Columbia Pictures Corporation, 93m 36s
"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
The year 1950 saw the release of SUNSET BOULEVARD, arguably the finest film noir to focus on a has-been, and NIGHT AND THE CITY, perhaps the best to zero-in on a never-was. Of at least equal importance was director Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE, in which Humphrey Bogart's Dixon Steele embodies the has-been from a professional standpoint and the never-was in terms of his private life. Even in the downbeat film noir mix, IN A LONELY PLACE occupies special status when it comes to "feel bad" movies. It is one of the most tragic of all doomed love stories.
By the age of 50, a lot of living had been etched into the face of Humphrey DeForest Bogart. After serving in the U.S. Navy, the WWI veteran worked on Broadway shows in the 1920s and 1930s. He found some success on the screen with his role in THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), which resulted in a contract with Warner Bros. He would specialize in supporting roles as gangsters from 1936 to 1940, but ascended to tier-one status in 1941 with HIGH SIERRA and THE MALTESE FALCON. The following year, he would be nominated for an Oscar for his iconic performance in CASABLANCA, ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 finest American films of all time that was published in 1998. Bogart married Lauren Bacall in 1945, a woman 25 years younger than he was. The marriage was famously happy, though not without issues. One point of contention was Bogart's addiction to alcohol; the heavy smoker and drinker was the original ringleader of the Hollywood Rat Pack. In the fall of 1947, the liberal Democrat Bogart and his wife helped form the action group Committee for the First Amendment in protest of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. The oft-cited quote from IN A LONELY PLACE at the beginning of this review takes on added significance with historical perspective: Bogart was only 57 when he died, and his widow would live another 57 years after his death.
It comes without surprise, given the above footnotes, that numerous Bogart biographers have noted strong similarities between Bogart and Steele. That Bogart's own Santana Pictures Corporation produced IN A LONELY PLACE speaks to the actor’s personal connection to the character he portrayed. A Hollywood screenwriter by trade, Dixon Steele is a man with proven talent but a notoriously quick temper. He has fallen on hard times; his last project did not exactly pack 'em through the turnstiles. Though it has been a while since his last box office hit, his affable agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith, blacklisted after director Elia Kazan named him) has an adaptation project in mind for Steele, who openly detests the debasement of film artistry into popcorn-selling entertainment. Thinking he is being commissioned to continue that lamentable trend, Steele does not approach the adaptation prospect with alacrity. So sure is Steele the book “Althea Bruce” is trash he recruits pleasant but dimwitted checkroom attendant Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) to relate her interpretation of the novel suggested by the agent Lippman.
Steele is in the wrong place (his own apartment!) at the wrong time when various warning signals go off (the mature man seen escorting a much younger woman, his failure to ensure she gets home without issue, her repeated cries for "help" while acting out the novel). As the fatalistic noir world would have it, Atkinson is murdered, found having been discarded from a moving vehicle. Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) believes he has a viable suspect in Steele, who is unconcerned with disentangling himself from the police department's murder investigation. Steele's stoic calm is beyond belief ("...that is unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion."). Lochner later asserts, "He's hiding something, and I doubt if it's the proverbial heart of gold." Steele's new neighbor and B-movie actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, director Ray's wife at the time of filming) becomes his alibi, while openly professing her fondness for the rugged countenance of Steele.
Though the viewer is left without sufficient cause to be as suspicious of Steele as Lochner, IN A LONELY PLACE is consistent in its suggestion that Steele easily could have killed Atkinson during any number of his outbursts. Like so many flawed noir protagonists, his past transgressions have a way of clinging to his present life. At first those who irritate Steele seem rather deserving of his preferred form of conflict resolution (his fists, your face). At the outset, there is an angry husband (Charles Cane) who gutlessly flees the scene when Steele shows he is unimpressed with the man's tough talk, and soon afterward Steele defends perpetually inebriated "thespian" Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick) after an arrogant filmmaker (Lewis Howard) insults the hopelessly washed-up actor. But as the narrative progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to excuse Steele's endless hostilities. In one of his most startling displays of uncontrolled emotion, Steele grabs a rock and is about to cave in the head of a young man (Don Hamin) whose only offense was to express anger that Steele's reckless driving ruined a fresh paintjob. Gray's plea is all that stops Steele from killing. He sometimes attempts to atone for his bad behavior, but his paranoid sensibility persistently betrays his more admirable qualities. In a cringe-worthy moment, Steele strikes the milquetoast Lippman, as harmless a person as one could meet. Tension mounts as Gray understandably becomes increasingly concerned about Steele's potential to explode without thinking. As erratic a personality as Steele is at the film's exposition, he is a far lesser man at the conclusion, when it becomes evident there is a price for treating everyone with disdain. In THE MALTESE FALCON, Bogart's Samuel Spade cannot help but laugh to himself a little when he notices his hand shaking after an episode of merely acting volatile. In the final act of IN A LONELY PLACE, his Steele character's shaking hand reflects an inability to maintain his composure. Without question, the neurotic Steele character anticipates Bogart's disturbed Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, whose headaches only get worse in THE CAINE MUTINY (1954).
Among the most familiar of noir tropes that energize IN A LONELY PLACE is the soldier's struggle to adapt to a post-WWII society. Detective Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) remembers Steele as his commanding officer during the war, a time when "…he was a good officer and his men liked him.” Tellingly, the easily riled Steele has not had a commercial hit since before WWII. In one sense a study of a veteran's alienation, in another the film serves as an indictment of a parasitic Hollywood studio system that requires dangerous personalities like Steele to function. The writer's capacity to create is the film title's "lonely place," a mental dungeon confined deep within Hollywood, which makes this film perhaps the darkest of all things film noir. For Steele, the development of fiction for public consumption comes at the expense of a productive personal life. The mutual exclusivity that keeps professional and private life separate is perceptible when Steele declares his love to Gray in a moment that sounds more scripted than heartfelt. Fictitious violence and actual violence converge when Steele gleefully encourages his old Army buddy Nicolai to choke his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) in a reenactment of murder. Very quickly, fiction creeps into reality and causes intense discomfort, while the lighting of Bogart accents the severity of his disturbed state. The implication is any scenarist skilled in the art of depicting murder would have to have devoted plenty of serious thought to the subject. “I’ve killed dozens of people, in pictures,” says Steele. Detective Nicolai confesses to learning more about crime investigation from Steele than from conventional police procedure. Steele even advises the authorities to "…look for a man like me…" and his instincts about Henry Kesler (Jack Reynolds) are legit. Indeed a similar personality to Steele, Kesler is defeated by his own jealous rage.
Female archetypes inform the storyline, but IN A LONELY PLACE does not employ a femme fatale figure. In an interesting case of unintended intertextuality, at the police station Gray is informed there is no more coffee, an announcement that Grahame's character from THE BIG HEAT (1953) surely would have welcomed. Gray is introduced as a momentary distraction between Steele and Atkinson, but the murder of Atkinson perversely leads to a romantic relationship between Steele and Gray that only seems appropriate within the context of the film noir. When it is conveyed Gray can see into Steele's apartment but he cannot see into hers, it would appear an inference could be made that Gray is a woman of mystery, possibly dangerous, but in fact Steele is the enigma. Is it the romance with Gray that has reignited his screenwriting proficiency, or was it the death of Atkinson? It seems both women play necessary roles. In true film noir form, Steele, Gray and Atkinson all become worse off for having met. Prior to encounters with those women, Steele once was involved in a domestic abuse case that left past lover Frances Randolph (Alix Talton) with a broken nose. Only the married woman Sylvia Nicolai senses the danger of Steele quickly.
With each viewing of IN A LONELY PLACE, I become more convinced this is one of Bogart's best performances. Like Captain Lochner, I initially had a hard time getting past the cynical side of Steele, hardly the most likable of men portrayed by Bogart. But today I connect more with the sadness of Steele, his vulnerability, his isolation and his bitter resentment of a studio system that works best with escapist entertainment meant to appeal to everyone. Essentially the same theme that pits art against entertainment accents the same year's NIGHT AND THE CITY, but the difference is the featured protagonist of that film only pretends to care about art insofar as he might profit from it. Steele undyingly believes in the importance of substance over style. Never does IN A LONELY PLACE venture onto the grounds of a studio, as if to emphasize Steele's distance from everything a studio represents. His principles ultimately may put an end to his quasi blacklisting, but only at the cost of any foreseeable future with Gray, or anybody else for that matter. Without realizing how correct he is, Lippman nails it when he says, "If Dix has success he doesn't need anything else." No doubt Steele would have empathized with SUNSET BOULEVARD's Norma Desmond.
Director Ray was the ideal attachment to Bogart's turn as Steele. After working with Ray on KNOCK ON ANY DOOR (1949), Bogart called upon him to helm IN A LONELY PLACE. Ironically, Ray's marriage to Grahame was ending at the time IN A LONELY PLACE was being filmed. One wonders how much of the film's dark tone can be attributed to the fact Ray was directing his soon-to-be ex. The following year, Ray would direct ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), again with a volatile personality front and center, this time Robert Ryan as Jim Wilson. Future Ray protagonists would struggle mightily to keep it together, i.e. Jim Stark (James Dean) in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Ed Avery (James Mason) in BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956).
Though not a box office smash during its original theatrical run, IN A LONELY PLACE always has been well regarded by film critics. This new 2K digital restoration from The Criterion Collection was generated from a new 35mm fine grain master positive and pleases the eye. Framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.33:1, the Blu-ray version is an obvious must-buy for any self-respecting noir aficionado. The audio commentary track features film scholar Dana Polan, professor of cinema studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and author of IN A LONELY PLACE (BFI Film Classics, 1993). Recorded in 2015 for The Criterion Collection, Polan eschews the typical biographical information in favor of incredibly in-depth analysis. He builds a steady case for the film as an exercise in surveillance, especially in terms of the Steele character being monitored. People watch him, investigate him, try to get the upper hand. Polan also discusses the film as a woman's picture, with the Gray character's fears and anxieties of primary importance.
|Criterion Collection Blu-ray|
Supplemental material continues with I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF: A PORTRAIT OF NICHOLAS RAY (1975), a condensed version (40m 33s) of the documentary feature devoted to the filmmaker at work on WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN (1973). Named after the working title of every Ray film, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF reviews Ray's emergence in the NY theater arena, where he was heavily influenced by Elia Kazan and John Houseman. Discouraged by studio meddling and in poor health, Ray was mostly absent from the movie world from the mid 1960s through the early 1970s. The director's passion for his art is apparent during a heated discussion between Ray and actress Leslie Levinson. Ray frequently spoke with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, as Bogart often did. The director confirms he had filmed an alternate ending to IN A LONELY PLACE in which Steele finishes his screenplay in the same breath as his murder of Gray, but the conclusion of the film that printed was improvised.
Also unique to this Criterion edition is an interview (16m 40s) with Gloria Grahame Hallward biographer Vincent Curcio, author of SUICIDE BLONDE: THE LIFE OF GLORIA GRAHAME (1989). It was Grahame's breakthrough performance in IN A LONELY PLACE that led to roles in other major productions, i.e. SUDDEN FEAR (1952), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), THE BIG HEAT. Curcio contends Grahame handled the publicity element of her career well, despite her rocky marriages. While married to Nicholas Ray, Grahame was forced to foot the bill for her husband's addiction to gambling, alcohol and drugs. Whatever the couple had together disintegrated when Grahame began an affair with Ray's son Anthony, who was just 13 at the time! Amazingly, that news item was kept from the public. Like Bogart, sadly Grahame would reach only 57 years or age.
Ported from the DVD released through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2003 is the excellent featurette "IN A LONELY PLACE: Revisited" (20m 23s) with filmmaker Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), who reveals some of the profound differences between the source material and film as engineered by screenwriter Andrew Solt and Ray, who in essence do the same thing to the original novel by Dorothy B. Hughes that Steele does with his source material: create a work of art that stands on its own, with only a tangential connection to the original material, which in the Hughes novel involved a psychosexual killer. In light of the powerful film that was crafted, IN A LONELY PLACE is one of many great films that emerged despite, or perhaps because of, the stifling production code that self-policed Hollywood content.
In her booklet essay, critic Imogen Sara Smith makes a very good point that director of photography Burnett Guffey (THE RECKLESS MOMENT , NIGHTFALL ) favors shades of gray over the sort of high contrast compositions often associated with film noir. Indeed the film devotes a lot of time to gray areas, despite an outcome that is purely black and white.
Also of interest is a radio adaptation (59m 56s) of the original Dorothy B. Hughes novel that originally aired March 6th, 1948 as episode #287 of the CBS radio series SUSPENSE. The program features the voice of Robert Montgomery (RIDE THE PINK HORSE ) and differs radically from the famous film that would follow. Also selectable is a theatrical trailer (2m 27s).