Movies We Like
In A Lonely Place
First, there’s the title. Has any movie title ever sounded so vulnerable? And that the film about a man "in a lonely place" was played by America’s hero, Humphrey Bogart, added undeniable pathos to the proceedings. Movie stars have always been confused with who they played in the films that made them famous, and after High Sierra and Casablanca Bogart would be forever known as the world weary tough guy with a heart of gold; the cynical romantic who does the right thing in the end who generations of men have wanted to emulate. Playing an emotionally wounded misanthrope with possibly psychotic tendencies was a risk for him, but in the words of Louise Brooks it was the closest performance to the real Bogart that he ever played. In her memoir of sorts, Lulu In Hollywood, she writes about how the Bogart she knew was an insecure actor forever on the sidelines of productions he didn’t star in. When the light and magic clicked to make him a star in High Sierra he became a legend henceforth and he took to acting the part in real life. But, according to her at least, it wasn’t until playing the embittered Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place that the myth and the actor coalesced into something resembling his darker, more emotionally insecure self.
In A Lonely Place is ostensibly a murder mystery, but what haunts isn’t really the murder or even the possibility that Bogart’s character killed someone. Instead it’s the way Dix’s good qualities are forever doomed to be overshadowed by his alienating and self-destructing tendencies. He has good friends around him who, even in the face of a murder investigation where he is a suspect, refuse to give up on him. But his insecurities and "artistic temperament" wear those around him down to the point where he really is totally alone. There’s no real lesson to In A Lonely Place. In another less complicated thriller Dix would be the villain whose downfall signals the triumph of societal values over the chaos caused by anti-social malcontents. But this is a film with no solution to the problem of Dix Steele, just a melancholic depiction of a certain type of man whose great curse is to be eternally misunderstood.
Bogart owns the film but of course celebrated auteur Nicholas Ray identifies with his creation, too. Autobiographical details abound in Ray’s film, from the courtyard-side apartment where Bogart’s character lives—a place where Ray once lived—to the sad dissolution of Dix’s relationship with Laurel, played by Gloria Grahame who was estranged from Ray at the time of the making of the film. Ray specialized in building films around brooding outsider characters, from James Dean’s turn in Rebel Without a Cause to James Mason’s drug-crazed patriarch in Bigger Than Life. Dix Steele is, in a way, a sort of rebel without a cause. He depends on the Hollywood production system for his livelihood but sneers at its artifice. He hangs out with his movie folk chums but finds the star system a noxious, phony, and stupid world. Most of all, though, he abuses the people who stick up for him when they are his last best hope for living a decent life.
Once a young woman goes missing who was in his company, Dix is figured as a suspect and the movie dutifully follows the sudden story arc. But ultimately the murder is beside the point. Laurel realizes she can’t ever live with Dix, even though she knows he probably didn’t commit murder. He bears too many scars and comes with too much baggage to ever let someone love him honestly. Grahame had never been better as Laurel, a woman in whom Dix finds a match. She holds her own with Bogart and gives as good as she gets. Ray artfully sneaks depth into what could have been a standard potboiler and in doing so created one of the great tragic romances of noir.