I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
I recently watched one of Humphrey Bogart’s best films, In a Lonely Place. He plays a screenwriter accused of murder, and rather than a “wrong man,” the suspense is there because as you get to know the guy, you sort of think he did it. In fact part of the time he thinks he did it. Directed by the excellent and eclectic Nicholas Ray of Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar, Party Girl and King of Kings, this film noir favorite impressed me greatly.
Bogey’s always been a favorite of mine. He was Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe; he’s played vicious crooks, flawed men like Captain Queeg, noble men like Rick. His great range was only second to his powerful screen presence. Comedy? Sure, put some glasses on him for the bookstore scene of The Big Sleep. The wrong man? Throw bandages on his face for Dark Passage, and have him be uncomfortable with the new face he’s got. Everyone remembers the tough guys, but Humphrey Bogart played much more, with a comfortable naturalism that imposed a reality we were eager to join.
For In a Lonely Place, he plays a man with a temper. Dixon Steele (what a name) is a screenwriter, that notorious doormat of Hollywood, is not the best job for a man whose demons balance a particularly large chip on his shoulder. He takes the job of adapting a sleazy novel to screen, and instead of reading it, hires a starstruck young woman to give him the synopsis. He sends her home in a cab, and she never makes it; Dix is the prime suspect. Luckily, he has a friend on the force, and an alibi from his neighbor Laurel Gray, played by Gloria Grahame- who was Nicholas Ray’s wife for part of the film. They divorced during filming, and perhaps this assisted both of them in depicting a relationship with someone you love, but are afraid of. Laurel eventually fears for her life with Dixon, and her nuanced performance expertly portrays the difficult spot she’s in.
Noir often has femme fatales, but this refreshing turn lets Bogart play the alluring man of presence and taste, who might just be fatale to his femme. We’ve seen him play enraged before, or spiral into the madness of greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but here he’s much more subtle. According to Louise Brooks in her essay “Humphrey and Bogey,” this role came the closest to the man she knew. It’s a fascinating look not just at Humphrey Bogart, but at the life of a screen star of the golden age, and I highly recommend reading it. He’s allowed a rare complexity here, playing a man more tragic to us than Queeg, whom we’re never really allowed to admire. Steele is more than likeable when he’s got his drink-fueled temper under control; he’s a man’s man, and a ladies’ man as well. But the fire bubbling beneath the surface destroys any chance of truly getting close to him, and he’s not powerful enough for people to tolerate it.
Screenwriters Edmund North and Andrew Solt’s dialogue fairly crackles with noir sensibility, without pushing us into unbelievable territory. When the screenwriters get together to drink, they have no affectations and they save their witty repartee for their scripts. Laurel and Dix get a few duels in:
Dixon Steele: You know, when you first walked into the police station, I said to myself, “There she is – the one that’s different. She’s not coy or cute or corny. She’s a good guy – I’m glad she’s on my side. She speaks her mind and she knows what she wants.”
Laurel Gray: Thank you, sir. But let me add: I also know what I don’t want – and I don’t want to be rushed.
The screenplay is smart, and saves a few jabs for Hollywood; as she reads Dixon’s script, she likes a love scene, and he replies, “Well that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit. You sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we’re in love.” And he’s right; there’s a mild vulnerability beneath the surface; they don’t just love each other, they need each other. Dixon needs her to keep his demons at bay, but the added stress of the murder investigation is too much to keep the lid from boiling over.
The original novel was about a serial killer, but Ray was more interested in portraying a more common sort of violence, and that’s what makes the film stand years later. Shadow of a Doubt put murderers in our parlor, but even that was a morbid fantasy compared to this; the reality of an angry man and the wreckage he leaves in his wake. It’s a tragic love story built upon the framework of a murder mystery, and the last scene is one of great emotional power. Laurel and Dixon are both wounded animals, staggering away from it. They were alive a while, when they loved each other.