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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image