For the month of
November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir, the American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. Next up this month is a picture I’m using to represent the Humphrey Bogart contribution to film noir, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.
I remembered seeing In a Lonely Place one night in high school on television. I wasn’t until I started blogging did I realize what film it was, but I remembered several scenes very distinctively in my mind, as well as the faces and voices of its stars (Gloria Grahame specifically, as I’d seen Bogart in several other films at the time). Though I’ve since read reviews that label In a Lonely Place as a sort of existentialist noir, at the time what stood out to me was the doomed love story. Though it might not be the most noir out of the pictures I’ve looked at this Noirvember, it’s just as rewarding a watch as any of them.
Like another noir from 1950, Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place takes place in Hollywood. The specter of a (supposedly) dying industry looms over the film, and in the seemingly deserted apartments our protagonists inhabit. It’s leaving from one of these apartments belonging to washed up Hollywood screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart), that a hapless coat check girl is last seen. A neighbor, would-be actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), claims to have seen her leaving Dix’s apartment and says as much to the cops. After the initial attraction at the police station, the two of them fall in love, and Dix’s writing ethic improves for a time. But his darker nature eventually surfaces, and causes Laurel to distrust the evidence she originally gave.
For me, the strength of this movie relies in the distrust that develops between the two. The movie doesn’t fully commit to either point of view, and splits it between Dix and Laurel. This made me get on both of the characters’ sides pretty strongly. You want Dix to be innocent (you’re pretty sure he is, but not 100%), even though he can be kind of a jerk sometimes. And you worry about Laurel’s safety, but because of the middle portion where they are blissfully in love and Dix is productive and healthy, you just want them to be okay. This film is able to tap into your emotions very well and get you to worry about the main characters quite a bit.
Whenever I think of Nicholas Ray I think of melodrama, whether its straight up like Rebel Without a Cause or thinly disguised as a western as in Johnny Guitar. I couldn’t help thinking along these lines when revisiting this film, one that I remember from long ago as a few suspenseful and romantic scenes. As with those two other Ray films I’ve seen, I’m having a bit of trouble getting a handle on this one even though I know I liked it. It’s not necessary to categorize a film as melodrama or film noir or really anything else to understand or enjoy it, but for some reason I really get hung up on this with Ray films. He seems to do things in such a different way that I don’t necessarily recognize the films as his, but they do have a commonality in that they all seem to befuddle me critically.
But even if I know more that this movie is about two people who can’t transcend their basic natures (he’s a violent drunk and she likes hopeless cases) from other reviews I’ve read rather than my own insight watching the movie, I get the analysis and can follow along. While watching it though, I just see the characters. The scene with Humphrey Bogart manipulating his dining partners into almost committing a crime, Strangers on a Train style. The sound of Gloria Graham’s voice as she stares straight ahead and says, “I like his face.” The love scene that is a great love scene, as Bogart says in a particularly meta-touch, because it’s not about love at all. These bits and pieces are what the film is to me, even after seeing it again three or four years later. That first impression is so strong that I didn’t get past it this time around.
As such, it’s hard for me to view this film in the context of film noir, even though as I write I clearly see how it upholds the conventions in plotting at least. The setting always did remind me of Sunset Boulevard, and its cynical look at Hollywood fits right in. Dix Steele is a character that probably knows what the right thing to do is, and even can bring himself to do it once and while, but most of the time he just doesn’t care enough. He just reacts, who can really say why. Maybe your classic noir hero wants to do the right thing but can’t for some reason, but Dix is a bit different. I can’t say too much about cinematography and lighting, even though I’m sure the noir style must be present. I’d say I need a rewatch, but I just had one! Somehow, my memory of seeing the film for the first time is stronger than anything else. I saw it at a time in my life when I just experienced films, not necessarily worrying about anything else while doing so.
“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: