Thursday, July 11, 2019

Classic Movie Review: In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950) 
Directed by: Nicholas Ray.
Written by: Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Capt. Lochner), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicolai), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman), Morris Ankrum (Lloyd Barnes), William Ching (Ted Barton), Steven Geray (Paul), Hadda Brooks (Singer). 
Humphrey Bogart, like many actors of the studio era, gets a kind of bum rap that he was a one note actor – that he played the same character in every one of his movies. He played tough guys to be sure – principled characters who often self-sacrificed. You see that in performances like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon – and that’s what people remember him for. And yet, when he played less idealistic characters – more flawed men, he truly shined. It’s why The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of his best performances. And it’s also why In a Lonely Place is one of his very best – really, one of the very best performances I have ever seen anyone give. And he is matched by the remarkable Gloria Grahame – who when she was at her peak in the early-to-mid 1950s, she was as good as any actress in history. In a Lonely Place is a film noir – it has the trappings of one anyway. But it’s really a tragic, doomed love story between these two wounded characters.
In the film, Bogart plays Dixon Steele – a screenwriter, who once had success, and is now down on his luck. The alcoholism has certainly played a factor – as does his temper that comes out when he’s drunk. His latest job is to adapt a soapy best seller – and he doesn’t really want to do it, but doesn’t have much of a choice. But he doesn’t to read the novel – so when the hat check girl at his bar – Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) tells him that she just finished the novel, he invites her back to his place. During this long, boozy night, she tells him the entire story of the novel – he can predict where it’s going before she gets there. But she’s over exciting, and bores him – and eventually he kicks her out. The next day, she turns up murdered – and Dixon is a natural suspect. His alibi witness comes in the form of his neighbor in his Hollywood apartment building – Laurel Gray (Grahame) – who notices the pair when they come home, can overhear some of the conversation, but vouches for him when he says she left on her own accord sometime after midnight. They pair, who didn’t know each other before, meet at the police station – and there is an immediate, raw, sexual connection between the pair of them. They fall in love, quickly – and he stops drinking, and writes that screenplay based on that novel – but making it his own, instead of a straight adaptation. Things are great between them – but there is still this murder investigation hanging above them, and the stress of the writing. And when Dixon starts drinking again – that temper flares up. And Laurel cannot quite be sure that he’s innocent. Maybe he is a murderer.
So, yes, there is a murder here – it is a whodunit to a certain extent. But the film doesn’t really concentrate on that aspect of the film. This is a film about this doomed romance between the two of them, and what that nagging suspicion does to them. Dixon is a flawed character to be sure – he isn’t the classic dope at the heart of a film noir – the type of guy who has been duped by the femme fatale. Is he a good man? He is certainly capable of being a good guy, but the drinking, and that temper is always lurking in the background. Late in the film, something breaks between them – when he does get violent. And now, everyone knows just what he is capable of, and that cannot be put away.
The film has a fascinating story in terms of its production. Grahame and director Nicholas Ray were married at the time – and their relationship was volatile throughout, with multiple separations and reconciliations. Apparently it was during production of this movie that Ray found Grahame in bed with his son from a previous marriage – who was 13 at the time (she would marry the son, more than a decade later). Ray perhaps even slept on the set of this movie during the fights that ensued. There were elements of the relationship that echoed theirs – and there were other elements that echoed Bogart’s relationship with his much younger wife, Lauren Bacall. This is one of those studio films that feels extremely personal to those making it – and there is a reason for that.
Bogart is great here. To a certain extent, he is playing off his own image as the tough guy – but showing the darker side of that. Dixon is a weak man, who cannot get out his own way. Grahame is playing a character not unlike Joan Fontaine’s role in Hitchcock’s Suspicion – where she thinks her husband (Cary Grant) may be a murderer. But she makes her character more conflicted. You feel her hunger, her need for Dixon. Recently, an idiot on twitter (I won’t say who) raised the ire of film twitter by claiming that no actor from the classic Hollywood days could hold a candle to Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep – that their performances would look tacky and overly dramatic compared to what they can do. That’s idiocy of course – and exhibit A may just be In a Lonely Place. While it’s true, acting styles have changed in the decades since this film has made, this is still a film in which the connection between these two is communicated silently – that lust, that need, that desperation is all there, and all unspoken. It’s two of the best performances you will ever see.
In a Lonely Place ends as it must – as we expect it will from the beginning. Ray and his writers do a fascinating thing near the end though – they giveaway the solution to the murder to the audience, before he does it to the two main characters. It makes that painful ending even more painful – because we know what they don’t. This is the type of love story that hurts – and that ending makes it even more so.

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