Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Andrew Solt
A week or so ago I reviewed another Humphrey Bogart noir, The Maltese Falcon. My reception was somewhat cold, and especially so towards the Hollywood legend himself. Now I happen upon yet another Bogart noir, but this time I had a completely different experience with it. Directed by Nicholas Ray, who also directed such films as Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place is a different kind of noir from most because, for one, it is much more romantic, and focuses on that romance more than any noir I’ve seen any way. And two, it is much more psychological that other noirs I have seen. There is always a certain degree of psychological thriller, but this time we are dealing with a character who is mysteriously imbalanced.
Bogart plays Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele. Ever since the war he has not been as successful at his trade as he was before, but a producer gives him another chance adapting a book. When he gets the book back from a coat check girl, who was borrowing it, he asks the stranger home to tell him the story, so he doesn’t have to stay up all night reading it himself. The story is short, the two exchange pleasantries, and she goes home. But in the morning, Dixon is awoken by the police who want to ask some questions about a coat check girl who turned up dead. His alibi comes from his neighbor, the struggling actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), who soon falls in love with Steele, and starts to worry that Dixon may or may not be innocent, and even if he is innocent, is he the right guy for her?
I brought up The Maltese Falcon because I think it is a great example of the opposite of this film in many ways, first and foremost Humphrey Bogart’s performance. I found his performance in The Maltese Falcon to be much too delivered, whereas here it seemed to come much more naturally. He is seemingly perfect at keeping the mysterious nature of Steele throughout the entire film, all the way to the end. He is a mad genius when he wants to be and a frightening figure the rest of the time. There is no denying why Laurel would be interested in him, and that doesn’t include the obvious chance to be in a big picture. The romance of the film is both its strength and its weakness, with the murder of the girl pretty much working as a MacGuffin. Most noirs don’t focus this closely on the romance, which makes it unique, and even more so because the mystery is in the romantic nature of Steele.
Because of the intricacies of the character, and the brilliant performance by Bogart, I would go so far as to say that this is the best I have ever seen Bogart. I just loved the darkness surrounding Steele and the whole story. He really is in a lonely place and Bogart gives him such a menacingly pathetic yet strong sort of read; it is really alarmingly off-kilter which is why it works so well. And it is all handled quite well by Nicholas Ray. The only other film by him I have seen to this point is Rebel Without a Cause, which I greatly enjoyed and which was also a film with a strong central performance by James Dean. The opening act of the film was so great and punctuated with such a great sense of mood and tension, and then the film lightened somewhat by going into the romance.
There was still tension, but I did mention that the romance was a strength and a weakness. It is different and it works, but after the great opening twenty minutes or so, it does almost feel like the film slows down too much, even if it is still tense. It’s a case of almost starting off too good and not being able to live up to it the rest of the way. But the fact remains that it is a great film from start to finish, I just feel as though the discrepancy from the beginning to the rest of the film makes it too inconsistent to enter any masterpiece discussion. But I don’t know, maybe with more viewing I will change my mind on that because most of what I did see was dynamite, especially Bogart. I just can’t get over how great he was here.