Nicholas Ray (1950)
The title refers to the site of a murder central to the plot and to the psychological situation of the protagonist, Dixon ‘Dix’ Steele (Humphrey Bogart). Dix, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s not had a success for years, becomes a prime suspect in the police investigation of the murder of Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a hat-check girl at a Los Angeles night club. Dix goes there for a meeting with his agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith). Both en route to the club and inside it, Dix demonstrates a nasty temper – first in an altercation with another motorist, then in reaction to a movie director who derides Dix’s friend Charlie (Robert Warwick), a superannuated, alcoholic actor. Mel Lippman is trying to persuade his client to adapt a novel for the screen; Mildred, who overhears their conversation, tells them she’s currently reading the book and engrossed by it. Dix invites her back to his apartment so that she can tell him the plot. He hears enough from her to convince him the novel is trash, and gives Mildred her cab fare home. Next morning, he learns from Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an old army pal of Dix’s and now a police detective, that Mildred’s dead body has been discovered, ‘in a lonely place’ on the highway. Police captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) immediately advises Dix that he’s a suspect, although the evidence against him is only circumstantial. Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) are worried by Dix ’s behaviour in the aftermath of the killing, however. Over drinks with them, he muses aloud how Mildred might have died – so vigorously that Sylvia, especially, is alarmed this isn’t merely a writer’s imagination working overtime.
As Dix and Mildred approached his apartment, they passed another tenant in the courtyard – a new tenant, whom Dix hadn’t seen before. This was Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), an actress whom Dix discovers is as down on her professional luck as he is. Laurel testifies to the police that she saw Mildred leaving the apartment complex unharmed – this is not enough to allay Lochner’s suspicions, which plant a seed of doubt in Laurel’s mind. She and Dix nevertheless fall in love and his feelings for Laurel invigorate his writing: as Dix works relentlessly on a script for a love story, he’s enthused by the prospect of creating and sustaining one in real life. But Laurel is increasingly scared by Dix’s unnerving volatility and propensity for violence – increasingly oppressed by the fear that he could be a killer. Her fearful betrayal of Dix drives them apart. He also believes his completed screenplay to be worthless. Two last-minute pieces of good news – a film producer gives the script the thumbs-up, another confesses to the murder of Mildred Atkinson – arrive too late to redeem the situation.
The dual problem of achieving a happy ending has been signalled well in advance, when Dix comes up with the following lines for his screenplay: ‘I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me’. The lines reflect, of course, his own experience with Laurel and accurately predict its conclusion. Ray’s film noir is freighted with a sense of tragic predestination and the inevitability of an unhappy ending. These noir conventions often leave me cold but In a Lonely Place is very well done. It features one of Humphrey Bogart’s most attractive performances: the unstressed but striking urgency of his physical movement seems to make him more emotionally transparent and needy than usual. Dix Steele finds it easier to feel remorse than to voice apologies and Bogart makes this surprisingly touching. He and Gloria Grahame have a strong, easy connection while the romance between Dix and Laurel is (briefly) going well. Not for the first time, Grahame too impresses with her quick movement. Both she and Bogart make the most of the abundance of witty lines in the screenplay (by Edmund H North and Andrew Solt, based on a 1947 novel by Dorothy B Hughes).
Pauline Kael’s dismissal of the film as a ‘disappointingly hollow murder melodrama’ is harsh but she was right that the supporting acting isn’t, for the most part anyway, up to much. Exceptions include Frank Lovejoy, likeable as the conflicted Brub, and Ruth Warren, who’s good as Laurel’s grumpy cleaner, and Bogart helps to make other bits work. After Dix has lost his rag, hit Art in the face and damaged his spectacles, the conciliatory exchange between the two men in the gents’ is remarkably tender. The theatrical drunk Charlie is less tiresome than he might be, thanks to Bogart’s affectionately dry line readings, which counterpoint Charlie’s sonorous Shakespeare-quoting. Nicholas Ray ratchets up what’s at stake for Dix and Laurel very effectively. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is especially expressive in the nocturnal car-driving sequences. Like its exact contemporary Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place lays into Hollywood. Ray’s critique is less emphatic and ornate than Billy Wilder’s but no less effective in presenting the Dream Factory as a piece of nightmare machinery, heartlessly disposing of the people it no longer requires.
30 November 2017