The first shot shows the hard eyes of Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) reflected in a rearview mirror. He’s already looking back. Or looking for a fight, which he nearly finds at a stoplight when the husband of a chatty actress in the aligning convertible gets proprietary. Dix is a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since before the war. He’s going to a place where the movie people drink, and he’ll leave that place with a fetching young hat-check girl named Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart). Dix takes Mildred back to his place, not for sex, but to provide him with a synopsis of a schmaltzy novel he’s been solicited to adapt. Poor Mildred will leave Dix’s but she’ll never make it home, and Dix will become a prime suspect in her murder.
This morbid set-up, however, gives birth to something new. Dix’s spell at the police station facilitates the first blush of a romance between Dix and his new neighbor, Lauren Gray (Gloria Grahame), a struggling starlet as cool, cagey and clever as he is. Theirs will be a romance poisoned with ambiguities. Dix is a veteran with a terrifying temper problem and a history of violence. Is it possible that he really did kill Mildred? Lauren keeps her own history shrouded in mystery, but her regular sessions with a butch masseuse suggest she’s no stranger to romantic disaster. Dix is all-in from the get-go, and Lauren seems drawn to the promise of a shared life, but she doesn’t trust him. The title of In a Lonely Place (1950) invokes the nocturnal locus where Mildred met her end, but, in this film about lonely people rushing headlong into intimacy, the title could also refer to the winnowing enclosure of a lover’s embrace.
Now available from Criterion, In a Lonely Place is one of my favourite films. It’s an acidulous reflection on Tinseltown shallowness, but unlike the equally masterful Sunset Boulevard, released the same year, it inhabits an emotional terrain miles from satire. It’s a noir heartbreaker—more heartbreaking with every viewing, it seems—and a fiercely personal work for its key players. The marriage between Grahame and director Nicholas Ray was disintegrating during production. Ray focuses scene after scene on either the deep pleasures of domestic interdependence or the sometimes thrilling, sometimes asphyxiating chokehold of love. Grahame, whose character gradually emerges as the film’s protagonist, delivers a brilliantly controlled performance as a woman both in love and in trouble in a film brimming with women forced to modulate their behaviour to accommodate desperate men. Bogart, whose independent production company, Santana, produced In a Lonely Place, gives the most complex and vulnerable performance of his career.
Dix presents himself as another of Bogart’s trademark wise-cracking tough guys, but as the story progresses the film reveals the inherent wounds, insecurities and proximity to fury seldom plumbed in such characters—at least outside of the work of Ray, whose subsequent films include On Dangerous Ground, Bigger Than Life and Rebel Without a Cause. In keeping with the tenets of good Hollywood screenwriting by which Dix abides, In a Lonely Place deepens Dix’s character not through exposition but, rather, through action. And through acting. The casting of Bogart and the significantly younger Grahame as lovers might initially seem just another example of Hollywood age-gender cliché, but take a look at the scene where Dix and Laurel laugh and smoke at the piano bar and tell me of a sexier adult movie pairing. More importantly, Bogart’s age—and he looks old—plays a substantial role in the film’s devastating finale, as does Dix’s oft-commented-upon refusal to show emotion. Dix indeed plays it cool until he’s either overtaken by rage or by his painful adoration for Lauren. Or, alas, both. “I’ll never let you go,” Dix says to Lauren. And, in a sense, to us. I’ve been returning to this Lonely Place for at least a dozen years, and it hasn’t let go of me yet. V