“In a Lonely Place”
Columbia Pictures, 1950
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Art Smith
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
The plot: Dixon “Dix” Steele (Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter going through a bad patch both personally and professionally. He has an erratic, explosive temper that threatens to turn violent at the drop of a hat. Dix’s agent, Mel Lippmann (Smith) has a novel he’s acquired that he’d like Dix to adapt into a screenplay. In the space of one evening, Dix becomes both intrigued by a beautiful new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame), and the suspect of the brutal murder of a hatcheck girl last seen with him. Dix falls in love with Laurel, which reinvigorates his writing, but he also behaves as if he has a screw loose. Mel and a few other friends start to wonder if maybe Dix did kill the girl. Laurel becomes frightened when Dix has one violent outburst after another.
Why it’s good: This letter-perfect example of film noir has made best-of lists, and it’s easy to see why. Bogart phoned in a few roles in his time, but when he really committed to a character (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen,” “The Caine Mutiny”) he could go over the top with the surety of a master. Here, he’s a volcano of irrational tension that can turn deadly without warning. Watching Bogart in this film is like watching an odd guy in a bar who’s had too much — everything is escalating, and the room could get wrecked. Ray demonstrates here the vision that, if sustained, might have ranked him with top-tier directors. Grahame (the director’s wife at the time) turns in an accomplished performance, but if Bogart is the sharp but unstable mind of this story, Art Smith is its true heart. Kind, gentle, and considerate to a fault, he inevitably becomes a victim of his favorite client’s insanity. Smith, a fine Broadway actor, played mostly supporting roles in undistinguished films. Here he has his sterling moment.
The legacy: Ray, a strange man, had an equally strange career. There have been several good biographies, but the title of Patrick McGilligan’s — “The Glorious Failure of an American Director” — says it all. Ray came up through the ranks and helmed B-pictures such as “They Live by Night” and “On Dangerous Ground” with inspired flair. He hit it big with his pet project, “Rebel Without a Cause” (allegedly having affairs with all three young stars — James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo). Ray’s quirky ideas resulted in such one-of-a-kind oddities as “Johnny Guitar” and “Bigger Than Life,” but when he was on his game, it all came together perfectly, best exemplified with “In a Lonely Place” and “Party Girl.” Alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex addictions all derailed his career, which came to an ignominious end with “55 Days at Peking.” At the end, Ray was teaching a devoted pack of film majors at New York’s Harpur College and appearing in supporting acting roles. Ray was passionate, reckless, kind, lovable, and scary. He enjoyed a career impossible to imagine today.