"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
- Dix Steele
One of my favourite films of all time, no question. Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, an embittered and highly volatile Beverley Hills scriptwriter who "hasn't written a hit since before the war". Tasked with adapting a voguish novel for the screen that he can't bear to read, Steele takes home an enthusiastic hatcheck girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), to recite the plot to him. When she turns up dead the next day, Dix is the obvious suspect. Questioned by police, he meets his striking new neighbour for the first time, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), who provides him with an alibi. The pair soon find themselves falling in love and, inspired and assisted by his new muse, Steele writes his best work in years. However, with the murder still unsolved and the ongoing investigation hanging over the couple, can Laurel really love a man whose violent temper frightens her so?
Like the earlier Nicholas Ray-Bogart collaboration Knock On Any Door (1949), this baby was produced for Columbia Pictures by Bogie's own Santana Productions (named after his favourite boat). The star's old friend Edmund H. North was assigned to adapt the source, a 1947 thriller by Dorothy B. Hughes, with screenwriter Andrew Solt and the resulting film, originally titled Behind This Mask, is a beautifully fraught, deeply emotional little noir full of pain, resentment, doubt and distrust. Unusually for this blackest of genres, the crime itself takes a back seat to the explosive, intense and sad romance between Dix and Laurel, two damaged people prepared to allow hope to triumph over experience and let love in one last time. He is a fundamentally good man - loyal to his friends like washed up brandy soak Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick, another old chum who had mentored Bogie in his early theatre days) and beloved by his agent (Art Smith) - but one tragically unable to control himself in the heat of the moment. She is a failed actress - scared of commitment and on the run from a real estate dealer who tried to tie her down with a proposal. Both are as doomed as anyone else in American noir and know it but, for a few weeks, dare to believe otherwise and it breaks your heart to watch them self-destruct. Their redemption can only ever be temporary because of their respective compulsions towards brutality and suspicion.
Ray deserves enormous credit for having the courage to jettison his own original ending, which would have seen Dix strangle Laurel in a fit of rage and find himself cuffed at his typewriter just as he puts the finishing touches to his magnum opus. The director realised this was cornball stuff and had his leads improvise a far more plausible, adult conclusion in which Steele simply walks out on the last good thing that's ever likely to happen to him. The leads are on top form here, with former silent starlet Louise Brooks famously hailing her pal's performance as the closest he ever came to committing his real persona to celluloid. The ever-luminous Gloria Grahame is as lovely as always, having beaten Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers to the part (though Mrs B was contractually bound to Warner Brothers at the time), and managed to turn in one of her best ever performances in spite of the fact that her marriage to the director was disintegrating all around her during shooting after she was discovered in bed with Ray's teenage son.