The noir movies of the 1940s rather muddied the waters when it came to movie protagonists. Even the heroes in noir films tend to be complicated or compromised, and there was perhaps no single actor more essential for creating the Hollywood antihero than Humphrey Bogart. Too gruff and brutish-looking to be a typical leading man, but too charismatic and talented for character roles, Bogie was perfect as a protagonist who straddled the line between hero and villain. It was as the thuggish, sarcastic, womanizing detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon that Bogie became a bona fide star, and he became an icon through his performance in Casablanca by playing a hero who was essentially an angry, jealous drunk. There was always a darkness to Bogart’s performances, and that darkness gets to come to the fore in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). A film set at the intersection of passion and violence, In a Lonely Place explores the capacity that we have for savagery — both to commit violence and to tolerate, or even love, those who give themselves over to rage. (93 min.)
J. – It’s so hard to know what to make of In a Lonely Place. There’s a lot going on here, and perhaps some sort of ultimate point is being grasped for, but much of it feels so elusive. What is this film trying to say about violence and about love? Is it trying to say anything beyond making a compelling story?
That’s ultimately what I’d like to get to in this yammer, S., but I think we need to pave the road to that destination a bit first. I suppose I’ll start by saying I really enjoyed In a Lonely Place a great deal, but it feels a bit like, well, not exactly an incomplete film but perhaps one that reaches beyond its grasp. For one thing, on a visual level I found the movie to be at best competent and occasionally a bit clunky. It lacked the atmosphere that one typically associates with noirish films, which is a pity because that is one of my favorite aspects of the genre. But that said, whatever Nicholas Ray may lack in the visuals department he more than makes up for in getting excellent performances from his actors. I’ve seen myself a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies, and I think his Dixon Steele (ha!) is the best performance I’ve ever witnessed from him. For that reason alone I can’t fathom how In a Lonely Place stayed off my radar until we watched it the other night.
S. – The performances were fantastic, more than compensating for the generally ho-hum visuals. Bogart manages to find some solid ground between volatile thug and just plain anti-social that makes you contented in his company as he goes about wreaking havoc. Happily his ultra-dry delivery is put to good use with some great lines, the exchanges with the police chief are particularly fun. Gloria Grahame does a stellar job as Laurel, the mysterious neighbour that provides screenwriter Dixon Steele with an alibi right when he has painted himself as the most likely person to have done away with a young coat check girl. I thought Grahame just leapt off the screen during those early scenes where her glance seems to say that she knows so much, she barely says a word but she leaves you hanging off every one. There was also an intriguing depth to the Laurel character, hints at a past life that is troubled without blatantly constructing her as a victim. The supporting cast also added vibrancy to the mix, Dix’s long suffering agent (Art Smith), the young Detective (Frank Lovejoy) and Laurel’s creepy masseuse (Ruth Gillete) artfully rounded out the histories of the main players.
J. – I enjoyed Bogart’s repartee with the cops, but that’s just Bogie being Bogie — straight out of the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe playbook where he can be snide but effortlessly charming. No, what impresses me about this film is his serious dip into the dark side. My favorite Bogart performances are the ones where he gets unhinged (à la The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Caine Mutiny), but this particular volatile performance feels a lot more grounded and has a lot more facets to it. He is utterly convincing as a jokey (albeit jaded) screenwriter, and his affection for Laurel feels real and warm. But he does an even better job with the scenes where his temper gets the better of him, getting hideously violent and even almost killing a man in a traffic altercation. The crazed fury of the character is amazingly handled in one of the few scenes in the film that shows a sense of visual flair: Bogie is discussing with his detective friend how he would have killed the coat check girl. Ray shines a light on Bogart’s face to make him look extra manic, a move that could easily come off as cheesy or ridiculous if the performer can’t sell it. But Bogart nails it and it completely changes your insight into the character who up to that point seems like a victim of circumstance.
I think you’re spot on about Gloria Grahame’s performance, she is wonderful throughout and she really gets thrown through the emotional wringer in this movie so it was no walk in the park for her. But I want to focus for a moment on the performance of Martha Stewart (no, not that one) as Mildred, the girl who gets murdered not long into the film. I found Mildred to be a bit grating at first but the scene where she is describing the plot of a crappy novel to Dix ends up being an inspired piece of comedy and a stellar performance by Stewart. She manages to be a dope, but an appealingly innocent dope and makes enough of an impression to have her death hang over the whole of the film. In this regard the film manages through its performances to set in place a compelling series of relationships centered around an unlikely set of circumstances — you pity Mildred for her naivete; you buy into the attraction of Dix and Laurel despite it being forged under the most trying of circumstances.
But while the performances continue to be compelling throughout the film, I think the storytelling slips away a bit as things progress. For instance, did you feel that the film was trying to keep it ambiguous as to whether Dix had killed Mildred? Initially I thought the movie made it clear that he was innocent — which I thought was a great angle — but later on the movie seemed to toy with the idea that he might be the killer. And I’m not talking here about the doubts of other characters, it was as if the film itself was trying to get the audience to question what happened. I found this very strange, almost like something got screwed up in the editing room.
S. – I agree that the movie began with Dix’s innocence quite clear cut. The smooth entrance of Laurel with the facts to back his story seem to put the viewer on solid ground. Dix is a violent jerk, but he didn’t kill Mildred (who BTW managed to go from a piece of fluff to genuinely likable during that scene at Dix’s apartment — killing off the brightest spark in the film so early in the piece really ramped up the darkness, especially when accompanied by the leading man’s indifferent reaction to the news). While watching the film I felt the viewer was supposed to begin to have doubts in sympathy with Laurel’s state of mind as she comes to realise that Dix falling for her does not change his character, he is a violent man and dangerous to be around. It didn’t occur to me that this shift in perspective might have been due to sloppy editing.
However, the dramatic scene right near the end where Laurel is told by the police chief that Dix is officially in the clear completely deflated me. Up until then I trusted the narrative was tracking a descent into fear as Laurel becomes aware of the danger she has placed herself in. Her remark that everything would have been alright had she known yesterday was such a strange decision. It just made no sense. I had been thoroughly enjoying the movie up until that point, largely because the main characters were not playing to type. Not only was that set-up rather trite, it made me question whether I had misinterpreted the intent of the film all along.
J. – I don’t genuinely think the reintroduction of the ambiguous tone was the result of sloppy editing. It likely was a deliberate choice — but I find that choice to be a bit perplexing, even if the idea was to put the viewer in sympathy with Laurel’s plight.
But that issue pales in comparison to the “if only you told us yesterday” remark, which is utterly mystifying and does really call into question what the film was going for. To make it clear here, Dix had already flown off the handle a few times, including driving his car in a psycho rage and nearly killing a man with a rock — and this all happened in Laurel’s presence. At that point it was obvious to her that he was something of a monster — or at the very least someone to fear, not love. And it is these violent reactions that prompt her to believe that perhaps Dix did kill Mildred the coat check girl. But here’s the thing, would his violence be acceptable — or at least acceptable enough — if he was innocent of murder? That “if only” line seems to suggest as much. When Dix comes within a hair’s breadth of killing Laurel in a violent, possessive outburst does Laurel place the blame for that on the police at the end? Perhaps she does.
In truth I don’t mind the reactions of the characters in this regard, as we’ve all heard tell of people trapped in abusive relationships or unable to give up their desire for someone who is objectively horrible. And I like that the movie goes down that road, even offering up the rationalization that a creative, exciting man like Dixon Steele is so wonderful in his good moments that it is worth dealing with his less savory characteristics. I also like that Bogie’s character is just a guy — he’s not a psycho killer or a Hollywood villain. He’s just a violent man, a person who can’t control himself but feels genuine remorse after the fact. All of that is great stuff on the character level and fuel for some fantastic performances, but I feel like the movie is trying — ever so desperately — to make some sort of larger point here that it just can’t quite pull together. In the final act in particular it feels like a message movie that happens to lack a message, and that led to some tonal confusion that I struggled with a bit. How about you, S; did you feel like In a Lonely Place was trying make a particular point?
S. – I was very much enjoying the fact that the movie wasn’t trading in any heavy-handed messaging. Instead it was more of an exploration of what it means to be around violence. Steele is a very isolated character, from the beginning it seems that is intentional on his part. He doesn’t come across as particularly pleased with that choice but he clearly keeps people at arms length. When Laurel slips beneath his defences we glimpse a happy and potentially contented version of the man, who seems hopeful that the tide has turned.
However, violence is a part of his nature. The scene you mentioned, J., where Dix becomes unhinged over a minor traffic altercation and is able to shake off his behaviour without a second thought, is a shocking reality check for Laurel. From that point on the untold pasts of both characters direct their actions. Laurel starts looking for a way to sneak away while Dix tries to tie her to him for better or worse. It is brilliantly done and thrilling to watch. If only I could erase the last five minutes this would have been up there with Out of the Past for me. The story was compelling and the performances first rate. The trite close really took me by surprise and was a real bum note to end on.
J. – I’m largely on board with you there, S. I actual feel bad to have spent so much of this yammer being a bit down on the film, because I enjoyed In a Lonely Place immensely. I enjoyed it so much that the weird tonal issues and that final couple of minutes were that much more distressing for me because they took me out of something I was finding utterly compelling. But in the grand scheme of things such matters of trivial importance when faced by the fantastic performances that are the true meat of this cinematic feast. I’d totally recommend digging in.