Director Nicholas Ray customarily takes his material and subverts our expectations or better yet deconstructs the conventions that we often take for granted. But this is also matched with his penchant for showing a very raw and honest percolation of emotion. It causes every one of his movies to leave a perceptible toll on the audience because it’s difficult to have any other response. In a Lonely Place is another textbook example.
Here is a film with a murder plot which would normally be of primary concern. Instead, it ends up falling by the wayside to become nearly unimportant. It sounds almost callous to make such a claim since a life is at stake but then there is a bit of a detached quality permeating the picture.
A brooding Humphrey Bogart is at his most explosive as screenwriter Dixon Steele, a man with some talent, but a very odd way of exercising it. He’s an exasperating case for many in the industry, including his agent. Art Smith provides a wonderfully vivid performance as the agent nursing his ulcers while still faithfully standing by his client despite the turbulent nature of his temper. (Coincidentally Smith was featured in the earlier Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation Ride the Pink Horse).
It’s true “Dix” can be a tough man to figure out. Bogart may have played more appreciated, more iconic characters but there’s something especially raw about him here.
On top of Bogart’s performance, this is Nicholas Ray’s own examination of the Hollywood industry’s mechanisms, spitting out has-beens and flops as much as fame and fortune. There’s the continuous inner conflict between making a smash — the kind of trashy stuff that sells — and then trying to create something of worth on the spectrum of art.
If we had to draw up thematically similar films, All About Eve is a more flamboyant choice and Sunset Blvd. boasts the cynical edge but In a Lonely Place probably deserves to keep the same company with these noted classics from 1950 as a film of truly morose sentiments. It’s not simply cutting through the artifice of Hollywood. It’s trying to provide a deeper study of the people who are cogs of the industry.
After a precocious hat check girl (Martha Stewart) is found murdered it sets off an investigation by the police force. As Steele had requested the girl come over to his home to give him the plot summary of the low brow novel he is meant to adapt, just hours before her demise, he is placed on the top of the lists of suspects.
Conveniently, his neighbor across the courtyard, a bit part actress (Gloria Grahame at her most aloof and restrained), who he hardly knows, is brought in and vouches she saw him and it’s not a lie. He really was at home and he did not commit the crime.
If we wanted to, we could leave the story right there but that’s not all the film is working away at. It unravels in other ways too. In another world, this almost voyeuristic setting could have been made for Rear Window (1954) but this is not that film either.
Frank Lovejoy is the average cop with a thoughtful wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell) — a genuinely nice guy who knows “Dix” from back in their war days. He takes orders but he also has an inherent confidence in Steele as a human being. At any rate, he wouldn’t be prone to killing girls and so Brub helps to humanize this man in the eyes of the audience.
And yet there are still some troubling caveats on Dixon Steele. He owns a history of violent outbreaks but it goes beyond this. There’s a raging darkness that is part of his makeup as a character. He is tortured by hatred and by his own accompanying desolation. We can chalk it up to a number of things. His own personality. His lack of consistency. The often cruel industry that became his livelihood. It could be any number of these things or all of them.
In fact, for a film noir, the outcomes prove to be unique. It has murder but we never see it. There’s an actress who played countless femme fatales playing a slightly different iteration here. Even Bogart, though carrying a simmering temper that goes off on several occasions, is generally not a hardboiled heavy. Just a tormented screenwriter with demons to exorcize.
Beating up a college kid doesn’t go with the glorified and gritty brutality that might crop up in a Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946). It’s just callous barbarity in the normal world. Throwing phones or beating up friends in public is not normal behavior. There’s no other conventional excuse for it.
But this is Dixon Steele for you. He’s just a troubled man. Not an archetypal noir antihero. As much as we fear for the people in his stead, there’s also a mild pity reserved for him. He shows himself capable of love. He simply proves to be very ill-equipped for the endeavor.
The layers go deeper still and more personal as Gloria Grahame’s marriage with director Nicholas Ray was splintering and was finally absolved quietly during filming.
Beyond that, you get the sense, Bogart who financed the picture is playing someone, not unlike himself. Perhaps it’s the closest he ever got. Like the film, he found love in a woman, Lauren Bacall, many years his junior who nevertheless made him very happy. Sure Bogey was a success but it took him a long time to get to the top of the summit. He was a hard-drinker with a notoriously white-hot temper to match. Still, he was a romantic and an idealist in such a way we sympathize with. He’s ardently beloved today as he was in his heyday.
The contents of the story take on an entirely new spectrum of meaning with this personal context. In a Lonely Place wasn’t just an examination of Hollywood and the lives of people who could be real. In a Lonely Place feels far more transparent. It is Hollywood and these are the very people who find themselves caught up in its disillusioning grip.
Loneliness is there’s to have and to hold. They don’t need the prototypical genre conventions of graft and crime — the brand we conveniently label as film noir. There’s really little need for the more darkly cinematic overtones. They have themselves. That’s dismal enough already.
“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”