Humphrey Bogart was the First Gentleman of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As much of a superstar as a victim to the industry, the Casablanca actor had a lifelong battle with alcohol, smokes and celebrity. Far from the glitz and glamour, his performance in In a Lonely Place is not only the best of his career, but also the one most painfully close to the fragile man behind that famous hard-boiled exterior.
From Rebel Without a Cause‘s Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place is an intelligent, if a little perplexing picture. Genre-hopping, he adopts the aesthetics and resilient sleuth tropes of film noir with a thwarted love story, finished with a hint of satirical indictment on the hollywood industry.
Much like the Joe Gillis character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. of the same year, Bogie is a washed-up screenwriter by the name of Dixon “Dix” Steele. Falling fast into alcohol-fuelled obscurity, his tired agent Mel (Art Smith) manages to snap up a deal to adapt a trashy bestselling novel. An odious task, Dix has hat-check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) read the book and tell him the story in her own words during a midnight aperitif at his bachelor pad. A few hours later, Mildred is found dead by the roadside and Dix is a prime suspect; his record of belligerence when angry, macabre sense of humour and blasé outlook on the crime don’t work in his favour. Fortunately enough, lovely neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) gives him an alibi that mutes the investigation for a while. An angel arriving in his darkest of hours, the pair’s unlikely kinship blossoms into a love that is both passionate and destructive.
Adapted from the novel of Dorothy B. Hughes (which is equally marvellous, by the way), Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North not only know how to write fantastic drama, but they’re unsurprisingly great at creating a complex screenwriter character. Initially, we expect that Dix is an innocent man, but the writing duo manage to get the audience–and the doubtful Laurel–to question the veracity of this emotionally cold and uncaring figure.
Although it could appear as a rather vapid and forgettable film title in the first instinct, it soon becomes apparent that existential isolation and lack of purpose is a key component to the film’s story and production background. Firstly, there’s Dix – a man on the brink of giving up with life until he finds true love. This raw emotion that he has only ever written of overwhelms him and –afraid of that lonely place–Dix desperately tries to control Laurel.
But Laurel is no subordinated housewife, and neither is the magnificently cast Gloria Grahame who manages to toy with melodramatic moments but never oversteps the mark. Perhaps her screen restraint is a product of her fiery and problematic real life relationship with director Nicholas Ray, who reportedly ended up sleeping in the studio dressing room’s after their disclosed separation.
Lastly, we’re back to the start – our beloved Bogie. Sick of being a profitable puppet in the Hollywood system, In a Lonely Place was financed by his own studio, Santana Productions. With more creative freedom comes greater performances, and Bogie is magnetic as Dix, a performance that is better than the film itself. Moving from the cool and charismatic comedian to the threatening and unpredictable maniac, he never loses a trace of that natural screen presence. A true icon, it must feel awful lonely being in a class of your own.