In a Lonely Place is one of the great noirs: playful, unpredictable, funny and moving, unafraid of persistently wrong-footing the viewer. It’s so compelling because rather than featuring a discernible creep or villain, the nastiest piece of work in the film is in fact the anti-hero, a successful Hollywood screenwriter with a frightening proclivity for violence. His name is Dixon Steele, and is played by Humphrey Bogart, one of those rare actors whose characters simply couldn’t be played so brilliantly by anyone else. Place gives him a complex role, and one that fits Bogart like a latex glove: we’re used to seeing the cynical, respected, no-nonsense wise-guy who can never be figured out. Here, he is all of that and more: a sympathetic lover, and concealer of a somewhat monstrous inner core.
Like all the usual violent anti-heroes, such as Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta and even Joseph in the recent, superb Tyrannosaur, it is Steele’s propensity for violence that drives from him those who love him; in this film, though, unlike the other two, his character is in perpetual development from the beginning. Or at least, we see his character unravel, almost from the point of view of Laurel, his lover and neighbour. The brilliance of Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt’s script lies in its refusal to let us pin down the characters from the beginning, or to use clichés: the policemen, for example, are merely people doing their job, rather than overly vindictive or irritating characters. Indeed, they are fully fleshed-out, rather than being standard archetypes of authority. There is not a single character in the whole film with whom we cannot sympathise. Laurel appears at first to be somewhat akin to Lauren Bacall’s character in The Big Sleep (alluring but steely, calculating, with a hint of danger and constant unpredictability), but instead develops into a warm lover, blessed with wit, shrewdness and independence. That is, of course, until she meets Steele, who lives up to his name and emotionally arm-twists her into reciprocating his love for her.
This is not to say that she doesn’t love him at all. She is attracted to him physically (we learn early on that she “liked his face”), and, like the audience, is magnetically drawn to his enigmatic personality. Bogart has made a living out of playing enigmas, but Dixon Steele is the enigma of enigmas, messing with the minds of everyone in the film – no-one can figure him out – and constantly blurring the line between fact and fiction so even we, at points, suspect him of the early murder that is the main propeller of the plot. Bogie is playing a character with several roles: he is superficially a screenwriter, but an excellent actor, and a director in control of everything but his own emotions. Although there is a scene of mild brawling violence early on, we see him for a while as a normal (if passionate) man, fond of alcohol and beautiful women, always ready with a shining witticism that punctures situations like a pin to a balloon. It is only after he tries to force his good friend Nikolai and Nikolai’s wife to re-enact the murder that we begin to doubt his veneer of stability. By the time he beats up and is about to bludgeon a man to death with a rock, we begin to seriously view him as a possible suspect for the murder. But to what extent is he acting? How far can he push the line?
We never find out. Upon hearing of the murder, he betrays no emotion, despite having spent hours with the victim the previous night; even his love for Laurel is often demonstrated as a force of possession, obvious by the way he grips her arms and talks to her. And yet, on the surface, he can be capable of acts of pure decency and love: he asks for 2,000 white roses to be sent to the victim’s grave, and often makes breakfast for Laurel with love and care. He is always at ease, saying to restless characters on a couple of occasions: “What’s wrong with right here?” He is deeply in love with his neighbour; but most of all, he is damn funny. Humour always makes characters sympathetic, and Bogart dutifully reads his lines as only Bogart can: drily, ironically, perceptively. Unlike in most noirs, the protagonist of Place is not “within and without”: he is firmly within, not elevated above the other characters except in his intelligence, allowing us to fully sympathise with him. But despite loving and being loved, he is almost constantly in a lonely place because no-one can understand him, making the final shot of the film intensely poignant. The conflict at his core makes him one of cinema’s most truly fascinating characters.
Bogart’s performance of a brilliant character, and the film’s unusual, groundbreaking nature, are the main reasons for watching this film. However, the direction by Nicholas Ray (who has created a body of work that includes films described by Jean-Luc Godard as “pure cinema”) cannot go unnoticed. Largely known for his melodramas, he orchestrates climaxes here that are surprisingly effective, probably because of their restraint; the strings of George Antheil’s score are played softly but in a minor key, and while they can occasionally be incongruous, they effectively imbue the film with an atmosphere of unease. The simple but piercing trill of a telephone almost makes your heart skip a beat, while the close-ups that bounce back and forth between Steele and Laurel keep you on your toes (or on the edge of your seat; pick your cliché). There is little focus on the environment in which they live, the main focus being on the souls of the two lovers: souls that are wonderfully and complicatedly portrayed, but never explained, to the credit of the screenwriters. We know Steele and Laurel, and yet they appear unknowable; we are told their histories, yet we know nothing of their families or lives outside the bubble of the plot. This is true of all noirs, but Ray and his actors encapsulate their enigmas better than any other I’ve ever seen.
In a Lonely Place is a film that should be seen by everybody. However complex Steele is, there is some of him in all of us: the ability to be loving and passionate, the propensity for violence, and/or the pride and ego married to an almost crippling dependency on another person. See the film for its script, its direction, its acting, its thrills; but most of all to witness cinema at its very best.