In a Lonely Place
April 25, 2018
n her 1966 essay “Humphrey and Bogie,” which was later featured in her 1982 memoir Lulu in Hollywood, the silent film actress Louise Brooks argues that the man
Humphrey Bogart plays in In a Lonely Place (1950) was the closest thing the movies ever came to depicting the real Bogart. In the film, the actor portrays Dixon Steele, a contemptuous, down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter prone to boozing and sudden, violent outbursts. Sometimes, Steele can be romantic and witty. But he can
Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place, from 1950.
also be, and often is, a brute. So the movie’s title is apt. Because of his temperament, he can never truly be loved for who he is. Mordant behavior, upped when liquid courage is playing a part, will keep him forever lonely in the isolated places that are his mind and body.
While watching In a Lonely Place, Brooks was struck by how eerily Steele’s personality echoed the man playing him. In the essay, she notes that Steele’s pride in his art, his self-regard, drunken siestas, periods of apathy, and explosions of anger were all shared characteristics. Bogart was so good in the role, Brooks argued, because the complex part didn’t make for all too big a stretch. “During the last 10 years of his life, driven by his ferocious ambition, Humphrey Bogart allowed himself to be formed into a coarse and drunken bully, a puppet Iago who fomented evil without a motive,” she said.
As accounts of the man Bogart was tend to differ, and are often romanticized, I’d like to think Brooks’ portrayal is among the most accurate. (In her 1978 memoir By Myself, his fourth wife, Lauren Bacall, rendered the more difficult parts of their marriage in watercolors, though she has called their marriage tempestuous on occasion.) First-hand knowledge, but not personal attachment, informed Brooks’ characterization, as did quasi-journalistic research.
If this evaluation of the actor is true, then, In a Lonely Place's complexity, already prominent, escalates. And there’s already so much to it: The film is also widely considered a reflection of the failing marriage of its director, Nicholas Ray, and its leading lady, Gloria Grahame, which ended two years later. (The union came to a halt, in 1952, when Ray allegedly found Grahame in bed with his teenage son, Tony.)
So In a Lonely Place is, arguably, one of the more cerebral and sophisticated of all films noirs. In addition to accidentally mirroring the real, it also works as a restrained industry commentary, a knotty tale of toxic romance, and a sobered deconstruction of celebrity.
It fits in with other dignified noirs of the 1950s. At the time, the genre was taking deeper dives into the darkest depths of the human experience; pulpy storylines would remain, but hard to ignore were seemingly extraneous details that seemed to suggest there was more lurking beneath the escapist surfaces. (See 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, 1953’s The Big Heat, 1956’s While the City Sleeps, which, respectively, dealt with the pitfalls of celebrity, police immorality, and journalistic corruption)
Consider In a Lonely Place, adapted from the 1947 novel of the same name by Dorothy Hughes, to be the most lovesick of these films, intrigued by the false axiom that a good woman can save a damaged man. It is about the short-lived romance between the aforementioned Steele and his sharp-witted, would-be actress neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame), which comes to be destroyed by both suspicion and Steele’s volatility.
We can sense this pair is doomed from the start: a murder brings them together. As the film opens, Steele, who hasn’t written a hit in years, is presented with a seemingly irresistible offer by his agent: adapt a best-selling albeit kind-of-trashy novel certain to become a big hit. Much time hasn’t been allotted for adaptation, and the book’s pretty thick. But Steele can’t refuse the offer, much as he’d like to.
Just because he can — and because he’s apathetic — he hires an attractive hat-check girl named Mildred (Martha Stewart) who’s read the novel to explain the plot to him over the course of an evening. He won’t have to turn a page. Maybe he’ll even get to enjoy a one-night lay.
But almost as soon as Mildred walks through the door, the invitation proves itself a bad idea. The girl is vapid and a talker, and Steele realizes he’s going to have to actually make an effort to read the novel later on. She stays a little while longer, and then she’s politely kicked out the door. Steele logically believes he’ll never hear from her again.
But then she’s murdered. Given his past, which contains a handful of arrests for bar fights, and the fact that he was the last person to see her alive, Steele becomes the prime suspect. He’s brought in for questioning, and seems to be the one who did it. His alibi’s hardly sound. But then Gray, who can see inside the man’s apartment from her bedroom window, tells the police that she saw Mildred leave. There’s no way Steele could have killed her, she says.
That should be that. But there is a certain sort of animal attraction between Steele and Gray that crackles even during the three-way interrogation, during which they aren’t even facing one another. Flirtations begin once they head back home — coy tête-a-têtes have never been quite this sizzling — and it isn’t long before they start considering themselves an item. (We’d like to call it fast, but Bogart and Grahame are so right together, their characters could say “I do” after a day of dating and we’d buy it.)
The next few weeks prove themselves harmonious. Gray even gets Steele to stop drinking. But romantic bliss cannot completely put a cork in the latter’s bad habits. He frequently says things (lots of classic “if I were the killer, I would have …” blurt-outs) that make Gray and close friends suddenly unsure of his innocence. Violent outbursts start revving up again; in one scene, Steele beats up the owner of a car he crashes into. Then the police captain (Carl Benton Reid) implies that he thinks Steele committed the crime, and that maybe more went on than what Gray saw. This invokes deep fear on the part of our heroine. And even if Steele does turn out to be innocent of the crime, her distrust in this unpredictable man will destroy them anyway.
This all develops with excruciating tension. There is a terseness to the film that demonstrates – as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film – the work of a mature studio system at the top of its game. It is one of the rare movies of the period in which all hired, from the stars to the director to the screenwriter, mesh with almost serendipitous ease. In which the camerawork and the set design are abstemious and sparse but also efficient and elegant. (The apartment building Steele and Gray come home to, which is partially defined by a Spanish-style courtyard and fountain, is almost a character in itself.)
How strange, then, that behind-the-scenes drama was just as prevalent as the movie in store’s hypnotic power: Ray and Grahame’s marriage was so much on the downturn, the former eventually began sleeping in his dressing room, pretending he was simply doing late-night scriptwork. (Grahame went along with the charade in front of the cast and crew.)
Yet that strain works to the movie’s benefit. Gray begins the movie sly and self-assured – perhaps like the actress playing her – but becomes increasingly agitated as the storyline lumbers forward. Perhaps some of that is genuine: Sure Gray comes to be scared for her life, but Grahame was likely also scared for her professional and personal well-being, considering the man with whom she began refusing to go home was someone from whom she could not escape. The way Ray directs her in this movie complements the way Steele looks at Gray. He loves her and is thankful for all the happiness she has brought him, but he is also hateful toward her misgivings and how she refuses to completely devote herself to him after her neuroses start getting the best of her.
The feature’s relationship with Bogart is piquant, too. Today, the actor is best known for his being a quintessential tough guy, and In a Lonely Place gives him the chance to at once be a tough guy and a sensitive one – the beast who puts up a front of masculine moxie and cynicism to hide his romantic and professional self-doubts. While watching him in the feature, Louise Brooks’ comments flow in and out of the mind like water sifting through a creek. We don’t exactly come to wholeheartedly like Steele, but we want to understand him. We’re even pliant to falling victim to his charms, sometimes even willing to look over his wrongdoings because of the good he is capable of.
The unplanned intrusions of real life add dimension. So much about Grahame and Bogart seep into Gray and Steele; these are people fucked up by their anxieties and shortcomings, forever having to strain to have long-lasting, healthy relationships because of them. It is this echoing that makes In a Lonely Place, along with the career-best performances of Grahame and Bogart, so puissant. This does not feel like a game of dress-up as so many films do; the people involved with the picture, intentionally or otherwise, are giving part of themselves to this movie.
Some, like the critic Kim Morgan, have called In a Lonely Place a tragedy – a down-and-out melodrama in which a woman cannot save a man, in which romance, no matter how powerful, cannot save all. Undoubtedly, it is an overthrowing of all the ideals put forward by romantic films during the era. But I prefer to think of it as an incomparable example of the wonders that can be done when fact informs fiction. How much more interesting our cinematic works of art can be when those who make it are troubled by, or even running away from, something. A+