‘In a Lonely Place’ is steeped in Modern Examinations
Humphrey Bogart’s washed up screenwriter Dixon Steele is suspected of murder and it seriously strains his newfound relationship with girl next door Gloria Grahame (It’s a Wonderful Life) in director Nicholas Ray’s (Rebel without a Cause), In a Lonely Place. Andrew P. Solt (Joan of Arc) and Edmund H. North’s (Patton) 1950 adaptation of the Dorothy P. Hughes novel is a bitter life imitating art tale opening with traffic confrontations and testy business talk at the bar. Everyone knows Dix, but his introduction is point blank: he can’t be choosy about working on a picture he doesn’t like because he hasn’t had a hit since before the war. His most recent picture stunk, so he must learn to push the popcorn they want and hob knob at the exclusive restaurant. Rather than read the book he’s supposed to adapt, however, Dix invites the young hat check girl home for a ginger ale to tell him what she read. Unfortunately, the storytelling foreshadowing, money for a cab, and a former war buddy turned detective knocking on the door leads to violence, suspicion, and death.
Although viewers expecting a spectacle may find In a Lonely Place slow to start, there isn’t a lot of colloquial coppers and dames talk amid the surprisingly modern dialogue. The interview with the police captain is casual with coffee and blasé attitudes, despite the murder. The crime scene photos aren’t graphic or splashed all over the desk for dramatic effect, but it’s surprising to see them as the camera looks over the shoulder of the person so unmoved. Dix’s pretty neighbor provides an alibi, and all the men do react to her – standing and buttoning their jackets while accepting her words on her pretty face alone. Everyone has connections to make something happen or disappear, but agents don’t want any scandal. In a Lonely Place intercuts Dix’s story versus the police, creating an onscreen interrogation as the cops look over his lengthy rough housing history and he answers with smooth angles and deflections. Lawyers and broken noses pepper the police stern and he is flippant while forcing the doubting audience to pay attention. The slow burn builds with flirtatious characterizations as the conflicting facts are told rather than seen. Our screenwriter laughs that all his whodunits are solved in under two hours before role playing an elaborate “if I did it” crime of passion. Foolish women ignore the red flags as romance leads to inspiration and writing renewed with too good to be true charm and cranky cleaning ladies wishing they would get married already. The police are still trying to solve this case and don’t like defiant attitudes, and the idyllic changes quickly with seaside arguments, dangerous highways, horns honking, and high speed curves. Lighting up two his and hers cigarettes is not the solution to side swipes and fist fights. Claims to have been in hundreds of fights and always being right because the other guy always deserved it excellently reflects the hot and cold violence before the remorseful promises to make up for what will never happen again. He brings home gifts and she’s ashamed to have doubted him in an all too realistic mix of love and marry me but fear and prove your innocence. People with such worrisome looks on their faces say not to worry, cops push buttons behind the scenes, and we fear for the woman who might be next. Despite her taking pills and more relationship turbulence, the proposal is yes or no – no buts. There’s money to be made off our writer and success will cure her hanging in there for taking the bad with the good, right? Drunken humor tries to deflect the justification of violence as scenes are happy one minute, then on eggshells the next. The producers are delighted by his script yet there are one too many public confrontations. An angry man bangs on the door to be let in and won’t let a woman out of his sight as the police evidence and escape plans escalate right to the final minute. Even if he didn’t do it, how far can you push a violent man until he breaks? Professions of love and marriage come despite his grip on her throat, and In a Lonely Place is shockingly modern in what it shows even as the viewer is left contemplating what happens next.
Cynical Dixon Steele claims his temperament as a creative artist permits him from violence but he’s set in his ways and never watches the movies he writes. He flirts and supports drunkard old thespians but is easily enraged at any lack of respect. He’d rather flop then churn out schlock but comes to blows with anyone knocking before eleven in the morning. Dix thinks most writers like to think they are mind readers one step ahead of others, and he nonchalantly puts his feet up on the sofa at the police station as they wonder why he doesn’t go to pieces over the murder. He describes the victim being strangled without batting an eye, yet sends flowers to her funeral anonymously. It’s all over the news but Dix thinks nothing is wrong, and previous reports of breaking someone’s jaw on set and a woman recanting worse have led to no charges being filed and released with a warning slap on the wrist. An educated lady can see the troublesome pattern, but old pals think this is what makes Dix such an exciting guy. He enjoys outsmarting such friends, gleefully discussing a well put together crime. Dix is oblivious to how others look at him in fear as he dissects the killer process, but his listeners are also so relieved when he blows it all off as him just being a screenwriter. He admits he needs a push to commit even if he’s obviously in love and waxes on romantic script ideas, but Dix’s ego couldn’t take the defeat if she were to ever leave him. The old fashioned cigarettes, gin and tonic glasses, and phone mannerisms accentuate the ahead of its time flawed masculine performance. We never see Bogart acting, but the change on his face as Dix turns violent is exceptional. At once he’s the Bogie we love but then his furrowed brow makes us recoil. Screening his fiancee’s phone calls, slapping his agent, beating a man for calling him a squirrel – who’s going to go against Dix when he hears exactly the wrong news?
Gloria Grahame’s Laurel Gray enters the courtyard with an air of mystery. She wears pants and dark clothing, covered in high neck fashions yet perky, provocative, and confident – remaining outspoken about when a man interests her and how she’s avoiding a big name real estate fiance she ditched. Laurel’s been in a few small pictures, and Dix likes a girl who knows what she wants. Their banter is refreshingly mature; a dance in dialogue with vintage chemistry compared to the word salad these days, and strong, multilayered female characters like this can also be tough to find today. Laurel’s clothes also have lots of buttons, as if her buttoned up good girl strength is good for Dix. In a few weeks, she becomes so steadfast for him, patient while he’s up all night writing and minding his pages to the point that we almost suspect her heart of gold. Laurel types Dix’s script for love not salary and grows terse with the police captain when he questions her again. Her masseuse warns her to look after herself instead of supporting Dix in a great over the shoulder conversation that’s both devil and angel. It’s good advice to return to the security of her former beau, but scaring Laurel with Dix’s past plays like an abusive scene itself as Laurel is exposed and vulnerable, wrapped only in a sheet and touched everywhere. Laurel wears white after the scary actions, an angel apologizing to their friends for his behavior while they too apologize no it was their fault. She defends and excuses his being an erratic writer because they are so in love. Why should his killer imagination bother her if she knows he didn’t do it? Unfortunately, Laurel agrees with the suggestions that she should leave and wants to say it out loud to dismiss her doubt. Nonetheless her fears remain, and if Dix truly is like dynamite as the men say, he will explode.
Classic convertibles, city lights, morose highways, and sweeping, moody music set In a Lonely Place‘s tone alongside fedoras, stoles, pearls, smoking jackets, and classy style. The black and white lighting schemes are excellent. We can see the dark streets as well as the crisp cigarette smoke, and any up close, noticeable soft glows on the ladies can be forgiven. Slide across bucket seats, cocktails, and twenty dollars for a cab steep us in the post-war era. Swanky musical interludes come with just a singer and a piano in a nightclub draped in earlier Art Deco interwar innocence as our couple scandalously shares the same cigarette and whisperin each other’s ears. There’s no need for set numbers and montages – only a camera starting with the whole club before ending up close with those sweet nothings. In a Lonely Place has intimacy without showing anything, a sophisticated of the time naivete belying the much darker contemporary subject matter as Spanish style courtyards, gothic wrought iron gates, and multi level apartments invoke culture and refinement as well as through the windows voyeurism. Sunken living rooms, up the stairs bedrooms, and window across the way staging provides multiple in-scene moments of allure. Erratic point of view driving and high speed action create immediacy before traditional rear projection allows time for the fearful aftermath. In a Lonely Place reflects the initial devotion with women tilting their heads up into the camera frame to look longingly at their man for a kiss. However, there’s precious little editing in the potentially violent scenes. The man remains over the shoulder in the background while the woman now sits small in the foreground with her back to him. Zooms on a perilous Dear John letter and phones ringing at exactly the wrong time add tension, yet no embellishment is needed as the camera remains on Bogart’s face.
Despite requiring multiple viewings to pick up all the silver screen winks and wartime broken messages between the lines, In a Lonely Place feels under-seen in the Bogart pantheon because it’s not an easy or enjoyable film to watch. There’s a crime and an investigation but In a Lonely Place isn’t a procedural. It’s not a typical romance either, as the seeds of doubt result in the titular isolation. What should be a straightforward melodrama is much more ambiguous in a frighteningly contemporary analysis about domestic violence carried by the superb twofer performances.