Take 89: In a Lonely Place

In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, we’re looking Take 89: In a Lonely Place. As always, there will be spoilers.

In a Lonely Place is a hallmark of film noir, I think it’s the type of movie that people imagine when they think about old Hollywood. Black and white Humphrey Boagert as a screenwriter accused of murder, falling in love with perky blonde Gloria Grahame. The film is based on a book of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes. I try not to let knowledge of circumstances behind the scenes of a film’s production impact my perception of the end result, and sometimes I’m more successful at that well intended goal than others. In this case, reading the background on the film radically changed my feelings about it.

On the one hand, there’s the fact that Humphrey Bogart, who plays the incredibly named lead, Dixon Steele, bought the rights to the novel and produced the film with his production company. He made the film with his friend, Nicholas Ray, who directed the movie, starring his then wife, Laurel Gray. There’s something about the film that is strained, and I wonder if it’s because of how close the work was to its creators — resulting in a piece that feels like a labor of love. There are some fun nods to the audience early on, a little bit of a showbiz wink with self referential commentary about the movie making business.

The action picks up in the first act when Steele is meeting his agent at an insider Hollywood bar — which, evidently, was based directly on Bogart’s favorite haunt, Romanoff’s. On the way in, some kids ask for his autograph and then immediately after ask if he’s someone important, to which he roundly replies “No.” As Steele enters, he meets the coat check girl reading the novel meant for him and she asks to finish it before she hands it over. There’s an incident where he punches a big important person who was insulting his drunk actor buddy, and on his way out, he convinces the coat check girl to ditch her date to come home with him and recount the story so that he won’t have to read the book. On the way into the apartment, they bump into Gloria, who raises an eyebrow at the company they’re keeping. The girl recounts the story, Steele hates it, gives her cab money, and sends her on her way.

Throughout their time together, the girl often comments on how much of an admirer she is of Steele’s screenwriting, and how happy she is to be playing even a small role in the production of the movie. From the bar to the apartment, the first act is riddled with meta commentary on the politics of film making. I knew on some level this is in part due to the egos of the writer and directors, I mean, “shows about shows” is its own Netflix genre. What I didn’t understand while watching In a Lonely Place is just how close to the experiences of the stars the themes playing out on screen were. There is a specter of celebrity hovering above the surface — on the effect it can have on people as it comes and goes — how fame can be intoxicating and addictive. This thread is woven into the interactions between washed up, drunken, self destructive Steele, and his love affair with the, as yet undiscovered, young starlet.

The setting of their neighboring apartments across a shared courtyard is rightly lauded as a prime example of film noir atmosphere. It also creates opposing stages for the two stars to look at each other across the way at night, spotlighted by interior lighting. Not only does this highlight their tenuous relationship, too close but still distant, intimate and foreign, it reflects the relationship the public forms with celebrity and vice versa.

All of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the murder! The coat check girl is found dead, choked to death, and Steele who is a hot headed alcoholic war veteran is an easy prime suspect. One of the choices about this narrative I really enjoyed was that, unlike most film noirs, the tension isn’t built on us knowing if he did it or not. We know he didn’t, we were there. Because I thought this movie was about solving a murder, my mind immediately tuned to Gray as the culprit, I don’t know why she would do it, but I was pretty sure that was going to be the big reveal. It wasn’t.

And ultimately this movie is not about the murder. It’s about the ensuing love story that plays out between Steele and Gray. It’s not exactly romantic but their bond is magnetic and at first it works for Steele particularly well. She helps him curb his drinking, gets him back behind the typewriter, out of his mental rut. Friends stop by and praise her, they get engaged and all seems well. And then Steele regresses, lashing out at her and acting erratically. A fantastic sequence follows Steele and Gray storming off from the beach, the camera sitting behind the dashboard, the headlights are the only guide, and the shift in Gray feelings about Steele rattle us too. He could kill her, he could have killed that other girl.

Nicholas Ray also directed Rebel Without Cause, another film about mercurial men whose repressed feelings possess them and bubble through the cracks of their exteriors. This is also Bogart’s bread and butter, and it feels close to his heart, a man who strives so hard to maintain the appearance of control he loses his autonomy to what he doesn’t dare to face.

But, to Ray’s credit, this is Grahame’s story as much as it is Bogart’s. Ray was fond of strong, dynamic, female characters as we saw in Joan Crawford’s performance in Johnny Guitar. The murder is just a backdrop, and the whodunnit is not the biggest concern — it’s more of a question of could Steele do it, and can Gray extract herself from his web. The performances are palpable and again we return the context of what was happening to the actors off set: Bogart was in the dead middle of his marriage to the much younger Lauren Bacall, a young starlet whom he famously bragged to reporters “stayed home to take care of him”, sacrificing her own career in the process. Ray on the other hand was ending a marriage with Grahame, whom he found in bed with his THIRTEEN year old son (who was also a future ex husband of hers) WHILE filming this movie.

It’s understandable, given the context, why this portrait of relationships is so palpable in its portrayal of compulsion, sacrifice, the specter of celebrity, fame gained and lost, and the threat of intimacy. The promotional posters for the movie show that it was presented as a murder mystery with a SURPRISE FINISH:

The finish is pretty lackluster. The murderer was the girl’s date who she cancelled on to read Steele the story. It almost made me not like the movie because of how anticlimactic it was — it’s almost like it was an afterthought. In many ways the murder is a distraction, a bit of misdirection, to show a sad man and a young woman who wants to save him.

Watching movies and writing essays.

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