If there’s one thing Hollywood has always loved making movies about it’s Hollywood itself. With the possible exception of the police detective, no other professions are so well represented on the silver screen as the struggling actor (nearly always female) and the embittered hack (definitely always male) and there is no better example of the latter than Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE.
The plot ostensibly revolves around a murder, but thirty minutes in the murder barely seems to matter. The improbably-named Humphrey Bogart plays the improbably-named Dix Steele: a cynical screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit in years. He brings home a hat-check girl to read the novel he’s supposed to be adapting but can’t be bothered to read himself. After leaving his apartment in the dead of night she is brutally murdered and Steele instantly becomes the prime suspect: his only lifeline is his neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), an aspiring actress who witnessed the girl leaving. Brought together as a result of the police investigation, Dix and Laurel begin a relationship only for it to unravel as Steele’s paranoia and violent temperament eat away at them. It’s this doomed romance, perhaps the most tragic in all film noir, that forms the heart of the film.
Bogart gives what has been described as a masterful “anti-performance”, a term often used to describe his poker-faced contemporary Robert Mitchum, meaning there is an absence of noticeable technique and conspicuous “acting”. Both the character and the actor are stripped down to the bones: in certain scenes Bogart is harshly lit and looks gaunt, wrinkled and ugly. Dixon Steele is a character full of self-loathing and bourbon. In Louise Brooks’ excellent essay ‘Humphrey & Bogey’ she writes:
“In his last films, it was not the theatre Humphrey who overcame Bogey, but the real man, Humphrey Bogart… he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey’s own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character’s, the screenwriter’s, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.”
Steele’s agent is trying to get him back on track by imploring him to toe the studio line; characters being pressured to conform is one recurring theme in many of Ray’s films – James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Joan Crawford in JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) – being angry behind the wheel of a car is another. Steele is constantly being told to “just write the book, Dix”: ironic because the film’s source novel by Dorothy B. Hughes was torn to pieces and is an almost entirely different story. The film is full of these self-referential tricks. Steele keeps repeating to himself the line “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me”. He says he wants to put it in a film sometime but can’t figure out where: of course it’s the film we’re watching and it’s repeated by Gloria Grahame as the final line. Within the film the murder victim acts out a scene where she is dying, and the police detective acts out a scene where he is the killer. Scenes within scenes.
In late October 1947 ten individuals who had been called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities refused to answer the question put to them, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”. It is difficult to watch any American film from this period without viewing it through the lens of McCarthyism: Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall were in the front-line of the protest against government targeting of their industry, so much so that in 1948 Bogart felt forced to write a magazine article denying that he was a Communist sympathiser. Hollywood films about Hollywood seem to get a lot darker from this point onwards even if they aren’t explicitly about blacklisting: 1950 is also notable for Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD which opens with the lead character, a screenwriter, floating dead in a swimming pool. IT’S A GREAT FEELING (1949) this isn’t. Most films of the period that are critical of the witch-hunt use veiled analogies. INHERIT THE WIND (1960) compares HUAC’s attack on intellectual freedoms to the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, whilst the hero of HIGH NOON (1952) is systematically deserted by the townspeople he once called friends. IN A LONELY PLACE seems to me a bolder statement than either of these, especially in light of its lead actor’s real life involvement and its release so soon after the original trials. Dixon Steele’s life unravels because he is defiant in the face of questioning and refuses to justify himself to those he thinks should know him better.
Captain Lochner: You’re told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What’s your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No – just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr Steele.
Dixon Steele: Well, I grant you, the jokes could’ve been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you – that is, unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion.
He’s also scathing towards the “popcorn salesmen” around him who are trying to make him conform to accepted Hollywood mores.
The original ending as scripted had Steele strangle Laurel to death in a fit of jealousy and rage as she tries to leave him; in the final shot of this version he sits down at his desk and completes his screenplay. Apparently this ending was shot but no footage survives. As another clever meta-reference it sounds quite neat but nothing can beat the raw power of the ending as released: with Laurel at last totally convinced of Steele’s innocence, but convinced they can never be together at the same time.