Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tonight's Movie: In a Lonely Place (1950)

IN A LONELY PLACE has been high on my "to watch" list for quite a while; in fact, I almost put it on my list of 10 classics to be sure to see this year.

IN A LONELY PLACE has been of particular interest to me as both Eddie Muller and Alan Rode of the Film Noir Foundation rank it as one of their all-time top favorite film noir titles. My own reaction, at least on this first viewing, was more muted; there was a lot I admired about the film, but in the end it left me thinking simply, "Well, that was depressing!"

Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn't had a hit since before his wartime service. Though he can turn on the charm when he wants, he's also cranky, rude, and repeatedly demonstrates he has a hair-trigger temper. It's a bit hard to understand why he remains employed -- and indeed, maybe he won't, if he can't finally turn out a hit based on a best-selling novel.

When a hatcheck girl (Martha Stewart) is murdered after spending a few hours at Steele's apartment, he's brought in for police questioning by an old army buddy, Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy). Steele's seeming lack of concern for the dead girl confounds the police, who also note his long history of physical altercations, but he's given an alibi by his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), who saw the girl leave Steele's apartment alone.

After this meeting Steele falls head over heels in love with Laurel, and she with him. They are blissfully happy, but cracks gradually appear in the relationship as the possessive Steele continues to demonstrate an inability to control his temper.

This is kind of an odd film, starting out as film noir meets Hollywood -- it would play well on a double bill with THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), which also starred Gloria Grahame -- but then it increasingly turns into more of a psychological drama focused on what we would term today domestic violence.

I have a sense that this is a film I might appreciate more on future viewings, now that I understand the direction the plot was taking. Whereas in many film noir titles the viewer buys into the beautiful darkness of it all, including at times a less-than-happy ending, this was on the one hand "noir lite" yet on the other hand a downer of a story. It was hard to anticipate just where the movie was going, and by the film's bleak end I could only puzzle over the futility of it all.

Bogart gives a fine, painful performance as Dixon Steele. Given Steele's wartime service, I even wondered if he were suffering from PTSD, which coincidentally I mentioned in my post last night on SIERRA (1950) and Audie Murphy. Any way you slice it, Bogart's Dixon Steele is one very disturbed man, with, shall we say, "anger management issues."

As I've said in the past, I can take or leave Gloria Grahame; sometimes she works for me, sometimes she doesn't. For instance, I thought she was excellent in NAKED ALIBI (1954) but found her boring in HUMAN DESIRE (1954). This time around, she was absolutely terrific, catching the viewer's attention simply with the way she glides across the room. Her self-possessed attitude in her early scenes is striking. Laurel isn't 100% perfect herself, making some poor choices, with the confident woman from the start of the movie revealed to be something of an empty facade -- and what's with her relationship with that masseuse (Ruth Gillette)? Nonetheless, she retains viewer sympathy even when she makes bad decisions. Like Bogart, Grahame is really excellent, and their performances are a strong reason to see the movie.

I count myself as a member of the Frank Lovejoy Fan Club, and his appearances in the film provided something of a relief from all the Heavy Drama; I felt better whenever his genial cop appeared on screen and wished there'd been even more of him in the film. I recently found a nice tribute post from the centennial of Lovejoy's birth almost exactly a year ago, and here's another post on him from last December. I liked the line "He looks like 1952."

Jeff Donnell is charming as Lovejoy's bride. Art Smith, Robert Warwick, Carl Benton Reid, William Ching, and Morris Ankrum are also in the cast. Look for June Vincent, the leading lady of BLACK ANGEL (1946), in a small role as a woman who strikes up a conversation with Bogart's character when they're both in cars stopped at an intersection.

One of the best things about the movie is the beautiful black and white cinematography by Burnett Guffey. (The color lobby cards seen in this post certainly give a different impression from how the film actually looks!) The movie is visually beautiful from start to finish; I especially loved the brief bits of location photography, such as the early morning shot of Bogart leaving the Beverly Hills police station. Robby did a terrific "then and now" post on the movie's locations at Dear Old Hollywood.

The movie was directed by Grahame's then-husband, Nicholas Ray. They divorced in 1952. The screenplay was by Andrew Solt. It runs 94 minutes.

IN A LONELY PLACE has been released on DVD. It can be rented from ClassicFlix or Netflix.  It also had a release on VHS.

I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about the movie, but it was interesting and thought-provoking. Worth seeing.

February 2018 Update: I saw this film a second time with friends and liked it more this time around.


Blogger dfordoom said...

It's one of my favourite noirs. And in my view, Bogart's best performance.

3:59 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

This is a film I don't much care for and have always thought Bogart t he problem. He catches nothing but the surface of Dix Steele. He does not inhabit the part...and, I know this is sacrilegious, but I have a similar response to The Caine Mutiny. I have also seen The Caine Mutiny Court Martial with Lloyd Nolan in the part of Queeg and thought him excellent.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Great review and what wonderful lobby cards.
I haven't watched this film for quite a while and your review reminds me I should get it out again.
Bogart certainly is a tortured character, with everyone trying to help him but he's on the self destruct button.
I like your idea of a double bill with THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.
And we share an admiration for Frank Lovejoy.thanks for the two links to interesting articles about Frank.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is one of the greatest of all noirs. Yes, the story is a downer, but then the best examples of film noir should be like that IMO.

I can't agree with the previous poster who sees Bogart as the weak link - I feel this is up there with the best he ever did, arguably the best work he did in the 50s. Dix is a man who truly despises himself, and his violence and lack of control are the manifestations of this. I honestly can't see another actor getting more into the role, and Bogart is scarily believable at times.

I've read before that the abusive central relationship was something of a reflection of Ray and Grahame's own situation. I don't know how true that is, but it makes viewing the movie even more interesting.

On Grahame herself, I really like her. From a man's point of view, she was incredibly alluring and sensual. I do think she wasn't always used as well as she could have been, but a movie like In a Lonely Place really brings out the best in her.


4:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Really enjoyed hearing everyone's thoughts on this film -- how interesting there are different perceptions of Bogart's performance. For my part I thought he was excellent as a troubled character -- liked Vienna's description of him as being "on the self destruct button"!

Always glad to know someone else likes Frank Lovejoy, Vienna. He has sure grown on me in the last year or so. Looking forward to seeing several more of his films.

Colin, that is fascinating that the relationship may have mirrored that of the married director and star. I agree Grahame was excellent in this, it's one of the films in which I've enjoyed her the most.

Best wishes,

5:06 PM  

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