Between Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve, 1950 was an interesting year for movies tackling the darker aspects of show business. That would be enough to call it trend but there was also a third movie that explored similar ground. In a Lonely Place features an ill-tempered alcoholic screenwriter suspected of murder.
- Director: Nicholas Ray
- Writer: Andrew Solt, Edmund H. North, Dorothy B. Hughes
- Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith
The first half of In a Lonely Place feels conventional, as far as film-noir goes. Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a struggling screenwriter whose life seems to lack joy. Even when we see him writing, it appears laborious more than anything else. He’s cynical and short tempered, which is also characteristic of film-noir anti-heroes. Dixon has the type of disposition that implies countless fights within a cutthroat system. In this case, the system is Hollywood.
For his next screenplay, Dixon invites a girl to his house to summarize an uninspired book that he’s reluctantly adapting. The girl leaves late at night and turns up dead the next morning. An attractive neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) is the only witness. Dixon finds himself in an unfortunate predicament as a suspect in a murder. This is also standard for noir thus far.
Whereas other films would focus on the ensuing investigation in great detail, the second half of the film is where Nicholas Ray creates a unexpected shift of focus. Instead of being driven by plot, the film becomes more about the complex emotional relationship between Dixon and Laurel. Laurel is attracted to Dixon although she also becomes increasingly scared of his violent tendencies. Dixon is attracted to Laurel but her fear of him grows, he becomes increasingly mistrusting of her.
As Laurel sees more of Dixon’s violent temper, her growing doubts are exacerbated by the fact that he is still the suspect of a murder. You want them to be together, as Laurel appears to have the potential to heal Dixon’s inner demons. However, it is hard to ignore that Laurel’s safety might be at risk and she too may become a victim of his sudden outburts. The suspense in the third act is powerful, and the raw emotion projected by both Bogart and Grahame is what makes this movie explode into a frightening yet touching end. Reminiscent of Othello, the tragedy here is the destructive force that doubt can have on the potential for love.
I should also mention that as a film set in Los Angeles, the sense of geography lends to its realism. While Chinatown is often referred to as the quintessential film about Los Angeles, In a Lonely Place should also enter the conversation. With references to Inglewood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Blvd., UCLA and Catalina Island, these specific locations provide a powerful sense of place.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Having recently watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I am in agreement that Bogart’s finest performances are found in his conflicted roles, as opposed to his dumbed-down tough guy roles. In your review, the following two statements best encapsulate the strength of this film, “Ambiguity about the true Dixon Steele provides the soul of the film. The fact that they truly love each other its poignancy.” Dixon is mostly well-intentioned, though cynical and bitter overall. These contradictory qualities add powerful conflict to the story. While the film creates sympathy for Laurel, there is a sense of pity and sadness towards Dixon’s flawed character. You cheer for him to find happiness, but when he drinks and turns into a monster, his character become as terrifying as any villain.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like ? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Hairdresser’s Husband
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place this week, he now has 285 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.