Friday, March 27, 2020

In a Lonely Place (1950)

USA, 94 minutes
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writers: Andrew Solt, Edmund H. North, Dorothy B. Hughes
Photography: Burnett Guffey
Music: George Antheil
Editor: Viola Lawrence
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Carl Benton Reid, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Donnell, Art Smith, Martha Stewart, James Arness, Billy Gray, Robert Warwick

As much as anything, In a Lonely Place stands as an interesting example—and there aren't that many of them—of a movie adaptation that is as good as the literary property it's based on. What's more, both book and movie stand as innovations in their unique ways, but they are different ways. Director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Andrew Solt "changed the book" so self-consciously they even made the issue part of the story, which is set in Hollywood and involves a screenwriter, Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart). Compare the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, in which Steele is a mystery novelist. Part of the movie's story is that Steele has been given an adaptation to do and he's told specifically not to change the book.

But changing the book, obviously, is exactly what Ray and Solt did, and not just making Steele a screenwriter instead of a novelist, which is merely cute. In Hughes's short novel, published in 1947, Steele is not only the killer (that's no spoiler, btw, it's front and center as a story element) but in fact he is a serial killer—and Hughes's book looks forward to Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, which takes the conceit even further by making the killer and serial killer also the first-person narrator. But Hughes dreamed hers up first, and as a woman she also brings a compelling view of male rage. In the movie Steele has serious anger management issues that are eating him alive and destroying his life, but he's no killer, let alone psychopath. There is something wrong with Steele in both book and movie, but Ray and Solt took him in a direction that is more realistic, if depressing.

Another wrinkle to this movie is that costar Gloria Grahame, playing Steele's love interest Laurel Gray, had married director Ray in 1948 and they were in the process of breaking up while this movie was being shot. It feels now like all the passion and angst of their relationship is infused into the one between Steele and Gray. And that's a lot of what this movie comes down to—the passion and angst of its principals, admirably supported by a phalanx of character players, with a dash of the raw Naked City documentary style. Passion and angst, of course, were much the bread and butter of Nicholas Ray's remarkable string of pictures from the late '40s and '50s: They Live by Night, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life. Like this one, they churn with inarticulate desperation and unmet Freudian emotional need, in worlds where love is never enough, like this one we live in. In a Lonely Place might have the most juice of them all, effectively acting out a divorce in real time. Steele and Gray, and Bogart and Grahame, hit deeply familiar human notes of loss and sadness compensated by rage and self-destruction.

Not that anyone but Ray and Grahame knew about the split—reportedly they kept that quiet on the set. The character of Steele gives Bogart an opportunity to get into the interior of his midcentury American everyman, a project he'd worked on in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But In a Lonely Place has no pretensions or interest in telling allegorical stories about biblical sin. It is social realism on one level, emerging from postwar experience, but the Hughes novel also comes from a twisted place of a Jack the Ripper style of serial killer and the movie does not bother to shake a lot of that out of it. Steele may not be that killer in the movie but he's certainly toxic, a really unpleasant guy who's probably incapable of love. The story turns on Gray figuring that out. Dixon Steele is not a killer and he has his good points, but before anything else he is consumed by rage. Bogart is not always convincing at this, veering closer to drunkenly sullen—to me he's more believable (or perhaps enjoyable) as the shrewd cookie who has every angle figured. But he'd had some practice with Sierra Madre and he's pretty much game for anything and hitting all his marks here.

In many ways, Grahame is the revelation of In a Lonely Place. It's her breakthrough for a lot of good roles to come in the decade: The Bad and the Beautiful (a must-see), The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow. The Laurel Gray role almost went to Lauren Bacall, which made some sense, and to Ginger Rogers, which didn't. Now it belongs forever to Grahame, who plays it with an uncanny poise, like a numb floating robot who's been hurt once too often by life, love, and/or the Hollywood studio system. The only departure is when she is actively "in love" with Steele, which plays a lot like the Paris scenes in Casablanca (Bogey gotta Bogey, in short). For most of the picture Grahame plays from a very small still place deep inside her. The psychic wounds of these two characters are almost frighteningly compatible.

In the end—with one of the bleakest finishes for any romance in movie history short of Vertigo—the final score must be tallied as Book 1 to Movie 1, a tie. Yet, oddly, because they are so different from one another while retaining a lot of likenesses, my experience was they tended to undermine each other. The Dorothy B. Hughes novel is more like a cerebral landmark in mystery fiction, marked by taking the point of view of the killer, with effective bolts of feminist critique woven in. The Nicholas Ray movie—well, Ray once said the working title for all his movies was "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and that seems about right. In a Lonely Place, the movie, travels deep into that lonely place of the title where a midcentury man feels unknown and unknowable, unloved and unlovable—nothing. It may not have much of a feminist theme, but it knows a lot about how and why male rage is a problem. My recommendation is read the book and see the movie, in either order, but put some time between.


  1. Ever since the first time I saw this, many years ago, I thought it was "about me". I wonder if I watched it today, in all my post-meds glory, would I no longer identify with Bogart?

  2. I think I remember you saying something like that about Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver too. Bogart's not bad, but De Niro is really good at it!