Monday, December 20, 2010

In a Lonely Place (1950) - Nicholas Ray

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is in as lonely a place as a man can be. A bitter and cynical Hollywood screenwriter, his only friends are his long-suffering agent and a has-been alcoholic actor. Steele has a problem with drinking himself. All but spurned by the industry and without a hit in years, he gets the chance to convert a recent romance bestseller into a movie script. When the hatcheck girl he invites to his apartment to fill him in on the plot later turns up dead, Steele becomes the prime murder suspect. He's the last known person to see the victim alive and has a history of violence. Laura Gray (Gloria Grahame), a new tenant in the same apartment building, becomes his alibi. She lies to the police, saying she saw the girl leave Steele's apartment. The two become lovers, but when the police continue to hound him he starts to crack under the pressure, acting suspiciously and becoming increasingly unstable, Gray starts to wonder if indeed he is a killer.  
Director Nicholas Ray fashioned a tense noir from Dorothy Hughes' pulp novel. The requisite atmospheric lighting and dark shadows are here, along with melodramatic music and as flawed a protagonist as ever trod the genre.  
Dixton Steele: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
Laura Gray starts to have doubts.
Bogart plays paranoia wonderfully well, exploring a dark corner of Steele's soul. Beset by inner demons, the writer risks ruining the best thing he ever had. He sees it happening and that makes his inability to control it that much more affecting. Fifty at the time of filming, Bogart looks like a man with a dark past. His lined and worried face shows confusion, self-loathing,  and helplessness.
In one scene his short, violent temper suddenly rears up as he clips another car while driving too fast. The other driver stops to argue. Steele attacks, leaving the man unconscious and bloodied. Gray intervenes to stop him from crushing the man's skull with a rock. His tension released, Steele experiences a quick mood swing like a psychopath. But Steele is a contradiction. Later, feeling remorse, he sends the man $300; and when he slaps his agent, he immediately feels contrite, like a boy who disobeyed his mother. 
Grahame was never better. In Lonely Place she gets considerably more screen time than her usual noirs. And her character is more complicated than the sultry dame type that typified her career. She often played a bad girl with a good side. Here she is all good, a sympathetic woman trying to save the man she loves. You and she wonder if he's worth it, or if he will ultimately let her. You get the sense she's been down this road before. 
Cinematographer Burnett Guffey's black and white camerawork helps sets the tone. A two-time Oscar winner (for Bonnie and Clyde and for From Here to Eternity), with another three nominations, Guffey knew how to frame actors.  He'd work with Bogart on the actor's last film six years later, The Harder They Fall.  In one scene Steele talks with a friend about the murder after dinner, grisly describing how the killer might have strangled his victim. It's a chilling moment and in mid-scene Burnett changes the shadows on Bogart's face, giving him a sinister, evil look, as if he's enjoying the effect he's having on his listeners. It's an easy jump to believe he is reliving the actual deed and an affecting technique Burnett uses again in the climactic scene.
Watching Steele unravel is unnerving. Did he commit the murder? That it doesn't really matter says a lot about Ray's ability to get the audience to focus on the relationship of the two main characters.

What Makes Lonely Place Special:
An untimely phone call.

Bogart and Grahame both give great performances. Bogart may have become a star in the 1940's but he did his best work in the 1950's. This is his most frightening role.

You get the impression that the characters played by both actors most closely mirror their own troubled lives. Bogart dealt with demons, alcoholism and three failed marriages before he met Lauren Bacall, and Graham never found true love though she tried four times, all the marriages ending in divorce.

Like most film noirs, you know it won't end happily. The final scene is emotional and gripping as Steele confronts Gray in her apartment, believing she has betrayed him. Bogart sags as a broken man, and you can't help for feel sorry for him. He came so close.   

It is simply one of the best films of its genre.
Inside Story:

At the time of filming Grahame was married to director Ray. But their marriage was on the rocks, and shortly after they divorced. Grahame would later marry her step son, Ray's son by another marriage.
The film premiered three months ahead of Sunset Boulevard, another scathing attack on the Hollywood culture.  Unlike that film, which garnered 11 Academy Award nominations, In a Lonely Place was inexplicably ignored. 

Major Awards:
  •   National Registry in 2007
Other Films by Nicholas Ray:
  •   They Live by Night 1949
  •   On Dangerous Gorund 1952
  •   Johny Guitar 1954
  •   Rebel Without a Cause
Other Noir Films by Gloria Grahame:
  •   Crossfire 1947
  •   Sudden Fear 1952
  •   The Big Heat 1953

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