Thursday, March 4, 2021

#2,535. In a Lonely Place (1950) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


For me, Humphrey Bogart was always a “Man’s Man”, a rugged, tough-as-nails actor who played strong lead characters.

But as I think back on some of his greatest performances, I see my initial perception only told half the story. Bogie was, indeed, at his best portraying strong leads, but many of these characters also had an inherent flaw, or a vulnerability that only an actor of Bogart’s stature could convincingly convey. Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny was an experienced officer, yet his by-the-book approach, coupled with an acute paranoia, would force his second-in-command Lt. Maryk (Van Johnson) to turn on him.

But Queeg is just the tip of the iceberg; Charlie Allnut (The African Queen) was an alcoholic tugboat captain who was slow to act, and Fred C. Dobbs (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) would let his greed get the better of him. Even Rick (Casablanca) loses perspective when old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) strolls into his gin joint, while Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) carried on an affair with his partner’s wife. You sense the strength in each and every one of these characters, but it’s their weaknesses that make them so compelling.

Which brings me to Dixon Steele, Bogart’s character in director Nicholas Ray’s extraordinary 1950 drama / film noir In a Lonely Place. A Hollywood screenwriter who has fallen on hard times, Dixon - “or “Dix”, as he’s known to his friends - has a very short fuse, and his temper often gets him into hot water (in the very first scene, Dix argues with a director interested in hiring him, then slugs another filmmaker for insulting an aging actor).

Dix’s reputation for stirring up trouble even makes him the prime suspect in the murder of cocktail hostess Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), especially since he was the last to see her alive (Dix invited the eager young lady to his house, hoping she could adequately explain the plot of a book he was being hired to adapt, but was none too eager to read).

Fortunately for Dix, pretty neighbor Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame) - who watched Dix say good night to Miss Atkinson - manages to get him off the hook with the cops, if only temporarily; police Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) still believes he’s guilty, and orders Dix’s old friend, detective Bruh Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), to keep an eye on him.

As for Dix, he’s more than thankful that Laurel spoke up. In fact, he falls deeply in love with her, and she with him. Happy for the first time in years, Dix starts writing again, and is even talking about marriage. But it’s only a matter of time before his explosive temper rears its ugly head, leaving Laurel to question not only their relationship, but if Dix is actually guilty of murdering Mildred Atkinson.

This is part of what makes In a Lonely Place such a fascinating character study; we the audience know Dix is innocent. We watched him walk Mildred to the door, and bid her good night (she was killed a few hours later, her lifeless body dumped on the side of the road). Yet from the moment he’s questioned by the police, Dix acts like a man who is not only capable of killing (while at Bruh’s house for dinner, Dix explains, in graphic detail, how he thinks Mildred’s murder was carried out), but likely to do so before the movie is over (a minor traffic accident escalates into an all-out brawl, with Dix beating the other driver to within an inch of his life).

Bogart is brilliant as the conflicted Dix, a man whose volatile nature is his own worst enemy, and Gloria Grahame shines as Laurel, the love of Dix’s life who is torn between her feelings for him and her doubts about his innocence (before long, Laurel admits to being terrified of Dix, to the point that she’s afraid to turn down his marriage proposal).

Along with its cast, another intriguing aspect of In a Lonely Place is how Nicholas Ray toys with the audience, teetering us back and forth between liking Dix and realizing he’s a potentially very dangerous man. Many of Ray’s best films deal with flawed individuals (Bowie in They Live by Night, Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause), characters we admire in spite of their weaknesses. With In a Lonely Place, the director gives us yet another lead that fits into this niche, and in so doing has crafted a singular motion picture, with a performance by Humphrey Bogart that ranks among his all-time best.
Rating: 10 out of 10

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