There must have been something in the water of La Crosse, Wis., for two of the town's native sons to become such fine film directors. But it must have left a bitter taste; the films of Joseph Losey and Nicholas Ray run over with recriminations and regret. In Losey's The Prowler (1951; screening with M at 9:15 p.m. Thursday), LA patrolman Van Heflin muscles in on Evelyn Keyes' marriage with a wealthy older man. He gets her, and he gets the money. But we know his insecure rage, like that of other Southern California cops, is unappeasable. John Hubley's three sets ("Spanish style" hacienda, characterless motel, desert shack) track Heflin's deterioration through architecture in a smooth, nasty film noir.
Or more accurately film gris. As in Ray's In a Lonely Place (showing Sunday, Oct. 27, at 5 p.m.), The Prowler's cinematography is not stark black-and-white, instead ranging over the gray scale. Ray (who studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright) also uses set design to frame his characters' psychologies, in this case an open-air Hollywood apartment complex that copies Ray's own first Hollywood home. The real "lonely place" that star Humphrey Bogart inhabits, however, is his own mind. This is probably the most lucid film about paranoia ever made, down to its haunting finale, in which the expected (and scripted) act of violence does not take place; Ray, Bogart, and Gloria Grahame improvise something much better and more desolating than mere homicide.
The PFA's ongoing "Red Hollywood" series posits McCarthy-era guilt underlying these films' miasma, with the hints of blacklisting in In a Lonely Place and its excellent co-feature, Sweet Smell of Success (at 6:50 p.m. Sunday), bearing this out. Maybe so -- but perhaps we can look back in anguish to La Crosse instead. Both Losey's and Ray's families were well off, but Losey's family (of pioneer stock) looked down on Ray's Norwegian clan, because they were immigrants. Both men, much married, were dogged by rumors of homosexuality, which would have meant something in 1950. (Wright threw the young Nick Ray out of his Taliesin school for that reason.) There're always plenty of reasons to feel guilt, resentment, and anger; politics is just another.
"Red Hollywood" continues through Oct. 31 at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant in Berkeley; call (510) 642-1412 for details.