Directed by Nicholas Ray
In a Lonely Place is a bit hard to pin down. The protagonist, Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is as sardonic and detached from the world as some of Bogart’s other characters (Samuel Spade, Rick Blaine), and he’s always sure that he’s in control of the situation. In this case, however, his familiar character flaws are not forgiven, and they lead to his undoing.
I listened to a podcast today, Draft Zero, and they discussed how The Bourne Identity works as not just a spy movie, like James Bond, but also as a character study of what it means to kill, as Bourne and Bond do. Near the midpoint of the movie, Jason Bourne has really started to question who he is and what he does. As he puts together a past he cannot remember and learns of the horrors he has committed as an assassin, he considers abandoning the plot altogether, afraid to learn much more about who he was and what he’s capable of. He’s a character that has begun to look inward.
On this podcast, the guest came to the conclusion that The Bourne Identity was a turning point for spy movies. Before, as in the Bond films, a character could kill his way through the plot without considering the severity of his actions. When Bourne made its character really think about what he’d done, it changed the way future spy movies, including the Bond reboot, operated. Because audiences had now seen a character with some degree of introspection, it gave us an expectation that future characters such as Jason Bourne would need to consider their actions.
I got a similar feeling from In a Lonely Place. It’s a story with a hard-drinking, temperamental protagonist who does well with the ladies but is otherwise a lonely man. Bogart’s Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, was a private detective who had been carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, and when his partner turned up dead, he barely blinked an eye and his first thought towards his mistress was whether she might’ve done it. Later he would turn on the woman he loved when he found out she was the one who killed his partner. As he told her, he had a code to follow, but he did so out of obligation and not love. He’s a lonely man who was even lonelier when the film ended.
In Casablanca, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is somehow even lonelier, possibly because he’s surrounded by people. Rick owns and operates a club in Casablanca, where he lives because he is effectively exiled from America. When a love interest, Ilsa, shows up, we see just how lonely Rick is. He drinks himself to sleep every night and pushes Ilsa and everyone else around him away with his anger. Though he may seem like the life of the party at the beginning, we come to see how little Rick even knows the people in his bar. He himself says, “I stick my neck out for no one,” but he grows as a character, ultimately sacrificing himself for his old love interest by the end.
But the essence of these two characters is one of loneliness, alcoholism, ego and isolation. They live in the shadows and would seem to suffer for it, but In a Lonely Place‘s Dixon Steele is the only character who seems to come close to feeling the weight of what they should all feel.
Dixon is a struggling screenwriter, but that doesn’t mean he will take the pushing and shoving that comes with a job thrown his way. He accepts an offer when we meet him, but he couldn’t care less about the story, and he does so only for the paycheck. When he is asked to read the book on which the script will be based, he doesn’t, instead preferring to take home a girl at the studio who has read the book and asking her what the story is about.
But even once he takes her home, Dixon mostly ignores her. He doesn’t care what she has to say, and within minutes she’s on her way home. By this point we see that Dixon has a certain amount of fame that has all gone to his head. He’s an alcoholic, and he’s prone to fist fights. Though he’s still Humphrey Bogart, and his character receives a certain amount of fame we might attribute to Bogart’s own persona, there are enough characters who have nothing but contempt for him. This is not a character loved by others, as Sam and Rick were. He is, in other words, held accountable for his lousy behavior.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get some admiration. When the girl Dixon brings home, and later sends off, is killed that night, he is brought in for questioning. A neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame, the director’s wife from whom he became estranged during production of the picture), tells the police that she saw the girl leave Dixon’s apartment, mostly clearing his name from the investigation.
Dixon is drawn to Laurel, not just because of her own beauty, but because she openly admits to finding him attractive. As a known screenwriter, Dixon considers the possibility that Laurel merely wants him to put her in a film, but he pursues her anyways. Perhaps he doesn’t mind being used because he uses enough people himself.
They develop a romance that genuinely benefits both characters, and in particular Dixon. He starts to pour over his new script assignment, working day and night, making his agent proud. Their relationship, in other words, brings out the absolute best in Dixon. He’s no longer the hard-drinking, cynical, wise-cracking hero he once was. Now he’s a kind, considerate, hard-working man.
But the detectives still have no better suspect than Dixon, and when they get word of Laurel’s relationship with him, they begin to suspect that her witness evidence isn’t as strong as it once was. When they bring her in for questioning and Dixon finds out, he becomes furious that she didn’t tell him. In a fit or rage he gets into an altercation with a young man and beats him to within an inch of his life.
This moment is enough to frighten Laurel, making her think that maybe Dixon did kill the girl. There has been enough evidence to this point of Dixon’s temper and capacity for violence that we too begin to wonder if he killed the girl.
Eventually Laurel, certain that Dixon killed her and having seen the full force of his violent wrath, tries to leave him, and this, above all else, brings out the worst in him. By the time the detectives call to say that they’ve found the real killer, the girl’s boyfriend who was the only other real suspect, the damage has been done. Dixon walks away a beaten man, small within the frame, while the calligraphic “THE END” that we’re used to seeing over loving embraces hangs over him like an ironic joke.
The ending of the film is enough to make this feel subversive. We have Bogart, a beautiful leading lady, a charming romance, murder, mystery, INTRIGUE, and basically everything you expect. Just not the happy ending.
It’s like a long anti-joke, setting up the familiar Bogart character and a murder-mystery which we are no strangers to in movies, but then there’s never that final turn that you expect, and in doing so, this seems a commentary on all the other stories we’ve seen. The turn towards the better in act three, Nicholas Ray and his writer might be saying, is all a lie. There is no coming back from what Dixon has done in this movie, his poor treatment of his girlfriend and pretty much everyone around him. He’s manipulative, a drunk, lazy and violent, and those characters aren’t as likely to change as we think given their familiar arcs in most movies.
The film holds the Bogart-esque character accountable for his behavior in ways other films haven’t.