Weekend Film Recommendation: In a Lonely Place

I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Amazingly, there are people who consider themselves Humphrey Bogart fans who have never seen the brooding, powerful 1950 film “In a Lonely Place”. In one of his greatest roles, Bogart plays bitter, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele, whose best days seem to be behind him. After being tasked with adapting a dreadful novel for the silver screen, he asks a ditzy hat check girl who loves the book to come to his apartment and tell him the plot. The next morning, the police inform Dix that the girl has been murdered and dumped by the side of the road. As the audience, we do not know what really happened. Steele is initially alibied by sultry neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, all eyebrows, curves and nimbly masked emotional turmoil), who promptly yields to his romantic advances. They fall in love and Dix is able to regain his gifts as a writer. But as Laurel sees Dix continue to be volatile and aggressive, she begins to wonder, Suspicion-style, whether Dix is a murderer after all.

This movie is cynical about fame, Hollywood, and human relationships, but tantalizes us with the possibility that new love can redeem it all. The suspense emerges less from the murder mystery than from the warring internal emotions of the characters. Director Nicholas Ray knew life’s dark places and how to get actors to go there. His marriage to the volatile Grahame ended in the most sordid way imaginable while they were making this movie, and the anguish and anger on the set comes out in the electric performances of the cast. The film is also remarkable for its opening five minutes, which are a clinic in how a great director and actor can establish a character with ruthless economy (incidentally, the bar in the opening scene was modeled after Romanoff’s, Bogart’s favorite drinking hole).

There are countless movies told from the man’s point of view in which a beautiful, younger woman falls in love with the protagonist (indeed, Bogart himself made a number of such films). The women in those movies are flat characters and we aren’t told why they go for the hero. He wants her, the story needs them to fall in love, so they do. What is truly remarkable about this movie’s structure is that it follows this formula about half-way through and then flips the perspective to the woman’s point of view.

As the film progresses, Dixon Steele becomes flatter and Laurel Gray becomes more developed. Through Grahame’s strong performance, we see Laurel’s doubts and fears about Dix, and how they compete with her love of him and her desire to save him from himself. If you follow this part of the film out emotionally, its ending, which I will not spoil, is less sad underneath than on the surface. This bi-fold structure to the storytelling is truly creative work by Ray, and it’s no wonder people like Martin Scorcese admire him so much as an cinematic innovator.

Burnett Guffey contributes some riveting camera work, adroitly using lighting and pull out and point of view shots that maximize the impact of the acting. Character actor Art Smith is an appealing foil to Dix as his long-suffering agent and friend (a role not unlike his part opposite a tough-as-nails Robert Montgomery in another terrific film also based on a Dorothy Hughes novel, Ride the Pink Horse, which I have discussed here before). The film has also inspired some wonderful spin-off products over the years, including a moody song by The Smithereens and Suzanne Vega and a short film by L.A. Confidential Director Curtis Hanson revisiting the making of this classic movie.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: In a Lonely Place”

  1. Great movie! The novel is also great in its own way, incredibly thrilling, but the plot is, to put it mildly, pretty different from that of the movie. Put it this way: it’s told from the perspective of Dix. And Dix is, as we figure out pretty quickly, very much guilty of being a serial killer.

  2. If memory serves, this was the fourth of seven films that Bogart himself produced (or at any rate his production company, Santana Films, did). The company folded fairly quickly, and those films are rather hard to find, including the cult classic “Beat the Devil”. Maybe that’s why even Bogart fans haven’t seen them in large numbers. Nevertheless, you’re quite right – “In a Lonely Place” is well worth seeking out, and its emotional punch is pretty devastating.

  3. Ditto, it is wonderful.

    I’m not sure it would end that way though, were it made today. Which is a good thing, I think.

  4. I adore this film. Interesting bit of trivia: Nicholas Ray was married to Gloria Grahame at one point and she left him for his son, Anthony. That must have made for some awkward Thanksgivings . . .

    1. Randy: That was “the most sordid way imaginable” I alluded to — Ray caught his wife in bed with his son, who was I believe only 13 or 14 years old at the time.

      1. I was wondering what “the most sordid way imaginable” was, because I can imagine some pretty sordid ways. If that isn’t the most sordid, it’s a strong candidate.

      2. She later married Ray’s son. I always thought she was such a gifted actress, whoo died much too young. Too me she’ll always be the quintessential film noir femme fatale.

        1. Well, what was the age difference to begin with? (Of course 14 is still too young. I’m just saying…)

          1. I’m just saying…

            She was raising him as her CHILD and was married to his DAD, that is the point. And he was 13 BTW, not that sleeping with your child becomes okay at 14.

            Sheesh!

  5. To spin off on a tangent, her dad’s a cappella rendition of “In a Lonely Place” has become one of the 3-year-old’s favorite bedtime songs — requested as “Broke Apart.” I’m sure this is how children become warped.

    Count me among the Bogart fans who’ve not seen it. Thanks for the tip.

  6. “As the film progresses, Dixon Steele becomes flatter and Laurel Gray becomes more developed.”

    The Picture of Laurel Gray?

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