Welcome to Hollywood: where art goes to die, or so the story goes. Of all cinematic craftspeople, the writer is typically the most prone to cynicism, because the average screenwriter merely gets the ball rolling, and the ball can look very different by the time it stops. Public self-critique is nearly as old as the business itself, and besides the mythology of A Star Is Born, perhaps Hollywood’s favorite story to tell about itself is the tragedy of the little guy who fails to buck the system. Sunset Boulevard wasn’t even the only self-lacerating noir with a screenwriter protagonist to come out in 1950. Premiering three months earlier was Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, with Humphrey Bogart in the role of the frustrated scribe. A couple generations later, Joel and Ethan Coen made Barton Fink, starring John Turturro as a writer who similarly scoffs at the pablum his studio expects from him. Neither of these figures is an innocent victim, however. The two movies expose them, even before various pressures begin to accrue, as men well on their way to cracking.
World War II is the colossal event that separates these two stories. In a Lonely Place, like so many films noirs, depicts the aftereffects of the war on both its veterans and the nation as a whole, an unpleasantly changed landscape. Meanwhile, the 1941-set Barton Fink practically simmers in anticipation of the conflict, with explicit references finally spilling out near the end. Despite their shared profession, the protagonists could hardly be more different. Bogart’s Dixon Steele, battered by his experience in the war, is prone to fits of rage. On the other hand, he’s an old pro in the business and has little trouble getting the job done, even when an assignment’s source material doesn’t do anything for him. Turturro’s Barton Fink is a crusading New York playwright, whisked over to the west coast after one successful play. As arrogant as he is self-loathing, Fink is utterly unprepared for the different standards and expectations of the movie studio that hires him.
One thing that these two writers have in common is that each eventually becomes a person of interest in a murder case. Here’s where the genre asserts itself, but also where the films defy convention. Neither Ray nor the Coen brothers is especially concerned with how these murder cases turn out. The mysteries are external to the real story. Dixon Steele happens to be one of the last people to see a doomed hat-check girl alive, but the viewer never really suspects that he killed her. The violent outbursts we see from him are bad enough on their own. The plot does affect the character, of course. He may take a blasé approach to police questioning at first, but the atmosphere of suspicion slowly frays his nerves as he begins a relationship with a neighbor (played by Gloria Grahame). And his imagination does him no favors. In one unforgettable scene, he describes in chilling detail how the murder might have taken place. In Barton Fink’s case, the sudden murder is merely one of the dreadful things to befall him. The story is truly nightmarish, in the sense that Fink faces two or three separate bizarre crises, each of which quietly and independently trails off. The dead woman (Judy Davis) had offered to help him overcome his writer’s block, but Fink had shown no signs of being receptive to her help. It’s only after she’s gone that circumstances lead to him completing a draft.
These characters have some problems that are specifically related to moviemaking, as well as plenty of a more general nature. Although Dixon Steele proudly holds himself to higher artistic standards than his mercenary peers, he isn’t stubborn to the point of stupidity. He takes the pulpy writing assignment and he makes it his own. He is, if anything, too comfortable with the conventions of his industry, composing florid epitaphs on the fly and making meta comments about subtext in the kitchen. As far as talent is concerned, he seems to be about as well-placed as any writer could be. Barton Fink, on the other hand, is instantly adrift when presented with the rapid-fire instructions of studio executives. They’re as ignorant of his art as he is of theirs. An exquisitely painful mid-film sequence sums it all up. Fink is sent into a screening room to get some ideas. There he is subjected to a series of dailies — quick, nearly identical takes of a wrestling match, including the fraught snatch of dialogue, “I will destroy him!” — that only make things worse. The mundane, repetitive footage takes on an absurdist, alienating quality, its thudding violence deliberately on-the-nose. Movies are a foreign language to Fink. The Coen brothers don’t particularly sympathize with his inability to learn it, either. The draft he finally produces gets rejected by the studio, even though he finds it to be his most profound work yet. Well-written it might be, but the only bit of it the viewer gets to hear is a corny closing line that Fink cribbed from his own play.
Beyond their creative difficulties, Steele and Fink are flawed men to their cores. Even in different circumstances, they would still push people away. Steele is jealous and spiteful, shrunken into a man who always expects the worst. His temper, however noble in origin, is always destructive, blinding him to all the good things around him. When he falls in love, he only gets worse, acting from mistrust and unplaceable hurt. The woman with whom he falls in love, Laurel (Grahame), is no femme fatale luring him to destruction. She’s just someone brave enough to say no to him. Fink, meanwhile, is a hypocrite, writing full-throated tributes to “the common man,” while the exact nature of an actual common man (John Goodman) in the hotel room next door eludes him altogether.
With regard to these films’ endings, both Ray and the Coen brothers hit upon a fundamental truth; namely, that leaving their characters in limbo can be far more disturbing than any definite cataclysm. Superficially, their fates are diametrically opposed. Steele is exonerated of the crime and has his script accepted by the studio. Fink still carries guilt (literally) about the murder, and his artistic prospects are nonexistent, having fallen into a truly diabolical trap. But Steele and Fink alike end their films by being banished to the open air — hovering outside, beyond hope and comfort. Being a writer is tough enough under the best circumstances. In Hollywood perhaps especially, it’s easy to succumb to cynicism and nausea, to think of oneself as something more than an ordinary person, and to suffer the consequences of that presumption.