In a Lonely Place (1950)

When it’s on: Thursday, 9 July (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘I was born when she kissed me.
I died when she left me.
I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’

In a Lonely Place is a welcome sight on today’s schedules. It’s a quality picture, defined as Film Noir reasonably enough, and whilst one can argue that there’s so much going on beneath the central story and such virtuousity in the direction and cinematography that it transcends any genre labelling, it’s almost the definition of the Noir style. I think it’s Humphrey Bogart’s best performance, which is really saying something.

‘Bogie’ plays Dixon Steele, a jaded Hollywood screenwriter. Perceived to be something of a genius at his craft, Dix hasn’t in fact had a hit since before the war, and during those years served with aplomb, albeit bringing unsaid horrors back with him. These manifest in a violent temperament, sudden outbursts of physical force that keep others at a standoffish distance and himself disconsolate. One night, after being commissioned to write the adaptation for a novel, he takes a hat-check girl (Martha Stewart) back to his Los Angeles home because she’s read the book and can provide a quick synopsis. This done, the book duly dismissed as pulpy crap, he sends her home with money for a taxi. The following morning, he’s visited by police sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who reveals that the girl has been murdered in the night and, naturally enough, he’s the chief suspect. Nicolai’s an old friend from the army days, but his boss Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is not and, during questioning, tries to pin the crime on Dix. Another potential witness and Dix’s neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) turns up and, for reasons unknown supplies him with an alibi, confirming she saw the girl leave alone.

This prompts a romance to blossom between the pair, something that seems to suit them both. Dix suddenly finds his creative juices flowing, and helped by Lauren starts working night and day on his screenplay. we also learn a little more about Lauren, the fact she’s a new tenant in the apartment complex, having recently walked out on a relationship that was clearly abusive. Though Dix appears to be crazy about her, his infamous temper flares up more and more, which frightens Lauren whilst reminding her that no one has yet been caught for the hat girl’s killing.

The title of the film refers to Dix’s mind, a lonely place because his rages steadily alienate those around him, including the woman he loves. Whatever qualities he possesses, and there are many, such as his unlikely friendship with the washed up, drunk actor (Robert Warwick) he refers to as ‘Thespian’, in the end what people remember is his violent mood, something he’s unable to suppress, and it leaves him devoid of hope for a better future. It’s brilliant work from Bogart, the suggestion that he laid his own psyche bare to play the part of a complicated man capable of both great violence and terrible bouts of anger. More than anything Dix is tired, exhausted from wrestling with his own personal demons, the chance he sees in Laurel to escape them, and the awful implications held in the relationship’s breakdown, which is what will surely happen.

As good is Gloria Grahame, an actor who I find just about the sexiest of her era (and that’s really saying something). There were more beautiful women, but what Grahame tapped into within a world of femme fatales was a certain, elusive degree of vulnerability, the way she lays all her hopes on the line by coupling with Dix and then watches them fall apart. Horrible. Grahame was married to the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, a commitment that was collapsing during its making, but they kept their problems quiet to ensure he kept his job and the resulting tension was reflected in her performance, a sad thing who knows exactly where it’s heading with Dix and sees it through all the same.

As for Ray, the director’s own sense of pessimism was transparent on the screen. A genius responsible for such works as Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger than Life and Johnny Guitar, Ray specialised in tales of alienation and isolation, of which this is the perfect representation. In the process of separating from Grahame after he’d reportedly caught her in bed with his son, who was then 13, Ray photographed her as an almost unattainable object, living in the apartment opposite Dix but separated by a courtyard, sleeping naked with a heavy wooden door keeping her from the dangerous outside world. His shooting of Bogart emphasised both the facial lines of a troubled life and the glint in his eyes when he was moved to anger, capturing both the man’s weariness and his volatile temperament.

The book from which In a Lonely Place was adapted, by Dorothy B Hughes, had Dix as a serial killer and rapist who was exposed after trying to divert the authorities away from his crimes offering to help investigate the latest murder. In the film, he’s innocent of the crime yet guilty of failing to beat his personal traumas, leading to a finely wrought downbeat ending. It captures in a sublime way the post-war guilt and estrangement felt by many people, the sense of indefinable loss that kept them somehow separate from society. More than anything, it feels like an honest movie, a tragic and devastating look into real lives that don’t get the Hollywood ending that they crave, and that ironically plays out amidst the workings of the dream factory, but can enjoy a brief respite before the shattering conclusion.

In a Lonely Place: *****

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3 Replies to “In a Lonely Place (1950)”

  1. Lovely piece of writing, Mike. This is a powerful film, and a very affecting one. Bogart’s post-Warners work was often hit and miss but this is a definite hit. It’s a brave film for all concerned: Bogart for taking on such a complex and largely unsympathetic role and Grahame and Ray for the parallels to their own crumbling relationship. And then the supporting cast add a lot too, I especially like Art Smith’s patient agent and the sense of pathos he brings to his part.

    Guffey’s photography is, as usual, wonderful and atmospheric, lit perfectly to suit the alternating moods of lightness and darkness.

    1. Thanks Colin. I think this one’s just great, a really superior effort from all concerned. Thank you for mentioning the elements I didn’t find the space for – I agree entirely about Art Smith, someone who gets across perfectly that sense of having known Dix for years and just about putting up with him.

  2. Really enjoyed your piece on this classic if weird piece of Noir – all the participants were at something like their best here and it is little surprise that the ending of the book got changed though i think the sense of it is retained.

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