Reviews

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Scott Thill

Put simply, the eyes cannot be trusted, not in film noir generally, and especially not in In a Lonely Place.


In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 1950
US DVD Release Date: 2003-03-18

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Love in the Time of Coronavirus

I Went on a Jewel Bender in Quarantine. This Is My Report.

It's 2020 and everything sucks right now, so let's all fucking chill and listen to Jewel.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.