The following is an academic essay written as part of a Writing for Screen and Stage Minor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for Professor Scott Myers. It analyzes the films In A Lonely Place (1950) and Barton Fink (1990), two films concerning the art of screenwriting.
When crafting his Academy Award winning film L.A. Confidential in 1996, director Curtis Hanson took his stars Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce aside and lead them to a quiet auditorium in Westwood. He screened a vintage print of Nicholas Ray’s hardboiled Hollywood noir from 1950, In A Lonely Place, a film that had “frightened him and yet attracted him with an almost hypnotic power”. In particular, Hanson noted the “raw emotion” of lead actor Humphrey Bogart and the understanding he seemed to share with the man behind the camera, something he strived to emulate and elicit from his own cast. Hanson had inexplicably highlighted a symbiosis between director and actor that was born not simply from fluid collaboration, but thematic synchronization. In A Lonely Place was not the first film to shine a spotlight on the film industry, nor was it the first to focus specifically on the troubled existence of the Hollywood screenwriter. But it would pose a grand and crucial question about the nature of filmmaking itself, one that is rarely asked and almost never answered. Forty years later, filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen would craft a bizarre but equally powerful ballad of the suffering screenwriter that unwittingly posed audiences a similar question. Direct products of their respective time periods, Barton Fink and In a Lonely Place highlight the same disturbing phenomenon: the tendency of modern filmmaking to impede the art of storytelling.
Just like the shadowy underworld of the genre that it ascribes to, In A Lonely Place was born out of a very real historical state of paranoia and fear. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the rise of communism abroad spawned a wave of terror in the United States and swept Hollywood into the brutal jurisdiction of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The indictment of numerous creative professionals in the industry by the tyrannical organization, particularly the notorious case of the Hollywood Ten, are widely believed to be the cause for the rise of the morbidly cynical noir genre. At first glance, In A Lonely Place seems like a cut-and-dry indictment of the Hollywood machine and a vehement denouncement of the studio systems McCarthyist tendencies. Adapted from a novel by Dorothy Hughes and helmed by its lead actors own production company, Ray and Bogart made a clear and conscious decision to relocate the tale to the film industry. But the turbulent and complex experiences of the two men during the HUAC era shed a shadow of ambiguity on the films message. Bogart had indeed joined the Committee for the First Amendment in 1947 and flown to Washington in support of the Hollywood Ten. But experience fell far from expectation. While in Washington, Bogart realized that many of the Hollywood Ten were “down-the-line communists”, and felt that they were “cooly exploiting the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution”. He ultimately chose to distance himself from both sides of the battle, a tactic employed equally by Nicholas Ray. Ray had joined the Communist Party in the 1930’s as a result of his work with the leftist proponents of the New Deal. Described by colleague Perry Bruston as a “sympathetic but committed Marxist”, Ray had managed to entirely avoid being blacklisted due to his friendship with Howard Hughes. Ultimately, neither the actor-producer nor the director fell cleanly into the warring faction responsible for some of the decades more aggressive indictments of Hollywood, which begs the necessary question: is In A Lonely Place really an indictment of the HUAC at all?
Unlike the novel, the film deliberately denies you the answer to the films driving question by never confirming nor denying Dixon Steele’s guilt until the final moments. Swiftly transitioning from the portrayal of a dark and troubled veteran to a misunderstood creative wonder, In A Lonely Place mutates into a story driven by the external observer. Even as his relationship with Laurel blossoms and his enthusiasm for the writers craft returns, the haunting nature of his past transgressions and the insidious possibility of his guilt pushes the narrative deeper and deeper into the depths of classical noir. Only at the very end of the film, when his name is cleared too late to save his relationship, does the film reveal its true nature. Ultimately, it is the story of an innocent storyteller who attempts to bring his unusual but rewarding relationship with the woman he loves to fruition in his crowning cinematic achievement. But the insidious nature of Hollywood paranoia and fear destroys this relationship, and destroys his opportunity to tell the story he wants to tell. Rather than a direct indictment of the HUAC and McCarthyism, In A Lonely Place is a story that laments on the broader level of complexity and inherent mistrust within the film industry. Authors Steven Rybin and Will Scheibel say that the film is an allegory for Ray’s career, detailing the tragic story of a creative professional who “imagines a practice of Hollywood filmmaking without compromises and beholden only to love”.
Barton Fink emerged from a very different time in the Hollywood historical canon, created by two poster-boys for the postmodern movement that emerged in the 1990’s. The Coen brothers and their bizarre, genre-blending style has often been viewed as a response to the excess levels of control and standardization directed by the studios in the previous decade, and Barton Fink embodies their most erratic cinematic tendencies. Critics have battled to pinpoint the message of the film, often pointing to the clear historical parallels with writers Clifford Odets and William Faulkner. Odets, a Jewish-American playwright from the 1940’s who transitioned to Hollywood, draws clear comparisons to Barton Fink himself. Odets was involved in New York’s “Group Theater”, a collaboration of artists devoted to creating “works of social significance rather than focusing on the entertainment and economic value of theater”, a sentiment Barton consistently echoes throughout the film as he champions the voice of the common man. Like In a Lonely Place, this historical basis and exploration of the film industry appears superficially to be an indictment levelled against producers manipulating real artistic talent for material gain. The intensely dislikeable character of Jack Lipnick is partially based on studio mogul Jack Warner, who famously boasted of “employing America’s best writers for peanuts”. But why would the Coen brothers, perpetual outsiders who enjoy an almost unprecedented level of freedom on their films, choose to attack an industry that has never betrayed them?
Barton Fink explores a concept far deeper than the external construct of the studio system, and instead deals with the internal struggle of the writer. Born from a case of writers block that developed as the Coen brothers wrote the structurally intricate Millers Crossing, the film emerges as subconscious commentary on its own creation. As Barton Fink checks himself into the lonely world of the Hotel Earle and sits down to write his first screenplay, he is immediately beset on all sides by a hailstorm of drama, comedy, intrigue, despair and danger. As if the victim of every conceivable genre of modern filmmaking, Fink experiences a wild blend of cinematic norms and images. The long hallways and disturbing decor of the hotel clearly recall the unsettling Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic, The Shining. The banter between Charlie and Barton has a distinctly comedic feel, and Ethan Coen has even referred to their dynamic as the foundation of a “buddy comedy for the 90’s”. The murder carries undertones of noir, and even makes allegorical parallels to a standard war film. As author Josh Levine notes, the transformation of Charlie Meadows to Karl Mundt, a lunatic who executes police officers and spouts allegiance to the Third Reich, is a clear allusion to the international rise of fascism. But beneath all this swirling genre manipulation, Barton Fink is a very simple story. It is the story of a man who wants to tell a story, but simply cannot.
The parallels of the film to In A Lonely Place go far beyond the portrayal of a lonely and embattled writer and his ballad of intrigue. Barton Fink was born out of the struggle between two authors and Millers Crossing, the movie they desperately wanted to create. In other words, it is the product of two authors and their struggle with the modern filmmaking process. In the same way that the narrative of In A Lonely Place explores an artist fighting the conventions of Hollywood, Barton Fink deliberately subverts genre and formula while denying audiences a clear thematic message. More than any other film by the Coen Brothers, it is an exercise in total cinematic freedom, a release from the perpetual standards and norms of the film industry and a shining example of the “filmmaking without compromises” that Ray had so vividly imagined in 1950. Ultimately, both films come from the simple thematic exploration of these compromises, and an analysis of what stops a writer from simply writing the story he wants to tell in a modern industry fraught with unnecessary obstacles.
Krutnik, Frank. Un-American Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era. Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Rybin, Steven and Scheibel, Will. Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema. SUNY Press, 2014
Chapman King, Lynnea. The Coen Brothers Encyclopedia. Rowman and Littlefield, 2014
Levine, Josh. The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers. ECW Press, 2000
Lyman, Rick. A Dark Lesson In Trust. The New York Times, 2000
Emerson, Jim. That Barton Fink Feeling: An Interview With The Coen Brothers. CinePad, http://cinepad.com/coens.html