Humphrey Bogart gives, in my opinion, the best performance of his career in Nicholas Ray’s excellent film noir In a Lonely Place. Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a tough and alcoholic screenwriter who was hired to write a screenplay based on a pulp novel. Steele is under suspicion for the murder of a young girl, Mildred Atkinson, who adores the book that he is adapting. She comes to his apartment to describe the plot for him. He takes her up on this offer because he is less than enthusiastic about reading the book himself. Steele is a lonely man with a dark personality; he is inherently violent, fighting people who insult him or make him feel small. The murder of the young Mildred is the central plot of the movie which Nicholas Ray mainly uses to explore the dark complexities of Bogart’s Dixon Steele.
Gloria Grahame plays Laurel Gray, Dixon’s love interest and alibi, who saw Mildred leave his apartment that night. Laurel is Steele’s neighbor; they quickly develop a love for each other that is plagued by her mistrust of him and his violent tendencies. Their love starts well; she inspires him to give up drinking and continue his writing, but there is always that shadow of a doubt hanging over their love, and that shadow is the unsolved death of Mildred Atkinson. The audience is put in the same situation as Laurel, questioning whether or not Steele committed the murder. The audience, along with Laurel, saw Mildred leaving his apartment, but as an audience cannot be entirely positive that nothing happened after she left. When Dixon learns of Mildred’s death, he is cold and uncaring; he hides any sympathy behind a cold veneer of dark humor and icy charm. We do see him purchase flowers for the dead Atkinson showing a more sympathetic side to the character, but the audience is still unsure if his motive is sympathy or guilt.
Bogart gives a wonderful performance, which not only deconstructs the tough guy characters he has played in the past but also deconstructs his public image, which was construed by his multiple love affairs and a mystique that helped solidify his image in these film noirs. You gain sympathy as he goes to court Laurel, he is nervous and shy, his loneliness fully on display; however, he also terrifies you and makes you question him in scenes like the one where he recreates a dramatic movie-like scene of Mildred’s murder. The lighting across his face in this scene is dark and shadowed; there is a cruel smile on his face as he talks about what possibly happened to Mildred and makes the audience wonder even more if he committed the dark act. There is a rage in Dixon Steele that manifest due to his anxiety and insecurities. He assaults his agent when he fears that his screenplay isn’t good enough and drives erratically, and attacks another motorist after he is insulted. Dixon Steele is a veteran of World War 2, and that is what possibly changed him just like the films were changed by the war, coming out darker and more cynical.
In a Lonely Place is an excellent 1950s film noir, or rather it is a love story masquerading as a film noir. In a Lonely Place remains one of my favorite Bogart movies and one of my favorite film noirs and makes for perfect viewing during Noirvember.