In a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, usually turns up high in the list of classic noirs. This probably has more to do with its adoption by the French New Wave than it does with true noir credentials, and the fact that it is one of Hollywood’s periodic flashes of its own underbelly. But Bogart is slick, wise-ass and selfish and so is the movie, which has for a hero a bitter and depressed cynic, one incapable of heroism. It's a comment on the 1950s, when screenwriters were accused of communism and their friends often turned against them, and Humphry Bogart plays it dark, often amoral, insisting that a girl find her own cab, refusing to show empathy for a murdered woman, remorseless when shown photos of a crime scene and sexually aroused when given the chance to re-enact a violent murder.
Where is the ‘lonely place’ of the move In A Lonely Place? You might think that Humphrey Bogart’s predicament is a ‘lonely place’ — being suspected of a crime that he may or may not have committed — but he doesn’t seem to care. Even his friend the cop Frank Lovejoy doesn’t think he’s guilty, and Bogart’s character seems so blasé about things anyway, we don’t sense any paranoia or doubt that would make his situation seem a lonely one.
Maybe the lonely place of the title is the appartment block in which Gloria Graham and Humphrey Bogart live — they’re both problematic singles with issues, and live alone with their various mania. On top of that Gloria Graham has no friends, and we learn virtually nothing about her. Bogart’s writer character has at least got his industry colleagues, but as for Gloria Graham — she is isolation personified.
Maybe the lonely place of the title is the world of the Hollywood writer. It’s not the glamorous side of the business, and as Bogart demonstrates, the production of scripts is a blood-sweating and Herculean task — hard to believe when films are often so trite and low on content. When Bogart and Gloria Graham get togethr, they do so to work on his script, giving meaning to their relationship, she his faithful secretary while he — inspired by feelings of love which have been absent from his life — stays up all night, not even noticing the sunrise, because he is so focussed on his art.
For meta-narrative reasons I am favouring this last option. The novel of In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947) could hardly be more different from the film, and other than the murder, the main action of the film concerns the adaptation of a novel for the screen which proves as problematic to Bogart as it does to Nicholas Cage in Adaptation (2002). Bogart doesn’t even read the novel he is employed to adapt, and although the finished product turns out all right, it does not — as in the case of In A Lonely Place itself — resemble the original. The 1947 novel of In A Lonely Place has real noir credentials however — set in post WW2 Los Angeles, the character of Dix Steele is a lonely ex-airman who wanders the streets at night and the murderer (when revealed) is a woman-hating rapist. Suffice it to say, the set-up, investigation and outcome of the movie version are completely different.
Finally, murder is a lonely place. When Bogart is demonstrating to his cop friend and her wife, exactly how he feels the murder happened, he says that the killer waits until he is in a lonely place with his victim — and it is there the execution is carried out. McCarthyism isn’t explicit in In a Lonely Place, but it appears that everyone in the film is sullied somehow — either wrong about something or somebody, or just dead. On the whole, the atmosphere of the film is pretty malevolent and lonely, and we watch in the first scene as Bogart as the screenwriter Dix Steele is taken down a peg or two by one of his colleagues who remind him that to work in Hollywood is to destroy your artistic ambition in favour of popcorn sales.
For director Nicholas Ray then surely, In a Lonely Place is a confessional film about self-loathing in Hollywood. Nicholas Ray made a whole lot of interesting films, notably Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as well as the noir They Live by Night (1948). What strikes you most of all about Ray’s films, other than expressionistic lighting used to good effect in his noirs such as On Dangerous Ground, Born to Be Bad and A Woman's Secret — is his empathy with social misfits, and when combined with a glimpse of Hollywood, it’s all of this, not the story that gives In a Lonely Place its edge. Jean-Luc Godard was a great admirer of Ray and famously said in his review of Bitter Victory: "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."
This kind of film, with a did s/he or didn’t s/he murder story, has remained popular, but later efforts such as Jagged Edge (1985) make a much better job of weaving mystery and doubt concerning the crime. As noted, Bogart doesn’t seem to care in the slightest about the rap, and in fact barely even protests his innocence. Then there’s the fact that there are no other suspects, or at least the one suspect there is — the victim’s boyfriend — is never seen. Instead of this the script relies on the fact that Bogart’s writer character Dix is reported to be violent, and a general bad seed. This is fair enough, and there is a convincing road rage scene in which he takes a handy rock to another motorist’s head.
But we buy that Bogart is a cynical and that he is jealous and occasionaly violent, even though the first thing we see him doing is standing up for a failing actor colleague who has succumbed to drink. In fact the first scene of the film, set in a Hollywood bar in which we meet all the principals except Gloria Graham, and see the victim at work — a silly hatcheck girl played with froth and frills.
Like so many, Nicholas Ray found Hollywood itself to be a lonely place — and for many reasons, inclduing his fondness for drink and drugs, he worked less in the 1960s. In A Lonely Place has continued to have influence however, despite it not being a typical noir, even for the era. The psychological and paranoid elements of the story are muted, and despite Gloria Grahame offering a striking performance, she is not a true noir lead, being pretty subservient to Bogart — within minutes of their relationship starting she’s bringing him breakfast and cleaning his appartment, as well as acting as his secretary — none of which is cool.
It’s a bad world for women though, and if you’re not there as a victim, you’re some other kind of bait — generally for the scriptwriters. The script is of course very tight, and packed fulla wisecracks, which if anything else will keep you going until the final curtain.
Try some of these for hard-boiled wise-cracking fun:
Dixon Steele: Go ahead and get some sleep and we'll have dinner together tonight.
Laurel Gray: We'll have dinner tonight. But not together.
Or one of my favourites: ‘It was his story against mine, but of course, I told my story better.‘
Then of course there is just the tough stuff:
Dixon Steele: [to man hosing down the sidewalk in front of the florist shop] Say, do me a favor, will you, pal?
Flower Shop Employee: Yes, sir.
Dixon Steele: I want to send two dozen white roses to a girl.
Flower Shop Employee: Yes, sir. Do you want to write a card?
Dixon Steele: No, there's no card. Her name's Mildred Atkinson.
Flower Shop Employee: Mildred Atkinson. Yes, sir. What's her address?
Dixon Steele: I don't know. Look it up in the papers. She was murdered last night.
Flower Shop Employee: Yes, sir.
The trailer for In a Lonely Place is pretty exciting stuff; you would definitely want to check it out after seeing this triumphant two minutes of shock, desperation and titillation, which promises among other things 'SUSPICION 'ROUND THE CLOCK!' The trailer also features a lingering look at singer Hadda Brooks, who performs the movie's obligatory musical number.