Nicholas Ray’s superb film-noir In A Lonely Place features Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, a weary but furious screenwriter who hasn’t penned a hit in a quite a while. He’s offered an assignment: to adapt a poor, pulpy novel into a screenplay. Except he has no intention of reading the text, and so asks Mildred (Martha Stewart), a hat-check girl at a local restaurant, to provide him a synopsis. They leave for his apartment, and meet Steele’s glamorous and inscrutable neighbour Laurel Gray (Grahame). In the morning a newly-promoted detective is at the door with questions: Mildred has been found dead. Gray supplies the police with an alibi, so the pair form a burgeoning romance.
The film is cynical, brazen, and remorseless; but also somehow encapsulates great beauty. This is primarily due to Ray’s stunningly clear direction, and to the lead performances. Grahame is acerbic and guarded (even when she begins to fall for Steele), and there’s something impetuous in her interactions which suggests an inability to express her honest desires.
Bogart, with a chiselled edifice of a countenance, plays Steele as a man entirely dejected, but willing to hide it with quips and camaraderie. Steele’s dejection rises up in bouts of unquellable rage provides the film with its central contradiction; Gray has supplied Steele an alibi, but as he frequently evinces a quite pyrotechnic apoplexy, she might have placed herself in a position of great danger.
As with the best of noir, the film manages to dance between tones with great dexterity. As Mildred regales Steele with a condensed narrative of the novel, she looks directly to the camera and states her preference that the film be shot in Technicolor. (In A Lonely Place is, of course, photographed in monochrome resplendent as moonlight.) The dialogue, which has a concision and memorability reminiscent of poetry, is also saturated with word-play, one-liners, and a bluntness that keeps certain scenes playful as required.
At one point in the film, Gray is driving, with Steele in the passenger seat. He says to her: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” He’s planning to add this to the script on which he’s working, but the scene plays as a variation on one of the film’s most resonant themes, the damaged relationship between the movies and life. Steele is trying to impress with the craft of those sentences, but he also wants to love her and be loved back. That a film as harsh and cold as In a Lonely Place contains a moment as coruscatingly beautiful as this, evidences the film as a thoughtful, sensitive, and frighteningly intelligent masterpiece.
In A Lonely Place screens at the Filmhouse on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of December.
Image: Columbia Pictures via. Wikipedia