So far my favorite experience at the TCM Film Festival has been my big-screen viewing of Nick Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950) in a pristine restored print. It’s a funny thing – by no means an epic film in episode or imagery but the close-up dissection of damaged, hopeless lives is completely transformed in the theater; a clinching argument far more powerful for pictorial expansiveness and the power of cinema over TV.
Humphrey Bogart plays Dix Steele, an almost-washed-up, short-fused screenwriter suspected in the murder of a hat-check girl. The same incident parallels him starting a relationship with a neighbor who lives across the way in their Spanish-style apartment complex, the poised and sultry Gloria Grahame. It was a personal film for all concerned: Bogart’s company produced it (and the restaurant he frequents is modeled after his own favorite, Romanoff’s); meanwhile Nick Ray’s marriage to Grahame was falling apart as they shot a perfectly compressed depiction of the birth and death of love.
There’s glimpses of Hollywood and its off-set workings – Bogart’s agent provides some semi-comic relief (semi-tragic too) and his only pal is a drunken actor, derided by everyone but Dix. There’s evidence of deeply-held cynicism and disgust with the industry but the setting is just a backdrop for a film about the sort of loneliness experienced anywhere. Bogart’s consumed with loathing at himself and the world around him (he can crack to the police that they could arrest him for lack of emotion); he may be capable of sweetness and thoughtfulness and his well-buried integrity has not quite deserted him but he has a frightening temper that flares violently and quickly – it’s easy to see why Grahame doubts his innocence.
Nick Ray was one of the most sensitive of all American directors and he’s unique in his ability to bring to the screen such full psychological portraits with so much ambivalence. The film is Bogart’s greatest performance. His twisted features were never used to crueler effect; when the glaze-eyed leer of violence washes over his face it’s a hundred times more devastating than his straight-out psychopath roles. Grahame’s character is less developed but she gets all the best lines and is quite capable of standing up to Bogart from the start.
The fact that they do find a few genuine moments of happiness makes the impossibility of it lasting all the more wrenching. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether he killed the girl or not; the point is that he could have and that suspicion, jealousy and anger will win out. The film ends with a held shot that’s one of the most devastating in American cinema; the lonely place is simply oneself.