Plot: Dixon Steele, the oldest high schooler on the planet, has a book report due by Friday. Unfortunately, it looks like he's about to fail remedial English once again because he's got a lot of drinking to do and no time to read a book or report on it. Luckily for him, he runs into the goody-two-shoes who works at the book store, a gal who has read the book. He gets her to just tell him the story and then sends her home. The next day, the principal calls him in to the office and accuses him of murdering the book store girl, something that is against the school's rules. Just as the principal reaches for a detention slip, drama club president Laurel walks in with an alibi for Dixon. Inevitably, Dixon and Laurel hook up and even make plans to go to Dixon's 32nd prom together. But can their teenage romance last with the murder mystery still hanging over Dixon's head?
The reason this movie works is because of how director Nicholas Ray treats the characters. He doesn't spell anything out with Bogart or Grahame's characters; doesn't hide their imperfections, those flaws that will ultimately lead to them being as miserable you expect them to be at the end of the movie; and doesn't judge them or really ask the viewer to judge them. Their story is a tragic one, and it never feels like movie tragedy to me despite having such heavy contributions from the score (a good one) and the cinematography (also good--especially the lighting). Bogart's great with this sort of ambiguous character. He's quick and witty and tough, but at the same time needy and fragile and so unsure of himself. It's easy to sympathize with him. The audience's opinion (or at least mine) bounced around quite a bit--yeah, he probably did it; nah, this is just an unlucky break for him, probably another in a long line of unlucky breaks; wait a second, what did he just say?--and it almost seems like he wouldn't mind being put away for the hatcheck girl's murder whether he did it or not just to make up for past sins. Gloria Grahame's also really good, and her Laurel is another intriguing character, one who you feel sorry for because you know she's probably making the same exact mistakes she's made before while trying so desperately to do the right thing. Their romance feels real, real and real doomed, and it's tragic because neither of them really did enough to deserve the problems their budding relationship encounters. Well, unless Dixon killed that poor girl. That wouldn't have been very nice. This is a well-written drama, impressive in how it characterizes and fills the viewer in on the characters' pasts so well without the use of flashbacks or any dialogue that brings up specifics. Look closely enough, and you can almost see their souls. The story's tight with a consistent tone that, for whatever reasons, reminds me of noir or Vertigo even though it really has very little in common with either. One question though--those opening shots of Bogart driving in a car. What the heck was going on their? That was some of the most unnatural screen work I think I've ever seen. I kinda liked it though. And I also kinda liked this movie!