Posted by Susan Doll on October 3, 2011
One of my favorite films airs tomorrow night, October 4, on TCM. In a Lonely Place is my favorite directorial effort by Nicholas Ray, with terrific performances by Humphrey Bogart and by Gloria Grahame. Though a box-office disappointment when it was released in 1950, In a Lonely Place has since been recognized as a Nicholas Ray masterwork and written about from every possible angle. It’s been discussed as an example of film noir, posited as an autobiographical retelling of Ray and Grahame’s disintegrating marriage, and dissected as a product of its paranoiac times (the HUAC investigations and the resultant Hollywood blacklist). I can’t improve on what most critics and historians have written about In a Lonely Place, but I thought I would offer some slightly disorganized observations on why I love this movie.
In a Lonely Place stars Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who is down on his luck because of his drinking and his temper. Few studios and directors want to work with him, so he takes a job turning the latest potboiler novel into a screenplay. Rather than read the novel, he asks a hatcheck girl, Mildred, to come home with him to tell him the story. The film has a rich texture in which even small parts are memorable because of the fertile script and the pitch-perfect performances. Mildred is a working-class gal taken with the melodrama of the book who reaches beyond her education and station to describe the story. She notes that one of the male characters looks like a “bronze Apollo,” except she pronounces it “A-polo.”
After Steele sends the likable girl home in a taxi, she is brutally murdered. Though Mildred is in the film for only one sequence, viewers are saddened at her vicious death because her unassuming personality was so vividly drawn. Hats off to actress Martha Stewart for her humorous but warm performance as Mildred. The next morning, Dixon is questioned by the police as their chief suspect, but his neighbor, Laurel Grey, tells police that she saw the girl leave his apartment. Dixon and Laurel begin seeing each other and quickly fall in love, which seems to redeem both of them from lives filled with bad choices and wrong moves. Given the title of the film and the genre, the odds are against a happy ending, and right on cue, Dixon’s temper and Laurel’s lack of trust get in the way of a healthy relationship.
Humphrey Bogart is such an icon of the Golden Age that we take him for granted. It’s easy to forget just how flexible his star image was and how effective he could be in roles as diverse as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Frank McCloud in Key Largo, and Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. As a star, he specialized in playing men who were reluctant heroes—hardened characters with brittle shells who avoided getting involved with love or trouble. And yet, deep down, these characters were good-hearted, morally upright men who eventually come through because they fall for the leading lady. In this film, we assume that Dixon Steele is no killer, because—like Laurel—we like his face. After all, it’s Bogart’s face. So, we are taken aback to discover that his cool surface hides a repressed violence and an underlying neurosis that explodes all too quickly with the slightest of triggers; as the film progresses, we begin to suspect that Dixon is indeed capable of uncontrollable rage. We should have taken a clue from the character’s name—Dixon Steele—because it reveals just how unyielding he can be. And, unlike most films of the era, love will not be enough to redeem Dixon. Bogart makes us fear that he may actually hurt Laurel while simultaneously eliciting our sympathy because we realize that he will be forever stuck “in a lonely place.”
Film noir is notorious for its experimentation in narrative structure and point of view. Halfway through In a Lonely Place, the perspective shifts from Dixon’s to Laurel’s, a subtle change that accounts for why we both sympathize with and suspect Dixon. In the opening scene, Steele drives his car through the streets of Hollywood, with the camera behind him as though we are in the back seat, seeing what he sees. As the mystery unfolds, we learn information as he does. The first police station scene is from his perspective, and we believe that he did not murder the girl partly because we identify with him. The shift in point of view occurs when Mel the agent finds Laurel at Dixon’s apartment typing his screenplay. The camera tracks with her as she shows Mel around the apartment and describes Steele’s recent burst of creative activity as the writer gets some sleep. From this point onward, the story unfolds through her eyes, including a second scene that takes place at the police station. During this visit, Laurel’s suspicions about Dixon are aroused, but she does not tell him about the incident or confess her misgivings to him. We have become her fellow conspirators by this point—no longer identifying with Dixon.
Widely recognized for her roles as the bad girl who drives men to violence, Grahame costars as Laurel Grey, who, as her last name suggests, is neither innocent nor completely immoral. The scenes involving her masseuse, a large woman who calls her Angel, are just suggestive enough to make us suspect a murky, tainted past. As a woman with a past, Laurel has that tough girl’s self-assurance, making her a whiz at witty repartee with Steele. What makes Grahame’s performance memorable and moving is the way that Laurel’s growing ambivalence toward Dixon is revealed through tiny cracks in her cool façade as she pretends everything is the same between them.
In a Lonely Place is renowned for a monologue that Dixon writes for his new screenplay: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” The observation poignantly defines his own situation with Laurel. Haunting as this passage is, my favorite bit in the film is when Dixon explains what constitutes good dialogue in a screenplay. He explains that in a well-written scene the characters talk about one thing, but the conversation is really about something else, meaning that good scenes have a subtext that resonates beyond the surface of the dialogue. This is as good a description of a well-written screenplay as I have ever heard, and those contemporary writers who specialize in flat one-liners delivered sarcastically for a cheap laugh should take note.
Dixon Steele’s occupation as a screenwriter means that the setting of In a Lonely Place is Hollywood—not the glamorous Tinsel Town of the fanzines but the gritty underbelly of washed-up writers, sycophant agents, and wannabe actresses still listed in the casting directory long after their careers are over. In a Lonely Place fits a brief trend in the 1950s for dramas that exposed the dark side of show business—one of my favorite subgenres. I like to call this trend that includes Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, All About Eve, and the remake of A Star Is Born the “bite the hand that feeds you subgenre” because the movies are bitter discourses by successful directors, writers, and stars on an industry that gave them wealth and fame.
A minor motif in the film that I find surprisingly relevant is the telephone as an alienating instrument of missed communication. Early in the film, Dixon doesn’t answer his phone, which makes him look guilty to police. Laurel hides the telephone under the pillows, smothering the rings as if it were a troublesome nuisance. Later, the phone facilitates the mistrust and fear that has become part of their relationship. While at a restaurant, the ringing phone triggers Dixon’s pent-up rage. Laurel secretly plans to get away from Steele and awaits information from the airlines by phone, but when Dixon drops by unexpectedly, the call could tip him off—and then set him off. In today’s high-tech world in which “Smartphones” destroy privacy, reduce conversations to “can you hear me now,” ring at inappropriate times, and even cause fatal traffic accidents, the film’s depiction of the telephone as a destructive device seems somehow prophetic.
In a Lonely Place is a film noir classic with lofty reputation, and I am sure most movie lovers and TCM viewers have seen it. I would love to know what you like about it.
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