Thursday 13 November 2014

In a Lonely Place (1950)

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It is an interesting day today. I am writing this review on “In a Lonely Place” with half an eye on live streaming from the landing on a comet. Two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other but the name. Philae and Rosetta are truly in a lonely place as well. If the landing succeeds I will likely mention it further down in my review. Meanwhile I will try to focus on the movie.

“In a Lonely Place” is a bit like an anecdote in Hollywood history. Squeezed in between some of Bogart’s great performances like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” “In a Lonely Place” is a much smaller movie and maybe overlooked for that reason. It is subdued and smaller in scale and that may in fact be its strength, because everything feels tight and claustrophobic to the extent that we as a viewer feel trapped as much as the characters. It may be a lonely place but it is also a very uncomfortable place and Nicholas Ray, the director manage to create a confined space from which there is no escape.

This is a portrait of a man with some serious mental problems. Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele suffers from what I would guess would be bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness. He moves from manic obsession with his work to depressive stupor, from being the nicest guy around to a violent maniac and when he is having his fits, whether one way or the other he lives in his own pseudo reality where the world is at his feet / conspire against him. I have seen people being manic and even when it is in positive direction it is pretty scary. In this case it is scarier still because in many ways Dixon Steele is the same Bogart character he is in so many other of his movies. Same ticks, same look, same lines except here he spins entirely out of control. The amazing thing is how well Bogart does it. You would almost believe it is really him, which for the sake of Lauren Bacall, I hope it is not.

Gloria Grahame is the woman, Laurel Gray, who tries to live with him. He is easy enough to love when he is normal and his strangeness is at first is what makes him interesting, but soon enough she has to cope with his lunacy and that is not so fun at all. How can you love a man who can turn deeply paranoid and violent, who at the slightest trigger may have it in him to kill someone? The answer is of course that despite all the understanding in the world it is just not possible. In fact it quickly turns into a nightmare of fear and worry.

Dixon Steele is in a lonely place because he disappears into that paranoid world of his where nobody can follow him, but also because his actions makes people flee from him. His only friends are his agent, who needs him as a client and a drunken actor, who has nobody else. But Laurel Gray also finds herself in a lonely place fighting a one-woman battle against Dixon Steele’s illness. The sad thing is that her company may be the only thing that can help him, yet he makes it impossible and so there is only one way it can go.

The story is wrapped up in a noir framework with a murder and a nagging suspicion. The police suspects Steele to have killed a woman and we just do not know if he really did it, nor do any of the characters involved. It is a neat whodunit story and there are many beautiful noir elements, but they are only wrapping to the real sorry about the horror of mental illness. The seemingly aimless drive in the night that opens the movie is very symbolic for the lonely existence of Dixon Steele, in his mental illness.

This is also another skewering of Hollywood, which seems to have been the theme of 1950. Most of the characters are living on the fringe of glamorous Hollywood, but in circumstances not particularly flashy. It portraits people who sacrifice their creativity in order to produce inane scripts for inane movies in order to make a living. These are the actors who never quite made it and a manager grasping for straws. It is the Hollywood of lost dreams. To me it does not feel so much like a skewering. This is more or less what we have come to expect for most people who battle it out in the film industry, but I suppose in 1950 this was a bucket of cold water on all those hopefuls who dreamed of a career there.

The movie is produced by Bogart’s own production company Santana Productions and it is curious that Bogart chose this story considering how unflattering it is to his character. He is essentially showing a dark flipside to all the heroes he has played. But maybe it was the challenge in it, the chance to do something different with a role that appealed to him and certainly Bogie nails it here. Watch this movie for Bogie and the cinematography if not for the rather depressing story. This is the performance of a real star.

In the meantime Philae has landed on the comet. They are not entirely sure how it has fared yet, but it seems to be okay. I could not help cheering with the staff in the control room, it is quite amazing when you think about it. I read that somebody suggested that Bruce Willis could go and fix the harpoon, he should have some experience with drilling on a comet… But this is a story that needs no extra Hollywood glamour. Sometimes reality is pretty cool.


  1. As good as Bogart is in this, I think it's Gloria Grahame's best performance. This is especially true at the end, where she really nails it.

    1. I agree on that. Bogart's performance may be overshadowing hers, but truly, she get it exactly right. She is the one we associate with more than Steele as he become stranger and stranger.

  2. I was worried that I (and Steve) might have oversold this one for you, but it sounds like you appreciated it. I agree with Steve that I consider this Grahame's best performance.

    And you hit the nail on the head when you wrote that she might be the only thing that can turn him around, but he is making that impossible for her to do.

    This was my review from about a year ago, if you are interested:

    1. It is a tough movie to watch because of the subject matter, but it is rewarding and the acting and cinematography are top notch, so, no worries there.
      Thank you for the tip, I will read you review.

  3. Can't add anything that hasn't already been said. I'm wondering if audiences in the 50's related to the mental illness aspect the same way we do today. I think some medication could have helped Bogie and maybe saved his relationship with Grahame. So sad.

    1. I have a feeling people were left to their own devices until they became a danger or a bother at which point it was easier to lock them up. Or maybe that was an earlier age. Bogart's character could certainly have needed some helo and medication, but in the movie he is not even diagnosed,he is just another guy with terrible demons of his own.