IN A LONELY PLACE, 1950
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid
Review by Kitt McKenzie
The film opens as arrogant and isolated screenwriter Dixon Steele drives to meet his agent Mel Lippman. He’s been offered a job adapting a novel. Unwilling to put the work in and read the novel himself he invites Mildred Atkinson, the hat check girl from the restaurant home with him to tell him what the story is about. He sends her home but the following morning Dixon is questioned regarding Mildred’s murder. He finds his saviour in his new next door neighbour, Laurel Grey who corroborates the story that Mildred went home alone. Because of who Dixon is the police still have a number for suspicions regarding his guilt. Dixon asks Laurel out and despite her obvious attraction to him she turns him down. Over dinner with associates Dixon plays out a re-enactment of Mildred’s murder making his personality even more abhorrent.
He eventually starts a romance with Laurel which has a positive effect on his work and the rest of his life. Laurel is once again questioned by the police provoking her deep-seated fears about Dixon; is it wise to trust him? Her fears are added to as he flies into a paranoid and jealous rage when he finds out that she has spoken to the police. In response Dixon almost beats a young student to death and would have done if Laurel hadn’t intervened. Dixon proposes to Laurel and she accepts but by now is very afraid of him and confides to his agent that she is going to leave him. Mel asks her to wait which she agrees to do but after another fight he attacks her. It is the timely appearance of a phone call that stops him. He is informed he is no longer a suspect in Mildred’s murder but he realizes at the same moment that he has lost Laurel forever.
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At it’s heart ‘In a Lonely Place’ deals with the themes of an individuals extreme alienation from society and people and the ways in which it colours his life, his relationships, his triumphs and his failures. He has gone so far into the state of isolation that he can never have what he needs the most: love, compassion and humanity. Nicholas Ray also directed ‘Rebel without a Cause’ & ‘55 days at Peking’ (a very watchable Charlton Heston/Ava Gardner/David Niven vehicle). ‘In a Lonely Place’ shares many of the same themes that appear in ‘Rebel’ and could in many ways be taken as a practise run for that more famous film. However, ‘In a Lonely Place’ stands up very well by comparison and even though it is less well known it shows equal mastery from it’s director and it’s cast.
Dixon Steele holds on desperately to the love he craves in the form of Laurel Grey but the battle is always lost. It suggests the inevitable and hopeless fate that some people are bound to. Specifically it examines the isolation of the artist and the creative temperament within a ‘normally socially accepted’ environment. Artists occupy that rare space on the suburbs of ‘normal’ life requiring a little distance from the centre but also needing to retain some contact. Dixon Steele is a man who has drifted so far from human contact he has started to lose touch with his own humanity. It also deals with the idea that our views and suspicions of other people are generally born out of our own prejudices and values and coloured by our own insecurities.
Bogart’s performance in this film is astonishing. He dominates every scene that he is in giving everything, so much so that it is emotionally exhausting to watch him. Without a doubt this should be counted as one of his best performances but unless you are an aficionado of the film noir genre then you are unlikely to have heard about this film let alone watched it. There is very little sympathy that can be found for any of the characters and Bogart has no problem in leaving any small nicety at the door. Dixon Steele is surly and cruel and his downward spiral inevitable.
Gloria Graham as Laurel Grey is the woman who seeks to both love and save Dixon Steele. In the end she is unable to do either as her own suspicions and underlying dislike for the actions of this man undermine her feelings of love. As much as she hopes to save this man, and the audience can sympathise with her intentions if nothing else, Laurel is also complicit in pushing Dixon Steele to the end of his last nerve.
There is some suggestion that the original intention was that ‘In A Lonely Place’ was to be another Bogart/Bacall collaboration. Bacall could not be released from her contract and so it fell to Gloria Graham, the then wife of the director, to provide the feminine aspect of this film.
The film pokes a big stick at the concept of celebrity in a society where even someone who acts despicably, is unlikeable, and where a suspected murderer finds acceptance even glorification. It steps on similar ground to Sunset Boulevard but ‘In a Lonely Place’ is a less glamorous, meaner approach. This is the anti-movie to the idea that love can conquer all. Cynicism, disdain and the cold hard cash driven business of Hollywood are the only winners here.
There is no happy ending in this film. Every character is destroyed or changed for the worse and not the better. Even the principle ideas of innocence and guilt mean very little in the darkness that seems to descend on everything and everyone. Hope is not forthcoming.