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In a Lonely Place (1950)

by on 2012/03/30

“Oh, I didn’t say I was a gentleman. I said I was tired.”

* * *

In a Lonely Place jumped out at me, but not because I knew much about it; I recognized its title from the B-side of New Order’s first single (“Ceremony”). The more I read, however, the more I wanted to see it. A widely acclaimed affair, starring the legendary Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), the infamous Gloria Grahame (It’s a Wonderful Life), and directed by Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar), it almost couldn’t help but disappoint.

Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a has-been Hollywood script writer, notorious for violently losing his temper. One night, a young assistant meets a tragic end, and he becomes the suspect of choice. Since no suitable evidence links him to the crime, he’s returned to his life and surveilled.

Miraculously he finds his creativity suddenly restored, and he begins a new relationship. Nevertheless, shadows of doubt and suspicion threaten his utopia, outside and in. His lack of concern for the victim keeps the police searching for connections. His erratic moods continue to get him in trouble. And soon his newest girlfriend (Grahame) starts to fear for her own well-being.

To its credit, the story is obscure. Nothing seems for certain. Is Steele too obvious in his behaviour to be anything but a red herring? Is his girlfriend’s fearfulness genuine, or does she hide a secret too? Is she escaping a prior relationship,  improving her career, or even hiding from an attention-getting murder?

The movie provides a solution which, for all its surprise, isn’t very interesting. Yet by the time I’d reached that part I was more than ready to stop.

I had several smaller complaints, though they didn’t amount to a lot. There was an odd moment of first-person perspective when the assistant reads aloud to Steele, appearing to speak directly to the audience. A midpoint musical interlude struck me as similarly distracting. I also found the “hacienda” set (another New Order flag!) repeated so often the production itself began to feel like a Bizarro World sitcom. A cast of light-hearted eccentrics only added to this impression: the busybody manager, the theatrical drunkard, and the ex-military-buddy-turned-cop.

The most serious issue for me was Bogart’s character himself. Film noir anti-heroes can still be compelling despite all of their flaws. Maybe we sympathize with their weakness, or maybe we envy their cool. With Dixon Steele, on the other hand, I didn’t much care about his fate. In short, he’s an obnoxious bully who salves his guilt by buying victims off. If he weren’t played by a cinematic heavyweight, there’d be little of note about him.

I simply didn’t see the same classic so many critics have praised. In a Lonely Place was a competent drama, not a thriller so much as a portrait of abuse. Less impressive than Ray’s They Live by Night, but also less frivolous than Rebel Without a Cause, I thought it merely middling, with the slightest trimmings of noir.

* * *

PG (Canada) / Not Rated (United States)

94 minutes

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