Review: In a Lonely Place

InLonelyBluSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Nicholas Ray | STARS: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith
RELEASE DATE: 5/10/16 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: audio commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, 1975 documentary “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” featurette with Curtis Hanson, interview with Gloria Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio, Suspense radio adaptation
SPECS: NR | 93 min. | Film noir thriller | 1.33:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio   | Video | Overall

For film buffs, Nicholas Ray (Bigger Than Life) remains the perfect example of that much-abused phrase “auteur.” Even though he worked for major studios and didn’t instigate some of the projects he worked on, nearly all of his films from the late Forties and Fifties bristle with his personality and explore his favorite themes. In a Lonely Place (1950) is a sublime example of this, an exploration of the psyche of a self-destructive hero that is both resolutely noir and incredibly modern.

In arguably his best performance, Humphrey Bogart plays Dix Steele, an alcoholic (yet charming) screenwriter who has to produce a first draft of a script based on a potboiler novel. He figures out a way to avoid reading the book — have a hatcheck girl who did read it come over to his house and recount the plot to him. The girl winds up murdered and Dix is the main suspect, until his neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame, The Big Heat), testifies on his behalf. Dix begins an affair with Laurel, who becomes aware of his violent side and begins to suspect that he was indeed the murderer.

From such plots great mysteries are born. But In a Lonely Place is not a mystery, it’s a beautifully sketched middle-aged romance, a bonding of two jaded souls who’ve been around the block and who, we feel, deserve happiness — if only Dix can control his violent impulses.

Ray often said that the film was deeply personal for both Bogie (who produced the picture) and him (Ray’s later self-destructive path as an artist sadly backs up this notion). Whatever the case may be, Bogart is sublime here, registering levels of cynicism and newfound hope that are equal to, if not better than, his more famous turns in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.

The film is tightly, beautifully scripted, without a wasted moment. Beside the most glaring theme — how anger issues can ruin a relationship (a very modern concept for a 1950 film) — Place also focuses on how Steele is thought to be the killer because he exhibits a lack of emotion when told about the hatcheck girl’s murder. His cold-as-ice argument to the police is that, as a screenwriter, he has “killed” many characters and nothing surprises him.

And while Lauren Bacall made a perfect love interest/sparring partner for Bogie elsewhere, Gloria Grahame is superb here at conveying Laurel’s hesitance in getting involved with him, and her inevitable sadness that his angry outbursts are an insurmountable obstacle.

The background to the film is conveyed by Ray himself in a 1975 documentary included here, David Helpern’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself (unfortunately edited down for this package). Ray notes the film’s personal importance to him, in the process explaining why it works so well as a character study. Ray also discusses the fact that Grahame and he were hiding from the rest of the cast and crew that they had broken up as a married couple and were about to divorce.

The documentary is primarily about Ray working with his students at Harpur College in upstate NY on a sprawling feature called We Can’t Go Home Again (which was finally assembled a few years ago and released on DVD). There’s something intrinsically sad about the fact that Ray was unemployed in the film industry (unable to even make an indie feature) and was using what was essentially a student film to convey his latest ideas and aesthetic beliefs.

in-a-lonely-place-stillThe documentary is indeed best when the filmmaker gets Ray to talk about his classic films, all of which he says revolved around “a fucked-up hero.” Testifying to his brilliance as a filmmaker are John Houseman, Francois Truffaut and Natalie Wood.

A featurette shot for the 2002 DVD release of Place offers another Ray fan, director Curtis Hanson, speaking at length about the film while standing in the apartment complex that Ray lived in when he made the picture (the interior was duplicated on a studio set as Dix’s apartment). Hanson declares rightfully that the resolution of the murder plotline is far less important than the romance of Dix and Laurel, and the deals that make up Hollywood picture-making.

Hanson also praise the subtle lighting used by cinematographer Burnett Guffey (From Here to Eternity, Bonnie and Clyde) and maintains that Bogart’s “absence of technique” as an actor makes this his most compelling performance.

Vincent Curcio, who wrote the Gloria Grahame biography Suicide Blonde, discusses the film’s place as a high-water mark in Grahame’s career (although one would consider The Greatest Show on Earth or The Big Heat to be bigger box-office successes). He supplies some intriguing but depressing facts about Graham’s life, including the fact that her subdued facial expressions were not only a function of her wonderfully understated acting style but also a result of plastic surgery she had to correct a lisp.

He details an odd “contract” that was drawn up between Ray and Grahame, intended to force the actress/wife to let her director/husband to have the last word in case of any disagreements. It appears to have partially been a publicity stunt, but it had a harsher aspect to it, as the couple in question were on the verge of divorce.

Curcio also explore the odder side of the relationship between the two, revealing that one of the major causes of their marital strife was that Ray caught Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son by an earlier marriage. (She and the son married a few years after her divorce from Ray.) This event no doubt added much to the wonderfully conflicted emotions we see in Lonely Place.

Film scholar Dana Polan gets the final word on the film, with an incisive audio commentary where he discusses the differences between Dorothy B. Hughes’ source novel and Andrew Solt’s screenplay. Polan points out how little on-screen violence is seen, despite the fact that the film’s plot is, at base level, all about violence.

Lastly, he notes that the film’s menacing atmosphere was connected to a real-life phenomenon — the burgeoning blacklist. Character actor Art Smith (Ride the Pink Horse) who plays Dix’s agent, seems anxious and on-edge throughout the film. While that is indeed part of the character, Polan supplies the interesting info that Smith (whose character continually muses about the factors that could ruin his career) couldn’t find work in films when Elia Kazan named him in front of the HUAC a few months after Lonely. A noir event indeed — and not the glamorous kind.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”