Humphrey Bogart is a strange leading man: while charismatic, he is not exactly handsome, and as he got older, the contrast between his charisma and his lack of conventionally good looks got bigger. He wasn’t afraid to play characters that were unpleasant, though interestingly so, and he didn’t shy away from his characters’ dark sides, their cowardice, neediness, pettiness and egotism. Look at Fred C. Dobbs, his character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: he’s not a Disney villain, he is not an evil mastermind, he is a small, pitiful man, really, who meets a pitiful end. How many Hollywood leading men at the time were happy to play such roles?
This darker, unpleasant side, which Bogart does so well, is in no small part what makes In a Lonely Place work. Directed by Nicholas Ray (who’d made They Live by Night just a year earlier), the film tells the story of Dixon Steele (played by Bogart), a has-been Hollywood screenwriter who becomes entangled in a murder case: the hat-check girl he talks into coming to his place and telling him the plot of some potboiler he is supposed to adapt for the screen is brutally killed after leaving later that night. Obviously very few people buy that story – a middle-aged man invites a young woman to his place in the middle of the night to tell him the story of some trashy novel? And that man, who has a history of violent behaviour, has nothing to do with her death? After a neighbour, Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame), confirms Dix’s statements (though without fully exonerating him), the two of them find themselves attracted to one another and begin a relationship. Laurel too is trying to make it in the movie business: she’s an aspiring actress, but so far success has evaded her. Both are desperately lonely people who find something in the other person that was missing in their lives. But the police keeps suspecting Dix, whose cynical demeanour and violent side make it difficult to drop him as a suspect in the absence of hard proof that he’s innocent, and the mounting pressure on the couple brings out the worst in Dix and makes her doubt his innocence and their future together.
In a Lonely Place is one of those films that changes as it goes on. It begins as a satire on Hollywood and on growing old and obsolete in the movie business, albeit the satire is relatively mild at first. Once the murder that sets things into motion has happened, it grows sharper – Sunset Boulevard isn’t a million miles from where Dix lives, but I found the film’s tone, and the extent to which Dix has grown cynical, more reminiscent of another Billy Wilder film: Ace in the Hole, in which Kirk Douglas plays a reporter whose career has been in decline for years. Like so many cynics of classic Hollywood, he is a disappointed romantic at heart, wounded and hurting, but his abrasive demeanour isn’t just a way of disguising his pain: Dix is also a man just barely in control of his temper, and his anger management issues don’t just result in him shouting at people: he lashes out much more literally, and at one point in the film, he comes close to killing a man for calling him “a blind, knuckle-headed squirrel”. Dix and Laurel have a sweet scene afterwards where she talks him down by gently making fun of him for his reaction to a silly, mild insult – where the situation and Dix’s behaviour would have warranted something much harsher – but the fact remains: Dix may be charismatic, he may have a loving, passionate side, but he is just barely in control of himself, and he might turn against any one at any time. (We later see him hitting his meek, elderly agent in anger, and the simple, honest, sad scene where Dix apologises is quite heartbreaking.)
As the story continues, Hollywood satire quickly gives place to something else. Some call the film a melodrama, some refer to it as noir, but none of these really fit, not entirely. The thriller plot about the murder of the hat-check girl informs both the romance and the drama of the story and vice versa. And Ray doesn’t soften things or downplay Dix’s violence in order to make his leading man look better. Bogart plays the one-time great writer who’s almost forgotten except for a handful of people feeling sorry for him as a complex, three-dimensional character, one that the audience can feel sorry for, but never to the point of forgiving his flaws. Laurel soon finds herself scared by the man she’s fallen for, and we share that fear and her doubts: did Dix go after the girl once she’d left his place? Did he kill her? He certainly doesn’t give us much reason to consider him incapable of such violence. He may not have killed the girl, but he has it in him to kill someone.
(The following contains spoilers for In a Lonely Place.) In the novel that the film is based on, Dix turns out to have been the killer. Nicholas Ray’s film (adapted by Andrew Solt, though apparently with much input by the uncredited Ray) makes someone else the murderer, a character who barely figures into the film, though this is almost beside the point: in the end, the film adaptation of In a Lonely Place may play with the genre of the whodunnit, but it uses this genre to tell a story about two desperately lonely people, each hoping to be saved by the other, but one of them may be beyond saving. The sharp Hollywood satire segues into something else, something darker, and definitely something sadder.
Verdict: I’m actually quite amazed that until I watched They Live by Night, I’d not heard of In a Lonely Place. It is a beautifully written, acted and directed film, but more than that, it’s an unexpected film in how it handles its two main characters, especially Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele. (The name makes him sound like the stereotypical Bogart character he very much isn’t.) Its commitment to keeping things, and characters, ambiguous and ambivalent is one of the film’s strengths. I do have two issues with the film. For one thing, its whodunnit setup can result in viewers putting their focus on the wrong thing: by concentrating too much on the question of who could have killed the hat-check girl, they can end up distracted from the actual heart of the story. (I had my own theories throughout the film, and they proved entirely irrelevant in the end.) For another, as with many Hollywood films of the time, the orchestral score seems convinced that the film is a romantic melodrama, and nothing more than that. Luscious strings are plastered over scenes that needed a much quieter approach. At times the music is so pushy in its old Hollywood stylings that the nuance and subtlely of the film and the characterisations is almost drowned out. Neither would keep me from giving In a Lonely Place my full recommendation, however – not least to those who, like me, know Bogart more for his image than for the actual performances. My impression is that it’s well worth revising that image by watching more of his films – and there are much worse places to start with than In a Lonely Place.