This week I’ve been looking for some classic Film Noir to watch and I was lucky enough to come across the fantastic In A Lonely Place from 1950. The film stars Humphrey Bogart as a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, Dixon “Dix” Steele. He’s a sharp-witted, boozy and violent man whose former brilliance expresses itself on Bogart’s handsome but weathered face. He invites a hat check girl to his home to synopsise a novel he’s set to adapt and unimpressed by its story, he sends her away into the night. When she’s found murdered the next day police suspicion falls upon Steele but luckily his neighbour, Laurel Gray (played by Gloria Grahame) vouches for his whereabouts. This initial entanglement leads to a great romance between Dixon and Laurel. For Dixon their relationship is a personal and creative redemption as he writes the screenplay that’s to be his opus. Laurel, recently separated and now drifting in LA, finds a sense of purpose in caring for Dixon. However, disharmony creeps into their love affair as Dixon’s violent behaviour and suspicious actions lead Laurel to suspect that he may actually have committed the murder of the hat check girl.
Superficially, the plot is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) as a story which dramatizes the fear in a relationship of not really knowing who your partner is and yet being incredibly vulnerable to them. However, while Hitchcock’s thriller occurs in a sterilised laboratory for suspense—supposedly contemporary England—In a Lonely Place is full of the texture of the real world and of real relationships. You feel the sense of location from the opening titles as Dix drives through the dark streets of Los Angeles (although of course rear-projected, the evocation of place impacts the viewer). His and Laurel’s shared apartment complex is in the Spanish Colonial revival style often found in LA and is not too dissimilar from Betty’s Aunt’s home in Mulholland Drive (2001). This textured reality is the perfect setting for what feels like a very real relationship. Dixon and Laurel meet each other as cynical, shielded people, a facade which both draws them together and consequently dissolves over the course of their affair. Despite Dixon’s violence, brutality and coercion it’s his tenderness with Laurel that keeps him sympathetic. I’ve often felt that the pull of Bogart’s stardom is that each character he plays is a different variation on a single persona. It feels that in In A Lonely Place we may be seeing, as Louise Brooks has suggested, a Bogart closest to the man he really was.
There is then the influence of the director Nicholas Ray, perhaps another prototype for Dixon and husband of the lead star, Gloria Grahame. It may be conjecture to read too much biography into In A Lonely Place but it’s not insignificant that Ray and Grahame’s marriage was ending as the film was in production. Ray reportedly shaped the production in his own image by rewriting much of the screenplay and improvising a new ending with actors which he felt was truer to real life. Ray was one of the first directors subjected to Cahiers Du Cinema’s canonisation as auteur and while I’m in no position to describe him as the principal artist of the film there is certainly tension between the reality of the relationship and the artifice of the classical Hollywood paradigm, a tension which Andrew Sarris noted as indictive of the auteur. As a film it feels accomplished in how it succeeds within in the strict parameters of the classical Hollywood style. Its detail and texture and reality overcome all the artifice and cliché that could weigh down a film of this period.
The film is the perfect blend of crime, suspense and destructive love which characterises all great noir but what feels most significant to me is its sense of reality. In A Lonely Place is a film to sell you on old movies. Rather than creaky relics of history the characters are real and alive, their situations relatable to modern viewers. How the film succeeds within the limitations of the classic Hollywood style makes it worth a watch, to say nothing of the career best performances of Bogart and Grahame, the lyrical writing and the ingeniously directed mise-en-scene.