Classic Film Review: Bogart’s glib, mean and scary in Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” (1950)

The great thing about Bogart was that he never lost that nasty edge that gave him a career, even as he transitioned from heavies to leading men. There’s a hint of Fred C. Dobbs, Duke Mantee and Roy Earle in many a character in his post-“Maltese Falcon”/”Casablanca” years, especially the film noirs.

Nicholas Ray made great use of the “real” Humphrey Bogart — polished, an upper middle class prep-schooled New York sophisticate — and let him tap into his mercurial menace for “In a Lonely Place,” an early Ray triumph and a classic noir that stands among Bogart’s best.

Considering the guy played Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, that’s saying something.

“In a Lonely Place” casts Bogie as a cynical, cruel screenwriter in need of a hit and utterly unconcerned about a young hat-check girl who is murdered after his careless treatment of her in prepping a script.

Dixon Steele hasn’t had a hit “since the war.” He’s never lost his favorite table at the post dinner club Paul’s, but his professional desperation has done nothing for his hair trigger temper.

His long-suffering agent (Art Smith) has a can’t-miss assignment lined up, adapting a pot-boiler novel. Even that can’t keep Dix from punching a studio chief’s son who gets on his nerves, and in public no less.

He’d best call it a night, read this book and start giving the director ideas about what he’ll do with it in the morning. Only Dix has hit the lazy, dismissive stage of his writing career. He can’t be bothered to read this romance. The hat-check girl at Paul’s read it. He’ll tempt, cajole and pay her to come by and tell him the story of it.

Just a couple of years into his directing career, Ray had already established a knack for pitiless thrillers with a hint of sentiment about them, and a determination to give female characters agency and actresses showcases for that agency.

Martha Stewart –– no, not THAT Martha Stewart — had only a dozen or so screen credits. But as the pretty, unschooled and enthusiastic reader Mildred, she pops right off the screen

“Oh I think it’ll make a dreamy picture, Mr. Steele. What I call an epic.”

“And what do you call an epic?”

“Well, you know – a picture that’s REAL long and has lots of things going on!”

Their scenes — with wide-eyed Mildred gushing through the novel’s romance and suicides — and Steele airily correcting her mispronunciation of the title character’s name, “risqué” and other words — crackle, and set us up to appreciate every woman who appears on the screen.

From the starlets who flirt with Steele — “Do you look down on ALL women, or just the ones you know?” — to the African American singing pianist (Hadda Brooks) and the grumpy cleaning woman with her ever-dangling cigarette — Ray frames them and lights them all like stars, and lets them shine.

That sets us up for the mysterious neighbor, witness to some of the night’s events and destined to become Steele’s lady love and new obsession. The legendary Gloria Grahame wasn’t yet a legend in 1950, although she was fated to be on every American TV every Christmas, having made a vivid impression in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the smart, flinty blonde of “The Big Heat,” “Macao,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” gives us a preview of her future glory here.

Failed actress Laurel Grey exchanged probing glances with her dashing neighbor, noticed “the girl” he brought home and even when he callously sent Mildred into the night without calling her a cab, dangerous in LA even in 1950. If she heard Mildred’s over-enthusiastic “acting” of the novel (she screams “Help, HELP HELP” at one point.), she never tells the cops.

Laurel falls for “the suspect.”

Mildred left that apartment and wound up dead in a ditch. And when an old Army subordinate (Frank Lovejoy), now a police detective fetches Dix for an interrogation by his chief (Carl Benton Reid), they’re both put off — if not downright shocked — by the jaded screenwriter’s joking reaction to the helpful, innocent young woman’s death.

“Why didn’t you call for a cab? Isn’t that what a gentleman usually does under the circumstances?”

“Oh I didn’t say I was a gentleman. I said I was tired.

He’s not even that put out at being a suspect.

“I’ve killed dozens of people…in pictures.”

“In a Lonely Place” briskly takes us into the romance that begins despite all the evidence of Steele’s cavalier cruelty and bad temper, and a police investigation driven by the cops’ reaction to Steele’s almost inhuman disdain for a death his uncaring actions caused.

Bogart makes this guy dangerous beyond the flashes of violent temper that he displays even to the “popcorn salesman” director who wants to give him a big break. Grahame, in what can best be described as “The Lauren Bacall role,” deftly journeys from smitten to devoted to recognizing the trap that this monster might be, even as Laurel refuses to let the cops know she’s starting to have her doubts.

That cop who looks like a very young Peter Graves? That’s James Arness, the future Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke.” The flower shop employee who makes a movie star impression hosing down the sidewalk is African American character actor Davis Roberts in an early role. Hadda Brooks is so good in a single scene that you lament that the racist era she came up in limited her acting/singing career to just a handful of credits.

The dialogue by Andrew Solt and Edmund North (Dorothy Hughes gets a story credit) sizzles and stings, and even lapses into florid. With our anti-hero being a screenwriter, you’d expect nothing less.

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Ray and Bogart skillfully navigate this noir as it veers from murder investigation to romance to study in high functioning bipolar “creative type,” a man whose charm is tinged with violence.

And none of it would work if Bogart didn’t make us believe, first scene to last, that Dixon Steele is narcissistic bad news, a jerk who causes incidents and accidents and is somehow always the victim, a woman-beating hothead worth fleeing, with or without a murder rap hanging over him.

Rating: unrated, violence, smoking

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Art Smith, Frank Lovejoy, Martha Stewart, Jeff Donnell, Carl Benton Reid and Robert Warwick

Credits: Directed by Nicolas Ray, scripted by Andrew Solt, Dorothy Hughes and Edmund H. North. A Columbia release on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers.

Running time: 1:34

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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