Movies capture brief snippets of their subjects’ lives. Even grand epics have to contend with the reality that each day represents a much larger chunk of time than even the longest feature. In a Lonely Place beautifully presents this dynamic, a narrative that captures the impermanence of romance.
Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter with an ego that hardly matches his career. Facing years without a hit, Dix is far too lazy to put in the effort to change his fortunes after being asked to adapt a book, instead relying on a restaurant hat-check worker Mildred (Martha Stewart) to come over and share the details of the book. Mildred is murdered after leaving Dix’s apartment, naturally leading to some suspicion, though neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame) is able to provide an adequate alibi for his whereabouts.
The bulk of the narrative focuses on the burgeoning relationship between Dix and Laurel, lovers brought together by tragedy. Dix, shown to have quite the temper, exhibits deteriorating mental health as he remains unable to shake the cloud of murder from his old friend Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), now working as a detective. Dix is a classic Hollywood blowhard, full of self-importance as his looks and personality attract many to his orbit.
Bogart gives one of the best performances of his career, elevating the odious Dix into a figure of great intellectual depth. He’s a man past his prime, and not completely unaware of that reality. It is an especially frustrating variety of stubborn to wear one’s flaws so blatantly on one’s sleeve.
Grahame is every bit Bogart’s equal, adding a degree of tragedy to In a Lonely Place’s already bleak narrative. She’s able to walk right into the lion’s den, dance with the devil, and still elicit sympathy for having fallen into Dix’s web. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves the audience’s emotions drained by the end.
Moments in Hollywood are fleeting by nature. Plenty of narratives have consumed themselves with this stark reality. It’s a place where dreams go to die, even in success. The happiest of circumstances can produce tragedy.
Set almost entirely in an upscale apartment community, In a Lonely Place often operates like a stage play. There is a great burden placed on the actors to constantly keep the tension alive, aided by a foreboding score. The pacing feels almost real time, capturing the essence of love’s fleeting moments.
In a Lonely Place is a triumph of the noir genre. Bogart captivates even while behaving insufferably, an intoxicating charm that operates in sync with the narrative. For a seventy-year old movie, the film feels as timely as either. Love is all-encompassing, until the point where it isn’t.