In a Lonely Place

4 stars
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"I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me."

That passage, famously uttered by Humphrey Bogart in the final act of In a Lonely Place, goes to the heart of the complicated alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter he plays in one of his very best performances. He's Dixon "Dick" Steele, a venerable talent who has seen better days. In the film's opening scene, set at a nightclub based closely upon Bogart's favorite Hollywood hangout, Romanoff's, Steele spends his days drinking too much, writing too little, and getting into fisticuffs when his Jekyll turns to Hyde.

Steele's at the hangout this day because he's been commissioned to turn a screenplay out of a trashy romance novel that he dreads having to read. He needs the job, though, and sweet-talks the friendly hatcheck girl--a great fan of the book--out of her evening plans in order to come back to his place and give him the gist of what the best-seller is about.

Steele's apartment complex is one of those great cinematic places in the movies, with its single-tenant spaces wrapped around a Spanish-Mediterranean courtyard with a fountain. The location serves in its own way as a silent character in the film, mirroring the relationship between himself and the new tenant across the way and one floor above in the beautiful Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), an aspiring actress.

Gray's entrance in the film on her balcony as she regards Steele from his bedroom window is pure magic. It reminds us that the most powerful of first impressions between strangers in the movies tends to be wordless encounters such as these. Steele finds himself in his bedroom at that point because half an hour is about all he can take from the hatcheck girl, a bright but naive young woman he soon tires of. He eschews her from is place as quickly as his intrigue has been piqued by the new tenant, and doesn't even offer her a ride, suggesting she take the bus home instead.

The following morning, an old buddy of Steele's from the war, now a cop, pays him a visit where it's revealed that at some point overnight, our poor hatcheck girl has been murdered, leading to a meeting at the police precinct where Laurel, the new tenant, supplies Steele's alibi from the night before. Laurel and Steele spark at the cop station and act upon it later that day in a scene as carefully constructed and performed as you will see at that moment in Hollywood's golden age, when the studio system was in its prime. It's the first scene that showcases just how successfully great movies can be at negotiating a texture that incorporates more than one genre or form but that never loses its way or feel.

What begins as a character study of Bogart's boozing over-the-hill screenwriter character soon becomes soaked in the melancholy of noir themes with its wounded hero and its detective story, until finally it transcends those genres with its evocative love story of a troubled, raging man and the woman that wishes to redeem him.

The key to Bogart's performance is in the way his character behaves on and off the sauce, and the way Gloria Grahame as Laurel must negotiate between the split in personality that occurs in Steele because of his drinking. I can not reveal any further the plot, except to inform that the suspense is two-pronged between the detective story that sees Steele as the lead suspect, as well as the suspense in the relationship between Laurel and Steele. She is convinced of his innocence, but what of the possibility that he might be a real danger?

The making of In A Lonely Place was shrouded in controversy at the time, as its director, Nicholas Ray, and its female lead, Grahame, were married at the beginning of the shoot, but separated by the end after Ray found Grahame in bed with his 13 yr-old son from a previous marriage (incidentally, those two got married by decade's end).

The film itself was a marriage of huge talents, with Edmund North (Patton, the Day the Earth Stood Still) adapting the screenplay from the Dorothy Hughes noir novel, Humphrey Bogart picking up the producing credit to go along with his brilliant performance as Dixon Steele (perhaps the best of his conflicted characters along with Dobbs from Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Gloria Grahame as Laurel (best-known at that point as the grown-up Violet in It's a Wonderful Life and who went on to win an Oscar just two years later for The Bad and the Beautiful) and of course, iconoclast Nicholas Ray, a master at telling stories of wounded, challenging men (Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life) and doing it in a way that combines challenging themes with snappy, confident reassurance in the forward-movement of his dense narratives.

In a Lonely Place was not a commercial success at the time of its release.

Perhaps a little too dark and a little too "real", it was overshadowed that year by two more familiar and hugely successful pics, also about fame and the intersection of old and new Hollywood, in Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. In a Lonely Place may not enjoy the Oscar glory of those films, but it's a noteworthy golden age masterpiece in its own right that still plays fresh today.

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