Eugene Kang: With the lack of new releases readily available to cinephiles hungry for content, many of us have looked to the past to catch up on some beloved classics or continue our film education. The Criterion Channel is an invaluable asset for such adventurous moviegoers, and the good folks there have brought back a popular series from last year: Columbia Noir. While noir films (or “melodramas” or “crime dramas” as they were called back then) were certainly not exclusive to Columbia Pictures, the studio played host to some of the most interesting works from recognized auteurs such as Orson Welles and Fritz Lang to directors who were mostly underappreciated during their lifetimes but have since grown in reputation (Joseph H. Lewis and Nicholas Ray, the director of our chosen feature). In a Lonely Place follows screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) who hasn’t had a success since before World War II. He has a short and violent temper and is generally antisocial, and to make matters worse, finds himself embroiled in a murder in which he seems to be the most likely suspect. Everyone he interacts with is affected by him negatively, no one more so than his neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame). I personally have seen the film before, but I was wondering what your experiences with this film, Bogart or noir in general have been to provide some context for our discussion?
Henry Baime: I’ve seen loads of noirs and most of Bogart’s most well known films but there were a few pretty notable films I’d missed out on that I’ve been trying to catch up on recently. In a Lonely Place was one of those films that I hadn’t seen until I moved it to the top of my watchlist to prepare for this discussion. Though The Maltese Falcon remains my favorite Bogart film and my favorite noir and I don’t really see that ever changing, In a Lonely Place was superb and Bogart just might be better there than in anything else.
Nick Davie: I had only seen a handful of Bogart’s films, and this was my first viewing of In a Lonely Place, it was a great film noir experience and I was absolutely transfixed by Bogart as Dix. I didn’t want to go in totally blind to this, I read that Louise Brooks (Lulu), one of silent cinema’s stars and a friend of Bogart described his performance as Dix as the closest he ever came to himself on film. Like Henry, my favourite noir is The Maltese Falcon but I absolutely loved In a Lonely Place, it seemed like so much of the information we got from plot to script was used so well and nothing felt wasted.
Eugene: This definitely is one of Bogart’s best performances. As much as I like Bogart, I never thought of him as an actor with a lot of range. He doesn’t necessarily do a lot of the “actor-ly” things such as dramatically change his appearance, his voice, or even his body language. A good way to tell if an actor’s celebrity is more prominent than his or her acting is to ask yourself if you can name their characters. Though i can remember Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Rick Blaine fairly well, I struggle with his other roles and even with those aforementioned, I remember Bogart first. Yet he is always compelling to watch, and in this film, even if we have been playing attention to the facts of the case, I still couldn’t be sure, just because Bogart embodies the violent instability of Dixon Steele so well. What do you think made this performance better than other Bogart performances, and, on a separate note, what did you think of the Nicholas Ray’s direction?
Henry: I think Bogart was always best in conflicted roles as opposed to when he played a clear hero. As with all the characters you mentioned, here we spend most of the film believing he might be capable of terrible things but often still being drawn to him because he can so effortlessly move between calm and outbursts. When he seems to be cool and collected, there’s a certain intensity lurking and a bitterness to every word but when he explodes, he keeps a tenderness. Here he does better than in some other roles where he had similar roles, I think because he gets more of an opportunity to explore the pain that drives someone to those places and ultimately the choice he makes to victimize himself. As for Ray’s direction, it was typically excellent. With a wonderful sense of space in the apartment courtyard, he always conveys the relationship between the two leads through the setting while the crisp and efficient camera work further reflect the bleakness of the story. It isn’t Ray’s only film about a wounded man, in fact many of his dealt with that subject, but as he was going through a divorce with lead actress Gloria Grahame during filming, there’s a certain extent to which this one has to feel like a reflection of his life and I think it comes through in his direction.
Nick: Though I may be somewhat stating the obvious, I think Ray’s direction allows Bogart to really excel as Henry says. Ray’s script for In a Lonely Place is a much changed version from the novel the film is adapted from. I picked up on several characters including Dix, reference war and combat, make observations about how Dix hasn’t been particularly productive since the war. Essentially it’s an exploration of Freud’s theory of aggression displacement, Dix has no symptoms of PTSD that we see clearly but he is often seen directing so much intense emotion at anyone he can when something doesn’t perhaps go his way. I think Bogart really gets a chance to explore this self-destructive side because of Ray’s writing and direction, as Henry says, Gloria Grahame and Nicholas Ray were mid-separation during filming, this could well have been emphasised by Ray’s reflection on his own faults. Perhaps allowing some catharsis for Ray and Bogart in the misguided passion and intensity in Dix’ faults… There is a scene where the police chief reels off a list of previous complaints about Dix and his temperament, all post-war transgressions. I find it so impressive how so much of the writing is used to support the entire character arc of Dix, nothing goes to waste. Though I can’t say I have seen more than four of Nicholas Ray’s films, I would love to know if more seemed as personal as this particular film.
Eugene: Nicholas Ray is one of those classic Hollywood directors who didn’t mind delving into the dark side of the American psyche, whether it was teenage angst and disillusionment in Rebel Without a Cause or drug addiction in Bigger Than Life. It was interesting to see his work in black and white because he is perhaps best known for his use of vibrant color, especially in Johnny Guitar, which was underseen in America but a hit among the Cahiers du Cinema critics and eventual directors. I think his collaboration with cinematographer Burnett Guffey on this film is so masterful. The style is mostly understated yet he is not afraid of dramatic shots such as when Steele gives an alarming monologue in which he seems to implicate himself. The light dims while a streak of light shines across just his eyes, so as to highlight the despair he feels.
While Bogart is rightly lauded for his performance, we would be remiss if we did not talk about Gloria Grahame. As Nick mentioned, Grahame and Ray were in the middle of a separation and apparently Ray was extremely controlling of Grahame’s behavior on set. Perhaps that is why when she later becomes embroiled with Steele in a dangerous and suffocating manner, her performance feels even more real and intense. What did you think of her performance and how does it compare to other performances by actresses in classic noirs?
Nick: Having watched a handful of Ray’s films I have picked up on so many layers to his exploration of the things you mention Eugene, this deep underbelly that ran through post-war America and the self-reflection I think is consistently running through films such as Lonely Place. The monochrome visuals really lend themselves to the entire tone, I am not sure this film would be as powerful in color, more so as Eugene mentions the vibrant colors Ray is known for in his later works, the lighting is essential in highlighting a convincingly well-trodden path of self-immolation for Bogart.
It would be impossible to overlook the absolutely astonishing performance of Gloria Grahame, who, as Eugene has stated was subject to controlling behavior on set by Ray and I believe the studio also had a clause in her contract ensuring she remained professional at all times or be replaced. You can really feel the tension in those later scenes, for me, this is the best noir performance by an actress I have ever seen, Grahame is so cool and assured at first and then so visibly battling her own demons and doubts in the next breath. If I was to compare it to other great performances, I’d begin with Bette Davis in Paul Henreid‘s Dead Ringer (1964), though Davis is much more visibly shrouded in darkness, there is that palpable sense of inner turmoil present that she and both Grahame project so well. In Dead Ringer Davis plays two roles, so the plot really supports a strong performance and requires one, though Grahame only plays Laurel, the nuanced character had so many layers, some set up before she had even begun her relationship with Dix Steele.
Henry: I would agree that it’s one of the strongest noir performances I’ve seen as well. As with Bogart, I found myself often wondering just how much of it was performance and how much was really Grahame. That she could use her personal experiences to get something that felt so true it was often indistinguishable from reality for the viewer is a mark of a great performance in my mind. It opens up a whole new way of empathizing with the character when they seem exactly like they could be a real person. It was a layered performance that always felt like it could go anywhere but usually remained restrained and that has to have found some mirror in the situation she faced and that situation likely informed much of the uncomfortable atmosphere of the whole film. Working with someone mid divorce doesn’t seem like it would be a recipe for success but here it brought out the best for the type of film it was. Have either of you seen many others of Grahame’s films? My experience with her is fairly limited so I was wondering if this stands above her other work in your minds or is typical excellence.
Eugene: I would definitely recommend Sudden Fear, The Big Heat, and The Bad and the Beautiful, the last of which she won the Academy Award for. The first half of the 1950’s was the peak of Grahame’s career, but she would face the fate of many classic Hollywood actresses who would see their stars fade as industry sexism would make them irrelevant, as well as her later struggle with cancer.
We’ve definitely mentioned quite a few films in our discussion of In a Lonely Place. Are there any in particular that you would recommend to anyone who might be looking for more films like it?
Nick: As someone with little experience of Grahame’s other work, I will make an effort to watch these recommendations to see if she casts such a hypnotic spell as she did in In a Lonely Place. Though it may seem an obvious choice, I would always recommend The Maltese Falcon, which features a strong Bogart performance and classic noir elements, though it lacks the dynamic Bogart has with Grahame. The Big Sleep is a film I would recommend based on strong performances, Bogart and his last wife Lauren Bacall both feature and share this razor sharp chemistry, it flits between noir and screwball romance, also one for consideration I would suggest Sunset Boulevard, which has such striking monochrome cinematography and powerful leading performances from William Holden and Gloria Swanson.
Henry: I would say the whole Columbia Noirs section on the Criterion Channel that we found this in is probably the best place for anyone looking for something like this to look for more, along with other films from Nicholas Ray and the film’s stars and noirs in general. A couple I would specifically single out are Detour, They Live By Night, Key Largo, and, as Nick already mentioned, Sunset Boulevard, which I think provides the closest similarities as another noir about fading importance in a newer Hollywood.
Eugene: Noir is probably the most influential genre in all of American cinema behind the Western. A deep dive into noir is invaluable to any film education since so many directors took cues from this genre: the French New Wave directors, the Coens, Bong Joon-ho, etc. While there is a lot to say for the bigger productions, I am of the school that the cheaper noirs can be really satisfying, such as Detour, which Henry mentioned. I would recommend the works of Joseph H. Lewis, who could really stretch a budget while making really provocative work. The darkest noir I have ever seen has to be Robert Aldrich‘s Kiss Me Deadly, which is just pure nihilism on screen but is still exhilarating to watch. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong with anything in the Columbia noir collection, or just noir films in general.