"I Like His Face"
Bashing Hollywood has, perhaps ironically, birthed more than its share of truly amazing cinema. Films like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Robert Altman’s The Player, and David Lynch’s dream noir, Mulholland Drive, have emptied their respective barrels on the industry where art and profit have become inextricably linked.
Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is another such challenge to business as usual. A near-analytic treatise on the danger of faith in image and artifice, it also offers the wholly compelling image of Humphrey Bogart himself. Already a screen icon when he made Lonely Place in 1950 (having made some 60 films, including Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon), Bogart’s persona overwhelmed his individual roles in a way that might lead Norma Desmond to overdose on sleeping pills.
Casting Bogie as the aptly named Dixon Steele, a bankable Hollywood writer prone to violent outbursts, was a canny move on Ray’s part. What better way to confuse the order of images than to fill the central role with a star bigger than life, to say nothing of the movies? Although the film has been championed as one of Bogie’s finest performances, it is nevertheless deeply invested in turning his celebrated image—as well as the more general image of “Hollywood”—inside out.
Take, for example, the murder, which occurs off screen. A star-struck hatcheck girl, Mildred (Martha Stewart), goes home with Dix to synopsize the boring bestseller he is supposed to be adapting. Carried away by her own breathless histrionics, she disappears. When Dix hears her narrating the book’s murder, screaming “Help, help!”, he is torn away from his voyeuristic viewing of his neighbor, Laurel (the wonderful Gloria Grahame), framed in Steele’s window, as if he’s watching a movie. Steele warns Mildred to keep her voice down, being familiar with sensational movie plots, and so, knowing too well that the people next door might misconstrue her overacting.
Of course, this foreshadowing wink comes to life when Dix is called in for questioning about her murder (the police inform him that she has been strangled to death). The only thing saving him from imprisonment is the same neighbor he ogled the night before; he gets off scot-free when Laurel, who hasn’t even met Steele, is sure of his innocence because, on first sight, she says, “I like his face.”
Indeed, Laurel and Steele fall in love on her first sight (as he’s seen her before), in the way that people do in the movies, without time to develop the mutual trust they will need to weather the suspicion that falls on Steele like a hammer. In fact, Steele’s likeable face disguises his repressed violence. Like the doomed Mildred, who loved images so much that she ended up immortalized in a few garish ones (the camera lingers on her murder scene photos, long enough to displace, from every angle no less, any memory of her alive), Steele is fated to remain at odds with his amiable facade; it only hides the psychopath beneath.
In an unforgettable dinner scene with his old WWII pal—and officer on the Atkinson case—Brub (Frank Lovejoy), and his wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), Steele re-enacts his conception of the murder, using Brub and Sylvia as actors. His version is so convincing that Brub almost unwittingly strangles his spouse as he’s listening. It’s a chilling moment, enhanced by the miniature spotlight on Bogart’s eyes throughout its duration, the same eyes highlighted in a rear-view mirror during the film’s opening credits.
Put simply, the eyes cannot be trusted, not in film noir generally, and especially not in In a Lonely Place. This notion is brought home when Steele beats a UCLA quarterback senseless, nearly smashing a rock into his face. This is the event that causes Laurel to second-guess their love, bringing her own trust of surfaces full circle: the man whose face she so admires is hiding a demon that gets off on bashing faces.
In a Lonely Place‘s cleverness doesn’t end there. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Ray’s film could care less about the crime that initiates its plot. But unlike Hitchcock, who exhausted Janet Leigh while shooting Psycho‘s infamously multi-shot shower scene, Ray doesn’t even show Mildred’s murder. He’s interested in the effect, the ways his characters respond and interact. Many people have died on screen; it’s rarer to see a relationship deteriorate so beautifully underneath the nagging weight of suspicion.
Dix Steele, as tough as he is, is ultimately done in by his face. Ray uses aspects of melodrama as well as noir to make the point, that art—and by extension, Hollywood—depends on trompe l’oeil, a trick of the eye.