Notes on a Noir: In a Lonely Place

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

Foreword: This post is in conjunction with the Park Circus Film Noir Blgoathon. Park Circus is a UK distribution company dedicated to bringing classic film back to the big screen. In honor of the re-release of the seminal film noir Gilda to select theatres in the UK, today Park Circus is hosting a blogathon in honor of the film and the medium of noir. The Park Circus catalog includes, along with Gilda, the greatest film noirs ever made including Kiss Me Deadly, He Walked by Night, The Big Heat and, my favorite, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.

The film noirs of director Nicholas Ray roll off the tongue like Raymond Chandler mystery novels: They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground. Just the mere sound of them evoke seedy bars at one-am, hallway shadows in dingy apartment buildings, and dark winding roads of asphalt—the latter of which is precisely how Ray’s In A Lonely Place opens. We see only Humphrey Bogart’s eyes in the rearview mirror as he navigates the late-night Los Angeles traffic.

Bogart is the volatile Dixon Steele: a Hollywood screenwriter with a scathing wit and hot temper who is never far from a fight. (There are two within the first ten minutes of the film.) He sits at his favorite lounge, an industry watering hole, tossing around possible dialogue to waiters (“there’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality”) and sparring words with fellow scribes: “One day I’ll surprise you and write something good,” he says with good-natured bitterness.

Dixon’s agent has just tasked him with adapting a silly novel into a good script. Rather than wade through the pages, he asks a hat check girl to come home with him and tell him the story. Sound like a proposition? It isn’t.  Steele is much more interested in his hot new neighbor across the courtyard. The girl leaves, Steele goes to bed and first thing in the morning he is called to the DA’s office for questioning over her murder.

What unfolds is a superbly crafted game of chess between DIxon, the hell-bent DA, Bogart’s best-friend detective and, of course, the dame who loves him, Gloria Grahame. The film is a psychological thriller. Bogart’s Dixon Steele is darkly complex— his vulnerable insecurity manifesting itself with bouts of explosive violence and keeping us guessing, right up to the final seconds of the film, as to whether or not he committed the crime.

But at the core, this film is not a whodunit. It is a love story.

Dixon is a loner. From what we can tell, he has exactly one good friend—and a long list of enemies. The passion of his relationship with Laurel is so all-consuming it suggests that she is the first woman he has ever truly loved— made all the more poignant by the fact that she will probably end up being the only woman he will ever love.

New York Times film critic Terrence Rafferty recently noted about the noir genre that “what makes [these films] so unmistakably American is that the violent outcomes always seem to come as a surprise to them. … They thought they were going to be on easy street. There’s a weird, little noted streak of optimism in film noir, a berserk hopefulness…”

And for Dixon, the source that ‘berserk hopefulness’ is Laurel. But she is a woman with a history of running away from herself, and as Dixon loses control she slowly finds herself questioning him.  And once her trust in him is compromised, there is no turning back.  Wanting to love him but tormented by doubt, Laurel tries to run. Dixon’s dangerous insecurities take hold. He tightens his grip on her, desperate to keep her from running away, and when his hands close around her neck we know that means even if he has to kill her.  The fact that the DA has cleared his name of the crime now means nothing.

The words from his script bare Dixon’s tortured truth: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.“

Bogart’s chemistry with Grahame is white hot, as is Grahame herself—when she whispers “I don’t want anyone but you,” her lips muffle her speech as they press against Bogart’s cheek—it is one of the sexiest lines ever spoken.

Like many of the best noirs, Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles–  a city that is more of a plot device than a mere setting. There is something sinister and dark lurking beneath the bright lights of Tinseltown. A bitter subterranea of thwarted dreams and lonely, lost souls.

Of which Dixon Steele is just another face in the crowd.

Please check out the Park Circus blogathon for a round up of today’s noir posts, and to learn more about Park Circus films’ truly wonderful initiative!