Nicholas Ray, 1950
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carol Benton Reid
"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
During my film noir series over the past few months, I've watched a lot of excellent films. I've loved everything from I Wake Up Screaming (1940) to Ace in the Hole (1951), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Gilda (1946), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Laura (1944), Ministry of Fear (1944), and many more. But I think that In a Lonely Place (1950), which I first had the pleasure to watch four or five years ago, will always be my favorite film noir. The combination of director Nicholas Ray, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, and one of the bleakest scripts in '40s or '50s cinema is irresistible and utterly nihilistic.
Bogart is fabulous as Dixon Steele (what a name), a foul tempered screenwriter with a violent past. When he is suspected of a recent murder, his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), provides him with an alibi she may or may not have fabricated. Laurel is on the run from a past love, but she and Steele immediately fall for one another. For the first time in years, they are both happy. She plays housewife and he can concentrate well enough to get some work done. But soon she gets some evidence that Steele might not be all that he seems. As her doubt and paranoia grows, Steele becomes increasingly angry and attempts to rush her down the aisle as soon as possible, with tragic results.
Though In a Lonely Place is adapted from the 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, the plot is so divergent that it really only borrows elements from the book. In the novel, Steele is unequivocally a serial murder preying on local women. In the film, he's a figure of doomed romance who suffers from alcoholism and bouts of violent rage. It’s also clear that he’s never quite recovered from his experience serving in the war. The ambiguity of whether or not he is the murderer is the axis around which the film rotates. Thanks to Ray and Bogart, Steele is charismatic and just a little bit pathetic, a figure of sympathy who is also the architect of his own frustration and failure.
Whether or not Steele is able to love is the central question of In a Lonely Place. The romance between Steele and Gray is a constant reminder of the difficult and often unfulfilling nature of real love. In particular, the film brings to mind the haunting concept that we never really know other people, even if it is someone we love enough to seriously commit to. I’m currently reading The Anarchy of the Imagination, a collection of interviews with and essays by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In it, he writes regularly about the films of Douglas Sirk and Sirk’s ability to convey the inherent tragedy in romance: that people most want what they cannot have, need love but cannot sustain it, and are the most destructive towards those who love them. Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows was directed five years after In a Lonely Place and is melodrama, not film noir, the parallels are obvious and painful.
In a Lonely Place suggests that the fluid, often difficult nature of identity is at the root of this failure. Both Steele and Gray are ambiguous characters with shady pasts. Steele suffers from depression, a violent temper, and alcoholism. His celebrity as a screenwriter frustrates him because he craves solitude, but also because he has failed to produce anything of note since the war. Gray is on the run from a wealthy man who loves and wants to marry her. She presumably began a manipulative relationship with him, one to advance her career as an actress, and fled when the situation became emotionally serious. Both Gray and Steele are plagued by a strain of selfishness that becomes obvious when Ray shows the difference between their public and private faces.
Ray uses more humor than the average film noir, despite the dark tone of the film, and black comedy is often a tool of manipulation. For example, there’s a particularly histrionic scene where Steele speculates with a police officer friend and his wife about the murder. Instead of sympathizing with him, this encourages his friend – and the audience – to believe his guilt. There is a constant threat of paranoia, violence, and underlying sexuality that makes the humor hard to chuckle at. The suggestion of a perverse sexuality is ever-present, through the sexual implications of the serial murder at the beginning of the film, to Steele’s manic rage, Gray’s suggested promiscuity, and her controlling, powerhouse of a masseuse, who is implied to be a lesbian.
The lingering sexual menace lasts until the closing credits. The ending is also rich with ambiguity and nihilism. Originally, Steele was supposed to kill Gray in a heated argument. Afterwards, a police inspector would burst on the scene, declaring his innocence from the initial crime. Instead, Ray, Bogart, and Grahame improvised on an ending where Gray discovers Steele's innocence before he explodes into violence. She tells the detective that what would have been important a few hours before no longer matters. Nothing matters anymore.
Grahame, a noir regular, is lovely and gives one of the best performances of her career (which is saying something considering her work in The Big Heat and Odds Against Tomorrow). She goes toe-to-toe with Bogart, which must have been difficult work considering that her marriage to director Ray was crumbling during production. Allegedly for part of filming he moved out and began sleeping on the set. This was apparently due to the fact that Grahame was having an affair with Ray’s teenage son, a relationship that later resulted in marriage.
Ray was an incredibly gifted, influential director, best known for Rebel Without a Cause and a handful of other films noir, including They Live by Night, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, and others. His work deserves to seen by modern audiences, though I will always recommend In a Lonely Place before Rebel Without a Cause. The black and white visuals are breathtaking and there is a fascinating score by composer George Antheil, usually known for his avant-garde work. This is also, hands down, Bogart’s finest performance. According to actress Louise Brooks, Bogie’s close friend, a lot of Steele's personality traits allegedly reflect Bogart himself: plagued by fame, hot tempered, a love of drinking, a fading career, and a desperate need for isolation.
In a Lonely Place originally received mixed reviews, but has fortunately developed a cult following and been given status as a classic film by the Library of Congress. The single-disc Sony release is pretty sad and I can only hope Criterion will secure the rights one day and release a Blu-ray with an overwhelming amount of special features. This comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a must-see.