Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
After a delay for wrapping Christmas presents and not quite enough sleep, here is your review.
I have a real fondness of Humphrey Bogart. Lots of people play tough guys in films, but Bogart had something about him particular that most don’t. Bogart played tough guys with a streak of vulnerability. Even his best characters are damaged goods, and it’s the damage that makes them interesting. His character in In a Lonely Place is one of the most damaged of his career, probably the most damaged since Treasure of the Sierra Madre or after. There’s always something of the anti-hero in Bogart, even when he’s playing more noble than the rest of the cast put together.
Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is the sort of lurid Hollywood tale that, with a less stellar cast, would be memorable only for the more vicious moments and potential shock value. With Bogart in the lead role, though, it transcends its genre and becomes something far more interesting.
Dixon “Dix” Steele (Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter who has gone a long time without much to show for it. He’s contacted to write a new script based on a book, but he’s not sure he wants to do it, and he really doesn’t want to read the book. Instead, he finds a coatcheck girl named Mildred (Martha Stewart) who has read the book. He brings her home to tell him the story, and she does. She leaves and everything seems fine.
However, she shows up dead the next day, strangled and tossed from a moving car. As the last person to see her, Dixon is obviously the most logical choice for a suspect. He’s saved, though, when Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), his neighbor across they way, vouches for the fact that the girl left around 12:30, and Dixon stayed in. The problem is that she didn’t see anything and she is covering for Dix’s otherwise complete lack of alibi. For all she knows, it could well have been Dix.
This is a problem for Laurel because she and Dix soon become “an item” and spend all their time together. Dix gets to work on his screenplay and Laurel types it for him. This sudden intimacy makes her privy to a number of unpleasant incidents involving Dix’s monstrous temper. He gets mad immediately about things and then looks for an outlet for his rage. When he leaves a beach party in a huge temper, she barely gets into the car to leave with him before he drives away. After a fender bender with another car, he beats the other driver into near unconsciousness and almost kills him by smashing his head with a rock until Laurel stops him. And suddenly Laurel isn’t that sure she’s ready to stand by her man, because her man might be guilty and she’s a very convenient outlet for his rage.
The best thing about In a Lonely Place is Bogart’s performance, but this is not to say that the rest of the film is weak. On the contrary, this is a gripping film anchored by one of the better performances in a stellar career. The genius of what Bogart does here is that he gets us to like Dixon Steele (who has the best film noir character name ever) and even feel sorry for him at the beginning of the story, and then spends the rest of the film destroying our reasons to like him. As the film progresses, we have fewer and fewer reasons to like Dix until we’re in the same position as Laurel and we can’t remember why this guy got our sympathy in the first place.
For me, this is the joy of In a Lonely Place. Dixon Steele is mercurial, a man of intense moods. Moments after beating a man senseless, he’s asking Laurel’s opinion about a line he wants to include in the film he’s writing, as if nothing ever happened. He’s almost a charming sociopath. It makes this, in a lot of ways, a trumped-up B-movie, one that plays for the most lurid angle it can, but does so with a really good cast.
The single best scene comes when Dix visits his friend Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who happens to be one of the cops investigating the murder of Mildred. Dix has his own theory of how the crime was committed, and he gets Brub and his wife Sylvia (the oddly-named Jeff Donnell, and yes, she’s a woman) to act out his version. As Brub “strangles” his wife, Dix encourages him to squeeze harder, tossing in details of the killer that match Dix. He’s visibly excited by the theory, almost as if he is enjoying a reenactment of a crime that he committed himself. There’s a manic, almost sexual thrill in Dix as he watches the passion play he has created.
In the end, In a Lonely Place is not a great film, but it is a good one, and a very effective one, worth seeing because it shows just how much range Bogart really had. It’s easy to remember him as Sam Spade or Rick in Casablanca, the classic “women want him, men want to be him” roles that made Bogart who he was. He was more than that, and this one shows it.
Why to watch In a Lonely Place: It’s far darker and more involved than expected.
Why not to watch: It’s a case where the script deviates in massive ways from the source material.