tells its own unique story that will grab the audience’s attention.
Art imitates life. Twilight BoulevardJoe Gillis is based on director Billy Wilder’s experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s. The more the controlling director Nicholas Ray was about his real-life wife, Gloria Grahame, the more the character of Dix Laurel (Grahame’s on-screen character) controlled in In a lonely place. The Production Code Administration limited each film’s ability to deal with sex and violence. Such acts were implicated by the main characters (e.g., jumping on a bed or declaring murder and having it perform before the film started).
There are many similarities and differences between the aesthetics of in the a lonely place (Ray, 1950) and Twilight Boulevard (Wilder, 1950), all of which were due to the Hollywood climate in which each of the films was made. “Film noir was a genre that flourished in the 1940s and carried over into the 1950s. Noir-visual conventions, some of which were borrowed from German Expressionist films of the 1930s, are classic: cigarette smoke curling in the air, neon signs and reflecting pools of water ”(Gianos 1998, 130).
Such an aesthetic is evident in both Twilight Boulevard and In a lonely place. in the Twilight BoulevardThe smoke from Norma and Joe’s cigarettes rises steadily in the air. So did the smoke from Dix’s cigarette In a lonely place. Both films show us the neon signs of the city where the main characters drive past. Reflected pools of water are in place Twilight Boulevard and come out of the pool where Joe’s body is swimming.
Either In a lonely place and Twilight BoulevardInanimate objects can be dangerous and in some cases even fatal to the main characters in the film. “In the In a lonely placeIt’s the window an angry Dix (Humphrey Bogart) peers through, the doors he knocks on and crashes through, and the stairs he runs down after practically strangling Laurel (Gloria Grahame) ”(Polan 1993, 22). Likewise in Twilight BoulevardIt’s the stairs that a gun-armed Norma (Gloria Swanson) Joe (William Holden) chases down. the swimming pool that Joe collapsed dead after she shot him; and the many doors from which Max (Erich von Stroheim) had to remove the locks because of Norma’s frequent suicide attempts.
Film theorist Dana Polan states that some of the aesthetics in the opening shot of are obvious In a lonely place are as follows:
In the dark of night a man drives into town, but this is shown to us by the emphasis on his eyes looking back from their reflection in the rearview mirror. This could be seen as a derivative of Film Noir: night, the modern city, the obvious uncertainty of moving forward, combined with the undoing of self-confident progress through a paranoid look back, the almost three-dimensional fragmentation of the image into several levels (the body of a man on one Place his eyes in another) (12).
With that in mind, half of the main character Dix is confident. His arms and hands move the car forward. But the other half of him, especially his eyes, is insecure. This uncertainty is so extreme that it slows his progress of forward motion as his eyes are constantly looking back. Such an action incessantly questions the effectiveness of its advancement. The use of overlays instead of a complex flashback structure is present in In a lonely place. “The overlays on Laurel’s face as she sleeps repeat the various warnings she had about Dix’s violent temper. Such a device increases the ambiguity of the future – will Laurel go or not? – and suggest that her fate has not yet been decided is “(Polan 1993, 14).
Such overlays could be viewed as nightmares Laurel is having, and they add to her doubts and fears about Dix’s temperament. Because his anger is so unpredictable, she has no idea when it will strike. Dix is the determinant in Laurel’s fate. If he gets his temper under control, she’ll live. But if he doesn’t think rationally and therefore allows his temper to get out of hand, he could kill her. That’s what is so scary about his personality.
not how In a lonely place, Twilight Boulevard consists of a complex flashback structure. “The voice of the film belongs to Joe Gillis, a dead man swimming face down in a swimming pool. The film then becomes a review with voice-over narration ”(Dick 1980, 152). Not only does Joe want to inform the audience of the past events that led to his current state, but he also wants to tell us what Really happened before the press distorted the facts of his story.
According to Polan, shadows are one of the most common film noir aesthetics:
Dix’s face is thrown into a threatening penumbra as he tells Brub (Frank Lovejoy) and Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) how Mildred (Martha Stewart) could have been murdered. Just as Dix’s outbursts of violence disturb the calm of his world and force the individual to interpret it, so do the film’s own noir moments, which are considered interventions, the status of which does not seem to be clear (15).
In other words, because Dix’s behavior is so inconsistent, people around him are questioning his credibility. In essence, Dix’s chaotic world mirrors his chaotic behavior. Moments when Dix’s face is partially lit show that his subjects are unclear. The illuminated half of his face represents stability, while the shaded part of his face represents irrationality. Thus, Dix has a dual personality that is questionable. Nobody knows which personality will arise and when.
It is important to discuss what developed on the set of In a lonely place for the reason that such events had a huge impact on the type of film that director Nicholas Ray made. “Dix becomes even more possessive, wants to know Laurel’s every action and demands to take responsibility for her life at every moment. Such a fictional rule had its real counterpart. Ray’s contract with RKO granted him full professional control over everything his Woman did from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at night six days a week ”(Polan 1993, 23).
In essence, Dix is an autobiographical character. His personality is based on Ray’s temperament. As Ray got more control over his wife’s every move, he dominated the character of Dix more than his lover’s actions. Laurel is also an autobiographical figure. The rule she is subjected to from Dix mirrors the rule Grahame experienced from her husband in real life.
Autobiographical aspects of Billy Wilder’s personality are shown in sunset boulevardThe central character of Joe Gillis. “There are certain similarities between Wilder and his character. Gillis needs his car, but his creditors are behind. Wilder also struggled to keep payments up for his DeSoto in the 1930s. Gillis is a difficult screenwriter trying to sell his script. Wilder also knew the frustration of wanting to sell his scripts ”(Dick 1980, 153).
So Joe Gillis is clearly an autobiographical character. Certain aspects of him are based on Wilder’s personality. Wilder created a character he could identify with. He could empathize with Gillis, who was having a hard time not only keeping up with his car payments but also selling one of his scripts. He had been exactly in Gillis’ position before.
The success of Twilight Boulevard and In a lonely place can be attributed to the following circumstances. “What Hollywood had learned brilliantly were comedies, musicals, westerns, crime novels (film noir) and melodramas. Hollywood’s triumph had been a triumph of formula, and the innovation of mainstream American films was due to the inventive new ways in which they were reshaped ”(Sklar 1994, 280).
As this suggests, films that focused on specific genres and their conventions have done very well. These were the films that attracted the most audiences and were therefore the most profitable. Hollywood was constantly finding new ways to tell old and similar stories by adding clever twists that grabbed the audience’s attention. Although Twilight Boulevard and In a lonely place both belong to the genre of film noir, and each film tells a different and unique story.
Hollywood has restricted certain types of content in its films:
The fact that the movie’s Dix wasn’t going to be a psychotic serial killer had to do with the management of the production code. The film’s producer, Robert Lord, assured code director Joseph Breen that there would be no portrayal of the wrongdoings of a serial killer. The protagonist would only kill one person as part of the story, and that one murder would take place before the story began (Polan 1993, 55).
As this suggests, murder could be included in the film in the 1950s with its characters talking about it, but it could not be shown on screen. Such a restriction eliminated the violence of blood and viscera that would be portrayed in a murder. Showing less would also fascinate the audience of the film. Likewise in Twilight BoulevardThere were sexual connotations of Norma jumping on the bed, but that was all. Even during this time, the act of sex could not be shown on the screen.
The technique of voice-over narration is believed to be one of the main reasons Hollywood went through such difficult times:
Filmmakers had a problem with the continuity of the story. There was a growing trend in the 1940s and 1950s to use voice-over narration to tell a story that recordings and dialogue were unable to. Such a technique forces the viewer to interpret the visual experience by the narrator rather than allowing him to feel directly. Sunset Boulevard is a notable example of Hollywood’s crisis of confidence in the inability to let the moving image speak for itself (Sklar 281-82).
With that in mind, the filmmakers used voice-over narration to make up for the lack of effective storytelling in the film’s settings and dialogue. Such a device forces the viewer to perceive the images in the film. This destroys the ability for viewers to form their own opinion about what they see on screen. Twilight Boulevard illustrates the uncertainties the film industry was experiencing at the time. Filmmakers didn’t want to take any chances. It was too much of a gamble to use only footage and dialogue in your films to tell a story. Voice-over comments at the time seemed like a good backup plan in case such devices should fail.
In conclusion, the aesthetics of Twilight Boulevard and In a lonely place reflected a film industry’s insecurity in its ability to tell a story effectively. Knowing that various aspects of films of the 1950s were far inferior to those of previous decades, directors like Wilder and Ray clung desperately to great actors of Hollywood’s past like Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim and Humphrey Bogart. The creepy irony of it all was that such directors projected their insecurities onto the characters their actors were playing so that not only did life imitate art, but life imitated life as well.
Dick, Bernard. 1980. Billy Wilder. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Gianos, Phillip. 1998. Politics and Politicians in American Film. Westport: Praeger.
Polan. Dana. 1993. In a lonely place. London: British Film Institute.
Sure, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America. New York: Random House.
Smoodin, Eric. 1987. “Sunset Boulevard.” in the The International Dictionary of Films and filmmakers, edited by Christopher Lyon and Susan Doll, 461, London, Great Britain: Pan Macmillan.
You can find more contributions by Stephanie Sklar HERE