“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
IN A LONELY PLACE is something different. It’s one of the great American movies from the first half-century of the art form but it feels more intensely personal than many of the finest of the studio era. It takes place in Hollywood but there’s nothing bright or sunny about it. It looks like a noir and acts like one in a couple places, but really it’s a dark character piece and the central mystery is primarily internal and existential in nature. It’s a Hollywood noir, maybe. There aren’t many like it; that’s for sure.
Dorothy B. Hughes wrote the novel upon which the film was based. Edmund North is the writer who adapted it. The film’s star, Humphrey Bogart, owned the production company which produced the film. Nicholas Ray was the director. Ray made effective, striking genre films — i.e. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, THE RACKET, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, MACAO — and later made films that were even more distinctive and bound for glory — i.e. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and JOHNNY GUITAR. He’s one of the lesser-known of great American directors. At the time the film was made, Nicholas Ray was married to its leading lady, the incomparable Gloria Grahame. Not long after its release, the marriage ended.
The story of IN A LONELY PLACE is as follows: Bogart, in a role reportedly close to his heart, plays Dixon Steele, a belligerent screenwriter who is assigned a crappy book to adapt. He hires a pretty hat-check girl to come to his apartment and summarize the book for him so he doesn’t have to read it. When something terrible befalls the girl, the police pick up Dixon for questioning. Grahame plays his neighbor, Laurel, who saw him with the girl the night before. She’s his alibi. They become an item, but his erratic and explosive behavior leads her to wonder whether the cops are right to suspect him after all.
The suspicion drives the plot, so of course one couldn’t call it peripheral, but IN A LONELY PLACE is truly about what transpires between Dixon and Laurel. It’s hardly a typical whodunit. Whether he did it or not is important to the film primarily because of what it means for him and for her. If he’s a murderer, that’s bad, but what if he isn’t, and the film somehow ends in broken hearts regardless?
This is a doom-laden and tragic love story that is dark as night. It’s not a date movie. It’s kind of the anti-date movie. Doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful though. May not be easy or reassuring, but it says volumes about men and women and how we so often are to each other.
If you’ve never seen IN A LONELY PLACE, please turn off the computer and head down to the Metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art today. This is a classic and a masterpiece and a bunch of other clichéd descriptions which actually apply in this case.
Killer title, too.
IN A LONELY PLACE screens at 6:30pm on Saturday at MoMA. Highest possible recommendation.
— JON ABRAMS.