05 December 2005

100 films: In a Lonely Place

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starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, and Art Smith
written by: Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt, from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes
directed by: Nicholas Ray
NR, 94 min, 1950, USA

When struggling Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is given the job of adapting a second-rate novel, he invites a coat-check girl to his apartment to tell him the story so he won't have to bother reading the book. She takes a cab home, but the next morning ends up dead. Steele, with his checkered past of fistfights, is the obvious suspect and his only alibi is courtesy of his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame[1]), an aspiring actress hiding from an ex-lover. They fall in love, but the combination of the strain of the investigation and Steele's volcanic temper leaves Gray wondering if perhaps he did kill the girl after all.

If you've seen Casablanca as many times as I have, In a Lonely Place serves as a departure for Bogart[2]. No longer is he cool, collected, and unfazed by anything around him. In his cafe you got the feeling that if a bomb exploded at his feel, he wouldn't flinch. But here, something as trivial as being called a "blind knuckle-headed squirrel" ignites such a rage in him that he nearly kills the guy. But, and here's where the dichotomy of the character comes in, the next day he anonymously mailes him $300 with from the return address of "Mr. Squirrel". He isn't the purely sadistic lunatic the police chief suspects he is, nor is he hidding a pure heart of gold. To love Dixon Steele, as his agent tells it, is to take the bad with the good. They cannot exist apart from each other. It takes that limitless rage to fuel the brilliant screenwriter who writes all night and can imagine the most elaborate crime with a chilling degree of detail, and it takes the heart of gold to realize that a good love scene is not two people telling each other they love each other, but the simple act of preparing breakfast. To soften the rage would mean tempering the passion. And that would not be the man she fell in love with.

To an extent she understands this, but still she's scared of him. And for good reason. A man this violent is not an inherently good man, no matter how much of a genius he may be. Fortunately, the investigation triggers enough tension in the relationship to show her this before she gets in too deep and marries him. Regardless of how docile he seems in his all-night writing sessions, he is dangerous both to himself and the people he loves.

What sets In a Lonely Place apart from the typical film noir is that Steele is not entirely a victim of his fate or a man without recourse or any of the other noir conventions[3]. It is, at it's heart, a character study of a man with a dual nature and the woman who loves him. The plot is just the instigator in the whole affair. Without the police investigation they may not have formally met and without the investigation, nerves wouldn't have been pushed to the limits they were. The whole plot, really, is a red herring to get these two personalities in a compelling enough storyline to build a film structure around. It doesn't really matter if Steele gets fingered for the crime, as it really won't change anything important. If no one else in the film understands it, at least Steele seems to, or perhaps he just isn't concerned since he's innocent. Ironically, it's that innocence that keeps him atop the suspect list and eventually serves as his downfall.

[1] Grahame, who at times looks a little like Scarlett Johansson, was the other girl in It's a Wonderful Life. Thanks to the studio system we seem to be running into these coincidences quite a bit.

[2] I am completely willing to concede that I don't know if it actually is a departure, as I'm no expert on the life and times of Humphrey Bogart. I do know he was cool as hell and that's good enough for me.

[3] It does steal a few scenes from Out of the Past (1947). Personally, though, it didn't seem to be all that vital to the film's core.