Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is in A Lonely Place

Movies watched:  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, In A Lonely Place,  I’m A Stranger Here Myself  (condensed version).

Where watched:  Regal Auburn Cinema 17, Home

Movie times:  103 minutes, 94 minutes, 41 minutes

Total elapsed time:  2 days, 3 hours, 39 minutes

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Every month, TCM sponsors a re-release into theaters of a classic film.  Generally they choose movies from the golden age of Hollywood, although some are more recent.   The offering for May was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,   I was a bit surprised by this at first, until I realized it was the 30th anniversary of the film’s original release.  Wait a minute.  Thirty freaking years?  Is that possible?  I remember seeing this in the theater.

1986 was a tough year for me. I had been uprooted from my hometown, and forced to move with my mother to a new town, in a new state.  I missed my friends, I missed my grandmother, and I hated the weather.   Things would get better the following year, when we moved again, and I had a chance to settle in and make some friends.  At the time though, I saw no hope.  Music and movies became my consolation.  And this movie spoke to me, as it did to every teenager who saw it.

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What was it about John Hughes that allowed him to tap into the teenage experience in a way that few other writer/directors ever have?   He didn’t pander, or condescend.  He created teens that were fully fleshed-out characters, dealing with real situations, and responding to those situations with real emotion.  That isn’t to say his movies didn’t have stereotypes.  Ben Stein, Edie McClurg, and Jeffrey Jones’ characters were caricatures on the page;  they became so real, and so memorable, because they were portrayed brilliantly.

So this is one of those rare movies that plays well today despite a visual aesthetic and soundtrack that ground it firmly in the 80’s.   There is a bit more of a melancholic feel for me watching this film on the big screen 30 years later,  mostly because John Hughes is no longer with us.   It was great to see it in a theater that was more than half full, with a crowd that was boisterous and lively, quoting lines and singing aloud to “Twist and Shout”.  It was also great to experience it in the theater with my son and his girlfriend.

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“I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”    Was  ever a better line of dialogue uttered in any film noir?   How fitting that it is uttered in a movie about a Hollywood screenwriter.  It’s hard to imagine a more disparate pairing of movies, watching this after Ferris Bueller.    

In A Lonely Place stars Humphrey Bogart as down-on-his-luck screenwriter Dixon Steele.  Dixon is one of Bogart’s greatest performances, and one his least likable characters.   Dix Steele is intelligent and principled, but has a temper, and this temper causes him to cross a line.

Bogart wanted his wife Lauren Bacall to play the romantic lead, but Warner Bros. would not release her, so Bogart ended up acting opposite Gloria Grahame.  While it would have been nice to have one more Bogie/Bacall pairing on the big screen, it is hard to imagine anyone improving on Grahame’s performance in the role.   Gloria Grahame was married to Nicholas Ray, the film’s director.  At least she was when production began.  Their marriage was rocky from day one, and during the production of this film they reached the breaking point, and actually separated during filming.  To their credit, they were discreet and professional on the set;  there was not a hint of what was happening in their personal lives.

Although it’s impossible to avoid the parallels in the Nick Ray/Gloria Grahame relationship, and that of the characters onscreen.  When Bogart walks away at the end of the movie, moving slowly like a wounded animal, and Grahame watches, with genuine sorrow in her eyes, it’s hard not to imagine that she is thinking about her own collapsing relationship.

This is a fantastic movie, quite different from the standard fare of the day.  There is a murdered girl, and Bogie is suspected in her murder.  That sounds like a very typical set-up for film-noir.  But in this movie, the murdered girl, and the hunt for her killer, are treated almost as an aside.  The real story is about the relationship between Bogart and Grahame.

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Dixon Steele is a difficult character to figure out.  He’s hard to like.   There are moments when the audience is with him.  But just when we start to admire him, he does something completely self-destructive.  We certainly never stop rooting for him.  I think the key to understanding his character is his experiences during the war.  This is referenced multiple times, the fact that Steele hasn’t written anything good since “before the war”, that he hasn’t been the same since “before the war”, the implication being that the war changed him.  Not only has he struggled as a writer in the years following, but he’s struggled with his temper, which costs him quite a bit.

This movie is a must-see for fans of Humphrey Bogart, who will surely add Dixon Steele to the list of great Bogie characters, right along side Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe, Fred Dobbs and Charlie Allnut.  The Criterion Collection did a fantastic job with the blu ray release;  here is hoping that they will release more titles from Nicholas Ray, an underrated director who has a lot of noteworthy and influential movies to his credit.

Included on the Criterion blu ray is a truncated version of a documentary film about Nicholas Ray.   I’m including it here because it did debut on the big screen, albeit briefly.  Why was it trimmed by 20 minutes by Criterion?  Probably because they couldn’t clear the rights to all the footage.  Or else they just didn’t feel the remaining portion was necessary.  Regardless, we see here the image of Nicholas Ray in the last years of his life, looking very haggard, older than his years, but still passionate about film.   It is sad to see him in an on-set spat with a girl several decades his junior, who was apparently also his lover at the time.    He looks like a broken man, but the passion for movie-making lasted as long as he did.  One of many times I’ve been reminded of the words of Pete Townshend:  “After the fire, the fire still burns.”

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