Dir. by Nicholas Ray - 1 hr. 34 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There's a top tier of Humphrey Bogart films, films like "The Maltese Falcon," or "The Big Sleep," or "Casablanca," that are not only fine work, but stand at the top of film history. There's also some fluff, inconsequential films that every actor has to their credit. "In a Lonely Place" is a notch below Bogart's best work, yet still stands up as a really good movie; one you'd want to track down once you got the biggest hits of Bogart's career out of the way. It's a very solid film noir, expertly directed by Nicholas Ray (who would go on to direct "Rebel Without a Cause" a handful of years later), and with a strong streak of fatalism, where even joy is tempered by the suspicion that something is lurking in the immediate future.
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter, and a pretty successful one. But he's been unable to write much lately, and is having an adaptation of a novel pressed on him by his agent, Mel (Art Smith). Dix isn't particularly interested, not just in this project, but in much of anything. He seems to approach life with a bemused detachment, which people frequently take the wrong way. Dixon's solution: the coat-check girl, Mildred (Martha Stewart - no, not that one), has read the book, so he takes her back to his apartment to tell him the story, thus avoiding having to read it himself. After getting the gist of the story, he sends her off to the nearest taxi stand and a fistful of cash, to get home. She never makes it there, getting abducted and murdered in the wee hours of the morning. Dixon is the obvious suspect, having taken her home from the restaurant she worked in, under what sounds like a bizarre pretext. Through the course of the investigation, Dixon is introduced to one of his neighbors, a low-level actress named Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), and their meeting proves fortuitous.
There are a few things that are going to jump out about this film to modern audiences. First is that the main character, Dixon, isn't particularly likable. Bogart had a weird ability to play unlikable characters who do bad things, and still make you care about him. Dixon is a volatile, controlling man who lays hands on people more than once, but those are the only moments where he really breaks out of his detachment from emotional responses, and his detachment baffles people around him. Honestly, a lot of this character, and the other character's reactions to Dixon, seem to come straight from Albert Camus' "The Stranger," which was also sort of a crime story, despite it's reputation as a work of philosophy. He doesn't have much sympathy for anyone around him, only coming alive to violence. The crux of the story is that while we, the audience, know that Dixon didn't commit the murder, no one else does in the story. For Laurel, who finds herself entwined in a romantic relationship with Dixon, the question of where Dixon's line is gnaws at her conscience.
The crime aspect of the story is secondary to Dixon and Laurel's relationship. Dixon is established as difficult, but Laurel herself is fleeing another relationship, and spends a good deal of effort at keeping people at arm's length. Either of them pursuing any relationship would seem to be built on shaky ground, but they can't help themselves. And then, when doubts start creeping into Laurel's mind, she can't help that either. The whole thing is doomed from the start. The third act of "In a Lonely Place" is absolutely phenomenal; claustrophobic, full of delusions, the stakes growing larger, impending doom, and knowing that any joy in life is temporary. The climax of the film (which I won't spoil) takes place in Laurel's apartment, and it just kicks my ass every time I see this film (this is the fourth or fifth time I've watched it). When you see two admittedly flawed people going all in to try and make something work, only to be undone by timing and outside forces, it's not hard to see this being a pattern in both characters' lives, and it's very easy to understand exactly why they are the way they are.
There's a pair of quotes from this movie that jump out. The biggest is a line that Dixon has in mind for the screenplay he's writing, but sums up this movie better. He says, "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she was with me." It's a fantastic line, and resonant in it's context - both characters are aware that they're living on borrowed time. But equally good comes in a scene where Laurel, who doesn't really have any friends, confides in Dixon's policeman friend's wife that she was scared, and that she had gone there to have someone laugh at her fears. But with growing terror, Laurel says, "But you're not laughing." It's the turning point, where Laurel isn't a girlfriend, but a caged animal looking for escape.
"In a Lonely Place" isn't quite on par with the top noir films, or Bogart's best films (but not much is), but it's a fantastic story with unique characters, and full of emotion. It's only flaw is that it has Bogart in it, and was directed by Nicholas Ray; it's only second-best by comparison. But it's a movie that I keep returning to over and over, both one of the most romantic and one of the most emotionally crushing movies I've ever seen. I'm not saying that you need a box of tissues at hand, but it might not hurt to have one or two handy when things start wrapping up.
4 / 5 - TV