Friday, June 4, 2010

The Twisted Saga of "In a Lonely Place"

It’s curious to me that “In a Lonely Place,” the 1950 Humphrey Bogart film playing at the Normal Theater Saturday and Sunday, is considered film noir. Yes, there’s a murder, but the solving of it isn’t really part of the plot. Well, it’s tied up there at the end, but we don’t see any unraveling of any great whodunit plot, and the revealing of the culprit doesn’t contribute to any cynicism about the world or who’s in charge, in classic noir fashion. There’s no big conspiracy, no crime (except for that already-mentioned murder), no seedy henchmen, no double-dealing dame, no opportunity for the hero and his shady moral code to get beat down by baddies. Not even his apartment gets tossed.

There is some cynicism and moral ambivalence, but it’s mostly involved in Humphrey Bogart’s character, a Hollywood screenwriter with a drinking problem and a bad attitude. His agent has convinced him to try to make a comeback by adapting a popular novel for the screen, but our boy Dixon Steele (okay, he definitely has a noirish name) doesn’t want to bother reading the book. Instead, he takes home a hatcheck girl who’s already read it. He gets the basic plot from her, and then basically tells her to get lost. Unfortunately for both of them, she gets murdered on her way home from his apartment.

The police are immediately suspicious of snarky, uncooperative Dix, who doesn’t seem particularly upset that a girl he dismissed so easily got strangled and tossed down a canyon moments after leaving him. But a woman who lives in a nearby apartment, played by femme fatale favorite Gloria Grahame, gives him a solid alibi, even though she doesn’t seem at all sure whether he actually did commit the murder.

That’s the whole plot, really. Dixon Steele is cranky and unpleasant, his neighbor Laurel likes him for reasons we can’t fathom (well, he is kind of hot, being Humphrey Bogart and all, and in the movie, he’s also a semi-celeb, as a famous screenwriter and Hollywood insider), she pops up out of nowhere to tell the cops he couldn’t possibly have been the murderer, and then he continues to be so unpleasant that she starts to wonder if he did it, after all.

As opposed to most film noir, where a labyrinthine plot is king, I think I would call “In a Lonely Place” a character study, completely focused on Dixon Steele. Who is he? Is he violent? Or just a jerk? What does Laurel see in him? Is he worthy or capable of love? And what will eventually happen to him if he can’t control himself?

It’s compelling enough, but lacks the intriguing minor characters and dark humor that make other film noir pieces of that period stand out. I can understand why “In a Lonely Place” is a lesser-known Bogart, even though he turns in a terrific acting performance as the haunted, hopeless Dix.

The back story may just be the most interesting thing about “In a Lonely Place,” when you consider that it was directed by Nicholas Ray, the real-life husband of Gloria Grahame, and the two were breaking up while they were filming it. It was a stormy marriage, and they split up for good after he caught her in bed with his son – his 13-year-old son – from a previous marriage. Some ten years after “In a Lonely Place,” Grahame actually married the younger Ray when he was 23 and she was 37. Given all of that, it’s hard not to read a whole lot of subtext into the central couple’s also stormy love affair, but I shall try to refrain.

But if you go to see “In a Lonely Place” on the big screen in glorious black-and-white at the Normal Theater, you can draw your own conclusions about what was going on in the Roy/Grahame household.


  1. Ew, ew, ew. I did not need to know that back story. Ew. Oh, well....

    I had seen In a Lonely Place many years ago on late night tv and loved it. Wanted to see it again in this big-screen opportunity, and loved it again, since I can suspend disbelief in acting styles of any era.

    I love the open ending, which is raw as an open wound. And I love the Hollywood-bashing, which fits beautifully in a film that belligerently insists on not following the film noir formula. The story, which I think was written by a woman, and/or the screenplay goes after "something good," as Dixon Steele says, not something that ties up pretty. Nope, not a very pretty film.

    And not a very pretty back story, thank you very much.

  2. I think the acting is very good from the main players. Some of the smaller roles are a little hokey, but mostly very good.

    And I think Bogart's searing performance (not pulling any punches) is the main attraction here, although I suppose the relationship between Bogart's and Grahame's character is also of interest, since it's unusual for movies of the period, too.

    About the back story... It's hard for me to understand how Hollywood kept casting Gloria Grahame, especially since this is around the time they were tarring and feathering Ingrid Bergman for her personal life. I suppose the affair with the teenage son could've been hushed up when her marriage to Nicholas Ray broke up, but when she married Tony Ray, it pretty much had to come out. But it was 1960 by then, the studio system had pretty much broken up, and maybe the old ways of keeping stars in line were gone, as well. Still... I find the whole thing so shocking and sordid.

    I wish my mom was around to ask if she knew! (She always seemed to always know that sort of gossip about Hollywood stars.) I know she never liked Gloria Grahame, and this would probably explain why.

    Anyway, I think the moodiness of the movie and the fact that is both more and less than regular old film noir -- a relationship picture and a character study instead of some condemnation of the sleazy modern world and its corrupt power brokers -- makes it intriguing on its own, without knowing what Gloria Grahame was up to off the screen.

    Another interesting bit for me -- Nicholas Ray directed the somewhat bizarre "Johnny Guitar," which stars Joan Crawford as a pistol-packing Western saloonkeeper and has some of the strangest characters ever assembled in one movie. There's Mercedes McCambridge as a tough rival for Joan, and she is way over the top, plus The Dancin' Kid and Johnny Guitar, the two love interests for Joan Croawford, and they may be the least macho cowboys you've ever seen. One plays guitar bur doesn't carry a gun, and the other dances. It's in their names. It's as if the gender roles and the usual Western stereotypes of manly men and women only around as sex objects or civilizers are flipped, because Joan and Mercedes are definitely running the show and making all the important decisions, while the men are pretty much the sex objects. It makes the movie kind of cool, but also an oddity for 1954. My film professor was of the opinion that it was an allegory for the McCarthy hearings and the Communist witch hunt, which gives it yet another layer of interest.

    It's all directed in an arch, almost cartoony way, with these deep, saturated colors and a kind of weird, crazy mood. So for Nicholas Ray to be responsible for both "In a Lonely Place" and "Johnny Guitar" seems quite odd to me.

    There's a bio of Nicholas Ray out there and I need to read it, clearly.

  3. There's so much of this world I just don't understand!