Bob was interested in Bogart for a minute last year, it came on the tail of his quick obsession with samurai movies, and when I saw that In a Lonely Place was coming up on the List, a Bogart movie I’d never even heard of, I asked if he wanted to watch it together and he said sure so I went to his apartment and we had a chuckle within the first few minutes when we heard the character’s name (Dix Steele) but after that we were kinda turned off to see Bogart just swagging around for two hours, playing the stereotype of a posh, heavydrinking, wise-cracking novelist socialite. Afterward we agreed it was a fine enough time but we were both kinda disappointed and we left it at that.
But I’m realizing in retrospect that I wasn’t appreciating it as I should have. I’d been so impressed by Bogart’s performance in Treasure of the Sierre Madre, a total departure from stuff he’d been doing as an A-lister and conceivably a big risk for his career, to’ve played not just a villain but a filthy, paranoid, savage maniacal one. (I remember being surprised to learn that Arnold Schwarzenegger, I think at the insistence of his agent, only agreed to star in Terminator 2 if he could play the hero, unlike his villainous turn in the first movie, because apparently his star was deemed to be in a steady but delicate ascent and playing a villain at that exact moment might have hurt his career. I’d like to read some accounts of people for whom this happened. They were beloved and then they played a villain so well that people couldn’t take them seriously as a hero ever again. Surely Heath Ledger’s career would have exploded to new heights in the wake of his role as the Joke in Dark Kight. Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin were just talking on their podcast about how great it’ll be when Tom Cruise is old enough to not have to worry about overseas box office, to not have to worry about being a hero, so that he can start playing interesting people.) (This article, incidentally, suggests the opposite of what I’ve been hearing for years: that Schwarzenegger fought the idea of playing a hero. Whatever.)
Anyway. Back to Bogart. I think I was looking to see him either reach here for something a little more savage or to play his tried-and-true gun-toting Casanova character.
What I wasn’t keen enough to appreciate was the subtler sort of savagery that he does manifest here, in Lonely Place, where he’s flashing less of the paranoid psychopath schtick we saw in Sierra Madre and more of the cold, slowburning, agitated violence just barely contained within the shell of a dapper-looking man. The sort from whom you’d never expect it. Rudolf Klein-Rogge pulls it off in Dr. Mabuse. Sinatra does it in Some Came Running and Brando in…pretty much everything.
I’m only realizing now, after watching it and reading some criticism, that Bogart really is swinging for something new with Lonely Place, that he’s challenging himself and, arguably, tapping into something more natural and honest that I think actors are able to conjure in these mid-century movies about show business (The Red Shoes, All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole). They’re addressing the headaches and heartbreaks of their own industry, and I’m thinking the emotions might be a little more available.
Dix Steele’s a screenwriter who, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, is taking on an unsavory writing assignment in order to pay the bills. Steel’s tasked with adapting an apparently-shitty novel for the screen.
One night, he takes a hostess home with him from a restaurant. Once they’re back at his enormous apartment, the two have a great exchange about the book he’s adapting (she’s read it, he hasn’t) and here we see Bogart flex that skill I was overlooking. He plays the scene as though Dix is willing to have sex, but isn’t interested enough to really pursue it, but then conducts himself in such a mildly flirty way as to make clear that his bedroom door is open if she should care to hop in.
Next day, that hostess turns up dead and, having been seen leaving the restaurant with her last night, Dixon becomes a murder suspect. Weirdly, though, this never feels like a big deal. There’s a witness saying she saw the victim leave Steele’s place unharmed, and Steel himself seems so cool and confident about his innocence that when he strikes up a rapport with his neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the specter of romance totally eclipses the murder suspicion (are we even supposed to be concerned?) and the movie just starts to feel…almost like a domestic drama.
There’s a clichéd sequence showing blissful literary productivity, similar to the montage of fiendish typing we see in Misery or Barton Fink or Deconstructing Harry, where Steel is producing gorgeous work while his beloved reads and fawns over it. Life is perfect. If you’re a wannabe writer like myself it’s the kinda setpiece that makes you swell.
The bliss of the relationship gives way, over time, to turbulence, and eventually we’re watching a dark noir-ish film about how Laurel, having recently allowed this man past all of her emotional barriers, finds herself committed now to a guy whose spontaneous blackout rages do seem to be potentially murderous (she stops him from bashing a dude’s brain in with a rock during a road rage incident that really is effectively disarming on account of the speed with which it escalates).
But those are just about the only couple scenes where I felt much of anything. I’ve got a feverish crush on Gloria Grahame, so she’s a delight to look at and, like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca and Mary Astor in Maltese Falcon (not so much Bacall in Big Sleep or To Have and Have Not), Grahame brings an air of baggage to the table, the gravity of someone who’s emotionally weathered, and it rivals Bogart’s own brand of trademark brooding and been-there-done-that kinda vibe.
So the leads are bringing good stuff to the table and the mood of the piece, established by director Nicholas Ray, is interesting and memorable but, as for the story itself…meh.