In a Lonely Place/1950/Columbia Pictures/94 min.
One of Gloria Grahame’s most nuanced performances is as Laurel Gray in 1950’s “In a Lonely Place,” a noir love story from director Nicholas Ray. Laurel eschews any double-dealing or dark deeds in this film. She’s got enough on her hands trying to navigate a new romance: Does she like the way he kisses? Will he call when he says he will? Did he brutally kill a girl for no reason? You know, the usual dating stuff.
Her love interest is her neighbor, Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a volatile, sometimes violent, screenwriter, with a history of fights and scandals. Her cool affection seems the perfect salve for his simmering aggression.
The fly in the ointment is that Police Capt. Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is convinced that Dix, in a fit of temper, murdered a hatcheck girl named Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart). He was, after all, the last person to see her alive. Dix professes his innocence and Laurel backs him up. But Dix’s erratic behavior gets worse and, when he proposes, Laurel’s too scared to say no.
“In a Lonely Place” is an exquisitely tender love story and it holds up incredibly well for contemporary audiences, who know the ropes of brief, ill-fated affairs. “It’s complicated” would be Laurel’s Facebook relationship status if she’d lived in the age of online communication.
On one hand, she tries to take it slow with Dix, telling him, “I don’t want to be rushed.” But she’s already lied to the police to give him an alibi for the night of the Atkinson murder. At first, the pair conveniently push the reality of Dix’s rage under the rug, though it becomes harder and harder as their shared fear (that he is capable of such a killing) slowly and steadily builds.
Much of the action takes place at the Beverly Patio Apartments complex, where Laurel and Dix both live, offering ample opportunity for skulking and spying. Director Ray lived in a similar complex in West Hollywood and it served as the model for the film set.
If Ray is a poet as a director, this film is an ode to impossible love, a sensitive portrayal of a strong, egoic man succumbing to dark inner demons and the pain he inflicts on those around him. It might be just as apt to compare Ray to a painter so arresting and assured are his compositions (he studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright).
As with most of Ray’s films, “In a Lonely Place” offers powerful, sometimes blisteringly raw, performances all around. Grahame’s tear-stained face at the end is an image that never leaves you once you see it. (Ray and Grahame married in 1948, separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952).
Bogart, though he never loses his swagger, brilliantly conveys Dix’s growing desperation and alienation. Excellent in supporting parts are Frank Lovejoy as Dix’s friend and lone ally at the police station, Jean Marie “Jeff” Donnell as his friend’s wife and Art Smith as Dix’s agent.
Scripted by Andrew Solt, “In a Lonely Place” is based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, which is well worth a read; it’s a very fast read by the way. In the book, Dix is a shadowy, psychopathic killer, not a successful screenwriter with a bad temper, and Hughes explores his psyche in great detail. She also conjures a gritty picture of LA after World War Two.
The movie contains a good dose of noir cynicism about Hollywood and how it treats its struggling denizens. “In a Lonely Place” would make an excellent double bill with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” also from 1950.
Grahame played in many noirs (and won the best supporting actress Oscar in 1952 for her role in “The Bad and the Beautiful”) but by the early ’60s, her career was dragging and she saw for herself how Tinseltown’s chummy embrace could turn to cold shoulders and closed doors.
“In a Lonely Place” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd.