Written by Andrew Solt, based on a story by Dorothy B. Hughes, and directed by Nicholas Ray, “In a Lonely Place” is a mystery noir film that cleverly plays with audience expectations and goes against the grain when regarding Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart and his character, Dixon Steele. Having only just recently seen “Casablanca” for the first time this past summer (I know, I know..) paired with “The African Queen” and “The Maltese Falcon”, I had an image conjured up from these films of Bogart’s usual assets in acting. Namely, playing a man beaten down by the world or it’s expectations resulting in sarcasm, a dry wit, and usually with a drink in hand or nearby. He might play a cynic- but at his core the characters usually have good intentions. This film toys with that image and what we the audience may have come to expect from Bogart’s other hit films, granted, the film starts out in a very familiar place for Bogart as Steele, a washed up screenwriter with a chip on his shoulder and a drinking problem. After Steele throws a spiteful fist early on in the film however, we get an inkling that this incarnation of Bogey has more of a temper this time around. Steele is a far punchier lead than his roles in the previously mentioned films, and this only assists in the delightful second act flip, which I found to be particularly innovative for the time.
The film begins with Steele’s agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith), a longtime friend and confidant, whose just gotten Steele the opportunity to adapt a trashy pulp novel into a screenplay. Steele can’t bring himself to read the book even though he needs the work and instead hires a hat-check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who he heard loves the book and had just finished reading it. She comes to his place that evening and ecstatically goes over the plot while he glances at a new neighbor across the way who had also noticed him earlier as well. After Steele gets the general idea of the story, which he seems to detest a bit internally, he sends Ms. Atkinson home for the night by a nearby cab station- which he pays for in addition to helping him with the pulp fiction. Early the next morning Steele’s met by L.A. Detective, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who had served under him during the war. He brings Steele in for questioning, and while Steele believes it’s because he got into a fight with the son of the studio head the previous day, it’s actually because he’s the prime suspect in the murder of Mildren Atkinson found dead earlier in the dark hours of the morning.
Steele doesn’t do hiumself any favors when being questioned by the police. By his nature, he’s a macabre idealist with awful self-esteem, someone who’s intentionally vague and (as a writer does) likes to exaggerate from time to time. Luckily for him his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), did see Ms. Atkinson leave the previous night without Steele, providing him an alibi, as well as a flirtatious invitation. After awhile the two begin to fall in love, they begin to date and Steele gets back to writing after Laurel helps get him off the bottle for some time. Though Laurel and Dixon do seem to be mutually affectionate to each other, things begin to go awry when an evening at the beach turns sour and Dixon’s temper reemerges when he discovers that Laurel was brought in for further questioning by the police chief, which she didn’t tell him about as she didn’t want to interrupt his writing streak. That he’s still being followed amid uncertainty in the air of whether or not he actually did kill Ms. Atkinson sends him into a rage while on the road and he almost kills a man after a traffic altercation. This is when the film switches the perspective to that of Laurel, who’s paranoia about Dixon grows slowly at first before he starts displaying seriously questionable behavior. This is the film’s best trick, they took great effort in the first half to assuage any suspicions of Dixon as a murderer and slowly inserted moments and scenes that could be looked back on with the latter half of the film’s perspective that turn the audience against Dixon whose losing control in his life and begins to break down the closer we get to the finale. It’s a very clever notion, the film’s twisty perspective and illusory truth pair to make this one a memorable outing for both Bogart and Grahame.
While this film may not reach the heights of the other Bogart films mentioned above, it does a fine job with some fun creative twists thrown in for good measure. There are some particularly entertaining pieces of the film that I must mention before departing however. Firstly, I really enjoyed the sauced theatrics of Steele’s has-been actor buddy, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), who pops up throughout the film to espouse lyrical poetry and to support his screenwriter friend. Bogart also has a few really unexpectedly funny lines throughout as well, like when he jokingly suggests another suspect was the actual killer, not him, the man replies as Dixon shakes his hand on the way out: “What an imagination. That’s from writing movies.” And Dixon turns it around on the man in a split-second with: “What a grip. That’s from counting money.” There’s a lot of sly jabs like that throughout the film. As for the downsides, the film definitely feels its age. Those turned off by depictions of toxic masculinity will probably not find much to like about Dixon Steele. That and good lord there’s a lot of smoking cigarettes- which, is expected given the time period, but it’s still jarring at times and kind of fascinating to see the wheel of time rolling ever farther from cinema’s golden age of studio controlled dramas, musicals, and epics. If you’re looking for a decent black and white mystery noir, this should do just fine.
Final Score: A Few Weeks…