Cinematic neoteny: “In a Lonely Place” (1950)

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By Scott Ross

There is a fair amount to admire in the 1950 thriller In a Lonely Place, but you may respond to it more fully than I did if you have not read the 1947 Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it is ostensibly based. Hughes’ book is the earliest I know of in American popular literature (although there are probably others) to examine what we now routinely call a serial killer, and to do so from his point of view. The Dixon Steele of Hughes’ short, sharp character study is an almost classic sociopath, smug, narcissistic and paranoid, for whom every word spoken, or action undertaken, by others is a potential threat to his imagined security. And although he blames his monthly killings of young women in the Los Angeles area on “megrimes,” any suggestion in his own restless mind of a betrayal can set him off. It’s a thoroughly chilling portrayal, weakened only by Dix Steele’s double phallic pun of a name and a credulity-stretching climax (would Dix’s friend, the police detective Brub Nicolai, really put his own wife in danger after repeatedly telling Steele how he’s infected her with his fears?) and illuminated throughout with writing which, while often strikingly beautiful, is in no way stereotypically “feminine.” Hughes was as hard-boiled as Chandler, but without the fussiness, or the macho chip on the shoulder.

As written, Steele is the sort of character Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark usually got typecast as, although Hughes describes him in a way that suggests he’s young-male-ingenue handsome. And while the Steele of the book pretends to be writing a mystery novel so he can give a legitimate reason for inserting himself into the investigation of his own crimes, the Dixon Steel played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie is a professional screenwriter teetering between success and failure and hampered largely by his explosive temper. I’m not sure I accept that a minor Hollywood scribe could get away with as many violent incidents as Steele has — the list, and it’s a long one, is enumerated by the police captain (Carl Benton Reid) directing the case of the young woman (Martha Stewart) murdered shortly after leaving Dix’s apartment — or that a purported failure could live in quite as nice a place as Steele does, but everyone who knows him seems to be aware of, and to accept, his almost homicidal rages. People, in Hollywood and elsewhere, are ostracized for less. But the champions of In a Lonely Place, movie critics and movie directors, love self-referential pictures almost as they love something they identify, usually wrongly, as film noir.

Being auteurists to their core, they especially love that the gifted hack Nicholas Ray directed it. I don’t knock Ray entirely; he had a certain feral energy as a director that lent itself well to grungy thrillers. But it’s difficult to look at hifalutin programmers like On Dangerous Ground, symbol-laden and unintentionally hilarious Technicolor camp such as Johnny Guitar or pretentious and hysterical trash on the order of Rebel Without a Cause and find a great movie artist at work among their ruins. That Jean-Luc Godard could write, with utter seriousness, in a review of the botched Bitter Victory, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray” probably explains Godard better than anyone else could. Nor am I in sympathy with those who go into rhapsodies over what a great movie about Hollywood In a Lonely Place is; the Dixon Steele of the movie could be a writer of any sort inspired by love to turn a job of work into something better. There’s no special air of “Hollywood” to the picture other than that, and the fact Ray had the apartment building designed to resemble one he’d lived at during his earliest days in the city. Certainly In a Lonely Place isn’t a patch on Sunset Boulevard, which had more to say about movieland than merely getting off the occasional witty aperçus that decorate Andrew Solt’s screenplay.

In a Lonely Place - Bogart, Mel Lippman, Robert Warwick, Grahame resized

What shall we do with the drunken actor? Humphrey Bogart, Art Smith, Robert Warwick and Gloria Grahame.

And what of that script? On the plus side it has those one-liners, a few good scenes, and makes a rich, full (and likable) character out of Hughes’ calculating sensualist Laurel Grey so that when Steel falls in love with her it isn’t, as in her novel, one-sided. (Although it should be noted that nowhere in the book does Laurel deceive Dix into thinking she loves him back; he just can’t see how she couldn’t.) And since either Solt, or Edmund H. North who did the adaptation, made the narrative less Hughes’ portrait of a killer than a sketch of a man who might be a murderer, now or at the moment someone isn’t around to stop him, that is to his (or their) credit as well. In the minus column… well, pretty much everything else, from the way the script renders Hughes’ troubled police inspector a tough-guy cliché, to its adding in a lugubrious sentimental drunk ham-actor (Robert Warwick) for Dix to take pity on, to another addition, Steele’s long-suffering agent (Art Smith) who is either harder up than he admits, in love with Steele, or as lacking in intellect as he is in self-esteem; he certainly behaves like an idiot. On the Criterion disc Curtis Hansen, who in his writing and direction ruined (to great acclaim from semi-literates) what is probably James Ellroy’s finest novel with his disastrous transliteration, calls the In a Lonely Place screenplay “a model of adaptation.” Like L.A. Confidential?

The movie is structured like a conventional mystery, although it’s fairly obvious from the beginning that this Dixon Steele is not a serial murderer but, in his unstable excesses of rage, has the strong potential to kill, and the picture carries us along largely on our curiosity about whether he will. The Dix of the movie, unlike the more certifiable Steele of Hughes’ novel, seems a victim of psychological neoteny — juvenile rages which make Dix brother under the skin to so many Baby Boomers and their tantrum-throwing progeny who, as others such as Eliot M. Camarena have pointed out, actually weep in public when one psychopathic presidential candidate loses to another. I’ll give Nicholas Ray this: Although he shot the ending Solt wrote, in which Dix murders Laurel in a murderous fugue (the cover of the Criterion release seems to be a still taken from that) he had second, and better, thoughts about it. The best thing in the picture, in fact, aside from the performances by Bogart and Grahame, is the ending he came up with, which replaces violence and repentance with a nearly unbearable sadness. Whether this seemingly insuperable anguish burns the rage out of Dixon Steele is doubtful, but it kills love, and hope, and one can imagine Dix spending the rest of his days afraid to love again.

IALP_Bogart_Grahame_murder

I think it’s this devastating climax that endears In a Lonely Place to so many cineastes, and causes them to label it, wrongly, noir. And if the rest of the picture were anywhere near as good as those three or four minutes it would indeed be a classic. But much of it is flat, leaving us little to cling to between Steele’s bouts of uncontrollable rage except the actors, and our vague uneasiness about exactly when, and how, Dix will next explode. (And yes, I know that’s what turns some people on about the movie. I just don’t think it’s enough.)

Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is good but not great, and he repeats a terrible device from the 1931 Dracula, in which when he’s directing Nicolai and his wife as they re-enact the girl’s murder Bogart’s eyes are illuminated by a baby spot, to emphasize Steele’s… something or other. It’s as annoying here as it was when they did it to Lugosi, but at least with Dracula the filmmakers had the excuse that the character whose eyes were having light thrown at them was supernatural. (Naturally, the auteurists on the Criterion disc go into ecstasies over this nonsense. So profound!) And although George Antheil’s music seems to be trying for a Miklós Rózsa flavor the composer hasn’t the feel for it. (Of the Hollywood composers prominent at that time, Rózsa would have been best for this job, followed by Franx Waxman and David Raksin.) There are two notable scenes involving black actors which, while they do not emphasize the race of the performers, also do not denigrate them for it: Hadda Brooks’ sequence in a nightclub, playing and singing the appropriately-titled “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You,” and a brief scene between Bogart and Davis Roberts as a flower shop employee, a moment notable for how normalized Roberts’ role, dialogue and performance are, and which does credit to the movie’s director.

Grahame, who a couple of years later would win an undeserved Oscar® for an extended cameo — and over Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain! — shows how good she could be at playing a bright, independent woman who, as Bogart’s Steele observes, knows what she wants. “I also know what I don’t want,” she advises him. “And I don’t want to be rushed.” Unlike the Laurel Grey of Hughes’ novel, Grahame is avid for more than sex; she’s a helpmeet and a friend and she hangs with Dix until she can no longer ignore the signs that he’s dangerous. Before his jealous rages begin, she and Bogart have a mature, relaxed and cheerful give-and-take that is the most pleasurable aspect of the picture.

In a Lonely Place - Bogart and Grahame resized

Steele is one of those roles that stretched Bogart, and you feel he was lit up by the possibilities. (His company produced the picture.) The extreme, mercurial nature of the character plays to all Bogie’s strengths: His tenderness, his wry humor, his low-key sarcasm, his graceful physicality, his righteous indignation, his ability to brood without our losing sympathy and his own, occasionally frightening, penchant for expressing instantaneous fury. Performances like this one remind us of just how much was lost when Humphrey Bogart died at the obscenely young age of 57.

As with many of Bogart’s movies, In a Lonely Place could be a great deal better. But I don’t see how he could.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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