Humphrey Bogart reputedly occupied something of a lonely place among his Hollywood peers—although he had his good friends, Louise Brooks, in a 1967 essay, wrote of his ‘isolation among people’. In fact, she suggested that the part he played in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place was close to his own character—a selfish devotion to his creative work, coupled with drunkenness and volatility. Of course it’s impossible now to reconstruct his personality—although he lived until 1957, anyone who knew him as a peer is long dead, and his mythical stature inevitably distorts whatever image of him we might form today. Brooks talked about Humphrey the serious theatre actor that she knew, and Bogie the rebellious, hard-living film star, a deliberately cultivated simulacrum designed to reflect the parts he played.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was indeed considered essential that movie stars should cultivate a personal image related to their on-screen persona: no leading man could be in any way effeminate, intellectual, or ‘less’ than the two-fisted alpha that was the archetype of the cinematic hero. In fact, contracts often stipulated the kinds of situations in which it was permitted to show an actor, in order to protect their carefully cultivated public image—for instance, prohibiting them from losing a fist-fight. Of course not every leading man was butch—Cary Grant often played daft characters—but the leading role in In A Lonely Place was quite a departure. It’s hard to see it from a twenty-first century perspective, but there was a good deal of risk involved in a major star like Bogart portraying a character as nasty and unhinged as Dix Steele.
The later part of Bogart’s career is characterised by an interest in making good movies, however, rather than making money. This film was produced by his own company, Santana Productions, and paints a vivid, startlingly unfavourable portrait of Hollywood and its inhabitants. Although even the biggest stars were pretty much powerless in the face of the studio system, Bogart had enough clout to do his own thing, as long as he generated sufficient notoriety to keep his distributors happy—and audiences loved to see anything scandalous related to the film industry.
This is a nuanced and morally ambiguous film, especially by the standards of the time. Its atmosphere is unsettling, and although it’s usually regarded as a noir, its narrative is driven by character development rather than by a complicated plot—although there is a mystery at the centre of the story. Bogart’s character, an unproductive and troubled screenwriter, is suspected of a murder. Although it seems unlikely he committed it, his unconcern at the suggestion, and his unstable, violence-prone character serve to keep him in the frame. In the course of the investigation he comes to know his neighbour, played by Gloria Grahame, and the two form a relationship (in the amusingly mealy-mouthed manner required by the Hays Code in 1950).
Grahame’s character is basically a nice girl, who takes the irascible Steele on and nurtures him, but she is also someone who knows what she wants and is not ashamed of getting it. In this, her screen persona is not that different from Lauren Bacall’s (who was prevented by her studio contract from taking the part), and she plays her part with a similar kind of stylish insouciance. It’s now regarded as having been one of her finest roles, and she does indeed inhabit the role convincingly. Bogart plays Bogie playing a screenwriter, and of course it works. His capacity for veiled menace, the sense that what’s happening behind his eyes is unknowable and unpredictable, comes to the fore. Frighteningly volatile characters would become a staple in later crime movies, as performed by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting, but such figures were not routinely celebrated when In A Lonely Place was made, and Bogart worked within a much less explicit set of norms. When he picks up a rock to smash in the head of a motorist he has just beaten unconscious after a minor accident it’s a genuinely shocking moment, abetted by the relatively casual way in which he does it.
The ending of the film has been described as bleak, and it is certainly not the sort of ending that was common at the time. Steele is exonerated, but his behaviour has been so frightening that he and Grahame’s characters go their separate ways. To contemporary audiences, not trained on the random accidents and acts of violence that can conclude twenty-first century cinematic narratives, it must have felt unresolved. Nobody died, nobody lived happily ever after, nobody got the girl. In fact, an ending was filmed in which Bogart murdered Grahame and was arrested for it, but Nicholas Ray, to his credit, was unable to live with tying up the loose ends so neatly—and we should thank him for re-shooting the final scene, because it would have made for a far less interesting movie.
Despite their obvious star quality and on-screen charisma, Bogart and Grahame both play their characters here, and with a strong supporting cast the film is one of the most convincing dramas I’ve seen from the Golden Age. I guess it’s fair to say I was less emotionally engaged than by some of the more overtly stylish Bogart films I’ve seen, as I’m very engaged with the image and myth of the era, but even a well-made drama like this seems lacking in naturalism from a twenty-first century perspective. However, I did find it exciting, mysterious, stylish, and occasionally it was truly disturbing. Good art is always disturbing, in my opinion, and In A Lonely Place is good art.