In a Lonely Place Ages Badly

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Columbia, 94 minutes, Not Rated (pre-ratings system)





In a Lonely Place makes a lot of top 100 films lists and is considered a film noir classic. It doesn’t get that kind of love from me. Although its lead actors, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame–and several within the supporting cast–are excellent, the film promises a lot, but delivers junk mail.


Dixon Steele (Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter. To say he has a temper is akin to saying Donald Trump has ego issues. Bogart has his trousers hitched up to just under his breast bone, which might explain his caged tiger explosions. He’s at his favorite restaurant/watering hole one evening trading jaded lines with a drunken pal, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), whom he calls “Thespian,” an allusion to being a washed-up actor. Agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) has been trying to get Dix, his client, back into screenwriting and tells him he has a producer on the line who only wants a faithful adaptation of a novel. Dix has little interest in reading it, but an enthusiastic hatcheck attendant, Mildred Atkinson, liked the novel a lot. Dix invites her back his to place to tell him about the book rather than read it. The more Mildred talks, the less Dix wants anything to do with the project. She leaves to walk to a nearby cab stand, as Steele eyes a sexy new neighbor.


The next morning, Steele gets a call from Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who served with Dix during World War Two. Brub is now a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and discovers from him and Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) that Mildred Atkinson was murdered the previous evening. Dix’s complete disinterest in the tragedy makes him a prime suspect in Lochner’s eyes, though Brub doubts it. Luckily, that sexy neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame), vouches for having seen Dix staring into her window at the time Mildred was murdered.


Is she lying? Again, Dix does little to help deflect suspicion. He and Laurel begin a torrid love affair and, for the first time, Dix contemplates settling down. Several creepy episodes with Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell—“Jeff” is her nickname) and a list of dismissed assault complaints a mile long again casts suspicion on Dix. Laurel is both in love with and scared to death of Dix, who is controlling of her and violent towards others. So, do we have a crime tale or a love story? It’s hard to say. Oddly, for a film about a screenwriter, Andrew Solt’s screenplay is as full of holes as a bum’s sock.


Few actors have ever rivaled Bogart when it comes to portraying volatility. As noted when I reviewed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart easily switched from man to simian. When Laurel says she was initially drawn to him because that she liked his face, we can be sure it wasn’t his devolved countenance. Bogart plays Dix like he’s sitting on the lid of a boiling pot. Grahame, who was married to director Nicholas Ray at the time, is also very good. She’s a tough cookie, but she crumbles at the right moments. Art Smith is superb in a supporting role as a milquetoast agent and Warwick adds comic relief.


Normally, those fine performances would cover the leaden ones of Lovejoy, Reid, and Martha Stewart–no, not that one–who cameoed as Mildred. Alas, the film’s cheap psychology and unexplained motives don’t weather well. Solt dropped the ball in several notable places. Why introduce the detail that Dix was Brub’s commanding officer in the war if you’re not going to do anything with it? More seriously, if your central character is as violence-prone as Dixon Steele, shouldn’t there at least be a motive for his anger? Does he have PTSD? Was he jilted? Did he get screwed by the movie industry? Is he an alcoholic? Give us something, for heaven’s sake.


In a Lonely Place has a noir look and psyche, but it’s all dressed up and never leaves the apartment complex in which Dix and Laurel reside. It’s a film in which you turn over your hands in a “That’s it?” gesture.


Rob Weir



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