In a Lonely Place

Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Graham
Screenplay by Andrew Solt
Directed by Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Rayís In a Lonely Place, released by Columbia in 1950, was long regarded as one of star Humphrey Bogartís lesser films, as were most of the Columbia released Santana productions he made both during and after his lengthy and legendary tenure at Warner Bros. It was the cult status bestowed upon director Ray in the following decades that led to a reevaluation of this moody, ambiguous character study and noir thriller. Now, Bogartís portrayal of short-tempered, possibly homicidal screenwriter Dixon Steele is regarded as one of his best roles, one giving play to most of the qualities that made Bogart the archetypal figure he remains today. Thereís the trace of paranoia in those expressive eyes that were equally capable of conveying a profound world weary sadness, an emotion he draws upon in his Steele characterization. Then thereís the air of intellectualism that always kept him from being a mere tough guy even when playing cheap hoods with names like Turkey Morgan and Rocks Valentine as he did before stardom hit with the triple knockout of High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca. And thereís that ever present threat of a violent streak. Bogart explodes from time to time, but more often than not he implodes.

As Dixon Steele, Bogart is given an opportunity to comment on the industry that made him. He grouses about the quality of the projects heís offered and labels one director a "popcorn pusher." It is one of those popcorn projects that leads Steele deeper into the lonely place of the title. Rather than read the lightweight best-seller heís been asked to adapt, Steele asks a secretary who has already read and liked it ("Itís what I call an epic") to come to his home and fill him in on the novelís high points. When sheís found murdered the next morning, Steele, who seems as blasť and cynical when interrogated by the police as he is when approaching his latest assignment, is the suspect. Not only does he appear to be the last person to have seen the girl alive, but Steele has a history of violence, having broken one girlfriendís nose and been involved in more than a few brawls, in barrooms and on movie sets. Thankfully, he has an alibi in the form of shapely Laurel Grey (Gloria Graham), a neighbor who, because she "likes his face," lies when telling police that she saw the girl depart alone.

A romance blossoms but Steele is erratic, frequently so preoccupied with his work that heís unaware of her presence, and at other times displaying a fierce temper that makes her suspect that he may very well be the murderer that the police think he is. Will she be his next victim? In one of his explosions of anger, Steele beats a young motorist, almost killing him, after an accident in which he was to blame. Even Steeleís agent cannot escape his volatile temper. When the agent takes one of his clientís scripts without Steeleís consent, the writer knocks the agentís glasses off and further alienates his admirers, pushing him farther into the lonely place he already inhabits.

But Steele is also capable of tenderness, although even his loyalties can lead him to violence. Early in the film, Steele punches out a producer who dares to mock his best friend, a once fine actor now lost to alcoholism. Sold by the studio as a murder mystery, In a Lonely Place is actually something else. Itís a portrait of an artist, a brilliant man whose creativity, especially when stifled, puts him at odds with both the assembly line atmosphere of the Hollywood in which he plies his trade, and with society at large. It takes Hollywood to task as effectively, if not as outrageously, as Billy Wilderís Sunset Boulevard. It is Bogartís best film since Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and possibly his best film of the 50ís (it is certainly superior in all respects to the much overrated The African Queen). It also appears to be one of his most personal films. As Steele, Bogart is almost playing himself, an artist longing for a project that challenges his talents, and frustrated that his gifts are too often treated as a commodity, something exploited by those who lack his integrity to make a fast, convenient buck. This frustration feeds his violent, self-destructive tendencies. Even such minor touches, such as Steeleís fondness for ham and eggs, apparently reflect Bogartís own preferences.

Though many of Bogartís films from the 1950s, such as the wretched Tokyo Joe and his insipid teaming with June Allyson in Battle Circus, misused his considerable talents, In a Lonely Place takes full advantage of them. Nicholas Rayís fine direction, Andrew Soltís unpredictable screenplay, and Bogartís brilliant performance make In a Lonely Place worthy of its reevaluation and now esteemed place in the Bogart canon.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.

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