In A Lonely Place: The Criterion Collection Review
All is not what it seems with In A Lonely Place. What appears to be a rather straightforward Noir-ish thriller is in fact a sophisticated melodrama with a significant emotional heft. Nicholas Ray directs Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest performances as Dixon Steele.
What a name! Already the film is weaving its spell while raising suspicions; a name like that belongs with Mike Hammer or Sam Spade. Bogart is always Bogart and there is no change here, but instead of a world-weary smart-ass detective, Steele is a world-weary smart-ass Hollywood screenwriter. Coming right out of the studio system and produced by Bogart’s own company, does In A Lonely Place have a nihilistic or sycophantic bent? Nicholas Ray has such a confident and consummate grasp of genre that he can present a story full of smoke and mirrors (not literally), deflate expectations and yet give us a film with substantial heart and thick with painful irony.
The plot is the romantic glamour that pulls you in, but it isn’t what the film is about: Steele is tasked with adapting a book, crosses paths with a hat-check girl who has already read it and sees an easy opportunity. Rather than read it himself he invites her back to his place to tell him the story, which she does. Later that night she has been murdered and Steele is the prime suspect. Steele’s neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), saw him with the girl and so is also questioned by police. This chance meeting leads them into a romance and Steele is reinvigorated to write, even while he can’t shake that prime suspect tag.
So far, so Noir. “Laurel Gray”? With a name like that, could she be anything other than a Femme Fatale? In a film that embraces expectations while defying them, it isn't so black and white. What transpires is a story about a relationship, one built on a romantic thriller.
Bogart is superb as Steele. Unpredictable and volatile, he can’t resist playing up to the accusation of murder and the interviews with detectives (including his ex-army buddy Frank Lovejoy) are merely an opportunity for verbal sparring; the laconic rhythmic dialogue is reliably funny and sharp, timed to perfection throughout. It's a joy to listen to Bogart's delivery and the rest of the case struggle to match him. Steele’s experience of writing murder plots leaves him emotionally detached from the crime, even to the extent of demonstrating how he thought it was done. The scene where he really gets into describing the crime during a dinner party is incredible and sinister. Bogart paints him as so self-destructive he’s more than happy to play up to the audience’s suspicions too. Yet we retain sympathy.
As the plot unfolds, the layers of the thriller peel away, revealing the melodramatic heart. Happy in his warm and sincere relationship with Gray, Steele starts to tire of being dogged by blame and the real him emerges. A frustrated man, prone to violence, now protesting his innocence just adds to the irony. The romance will suffer. Gloria Grahame is wonderful in the role. In similar fashion to Bogart, she begins the film playing up to thriller tropes and settles into something more grounded and genuinely affecting.
In Genre terms, Melodrama appears to be a dirty word these days. Even at its peak it was derided as pictures for women. And Nicholas Ray’s work with James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause, East of Eden) could be considered the best of a genre that could otherwise be unfairly dismissed retrospectively. In A Lonely Place is another example of how well Ray understood how to use emotion and romance to find something real. In some early moments there is even a sense that Ray is poking fun at some genre conventions, perhaps a touch of insanity.
And it’s fascinating from Bogart’s perspective. Is it an indictment of earlier roles? This really is one of his very best roles despite being so tough to like. A Hollywood insider with a propensity for violence and an air of self-loathing makes you wonder how much of himself he was trying to put to rest. Especially considering even the plot gets frustrated by its own image. Steele's role in Hollywood accentuates the false exterior that's poisoning his relationship with Gray.
Ostensibly still Noir, but the genre rarely breaks your heart like In A Lonely Place will. When the thriller asks whodunnit, the melodrama responds; It doesn’t matter. It’s still going to hurt.
In keeping with the film's tone of not being pure Noir, there is no call for deep contrasting shadows or Dutch angle, but still, Burnett Guffey's photography makes for a fine film and Criterion's 4:3 transfer is sharp and consistent throughout. It has a suitably muted tone for the harsh, tired dryness of L.A. (like a mono Mulholland Drive, a film that may have found some inspiration here for David Lynch). Some moments stand out, for instance Bogart's wild staring eyes as he describes how he would have murdered the girl. Or a road rage attack at night.
I'm a Stranger here myself: 1975 documentary on Nicholas Ray (40m)
Raw uncompromising portrait of a man that perhaps has fallen by the wayside. Presentation is a little avant garde, almost giving the impression he was the Peckinpah of drama. Probably fair, really.
Gloria Grahame: interview (17m)
In A Lonely Place revisited (20m)
Curtis Hanson (director of L.A. Confidential) visits Rays’ house, the model for the set, and speaks of his fondness for the film. Speaks of Bogart's lack of acting, commenting that the film was produced by Bogart, yet it is an ugly, honest performance.
Suspense episode 287 (60m)
You can always rely on Criterion to find the alternative versions. This is a radio play from 1948.
Normally a trailer is a trailer, but does this one suggest an alternative to the extraordinary ending?
Commentary by Dana Polan
An easy, insightful listen. He describes it as a film of traps, and one that questions the paranoia of everyday life. And it has its own chapter list, which is a nice touch!