Tuesday, March 20, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1950): In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place is not one of Humphrey Bogart's best-known movies, but many people think of it as one of his top performances -- even better than his Oscar-winning work a year later in The African Queen. Bogart had so many great roles that picking one is next to impossible, but Place is probably as good a candidate as any.

Bogie is Dixon Steele, a screenwriter who's gone a long time without much work and who's a little too ready to tip a glass and start a fight. He finds himself mixed up in a murder investigation at the same time he begins a relationship with a neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). The relationship helps Steele rediscover his muse, making his agent happy as well, but the strain of being the number-one suspect starts to wear on him, provoking his violent side and making Laurel wonder if the man she has fallen in love with is in fact a murderer.

At first glance, Steele seems like he's a typical Bogie character -- smooth, cool, loose and cynically impervious to the world. But as we watch though the first ten minutes of the movie we see that Steele is not so much loose as he is coming apart at the seams, and rather than being smooth and cool he's frayed and unraveling before our eyes. At 51, Bogie's already weathered face had begun to show more signs of age and his hard lifestyle (cancer would kill him barely six years later), especially in closeups. Director Nicholas Ray used the contrast between the seemingly unchanged Bogie at a distance and the aging one in closeups to highlight how Dixon Steele starts to wear down under the pressure of the investigation, his own paranoia and his selfishness.

Grahame is a top-level film noir femme fatale as Laurel Gray, just as quick with her wits and comebacks as is Steele. She too has one face she wears in private with Steele, one that's much more open and ready to laugh, and one that she wears elsewhere, which is hard to imagine smiling at all. Bogart's wife Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers were both considered for the part, but Ray convinced the studio to cast his soon-to-be ex-wife Grahame instead and it was definitely a good choice. Bacall could be cool but lacked Grahame's iciness, and it's hard to imagine Ginger Rogers projecting the same aura of brittle disdain.

In a Lonely Place wasn't much of a hit on its release, but time has been kinder to it and critics today often consider it one of the top examples of mid-20th century film noir. It's certainly bleak and unsettling, but it also showcases two of the best performances by a top actress and a movie icon and definitive noir direction from Nicholas Ray.

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