As Dixon Steele, Bogart is given an opportunity to comment on the industry that made him. He grouses about the quality of the projects he’s offered and labels one director a "popcorn pusher." It is one of those popcorn projects that leads Steele deeper into the lonely place of the title. Rather than read the lightweight best-seller he’s been asked to adapt, Steele asks a secretary who has already read and liked it ("It’s what I call an epic") to come to his home and fill him in on the novel’s high points. When she’s found murdered the next morning, Steele, who seems as blasé and cynical when interrogated by the police as he is when approaching his latest assignment, is the suspect. Not only does he appear to be the last person to have seen the girl alive, but Steele has a history of violence, having broken one girlfriend’s nose and been involved in more than a few brawls, in barrooms and on movie sets. Thankfully, he has an alibi in the form of shapely Laurel Grey (Gloria Graham), a neighbor who, because she "likes his face," lies when telling police that she saw the girl depart alone.
A romance blossoms but Steele is erratic, frequently so preoccupied with his work that he’s unaware of her presence, and at other times displaying a fierce temper that makes her suspect that he may very well be the murderer that the police think he is. Will she be his next victim? In one of his explosions of anger, Steele beats a young motorist, almost killing him, after an accident in which he was to blame. Even Steele’s agent cannot escape his volatile temper. When the agent takes one of his client’s scripts without Steele’s consent, the writer knocks the agent’s glasses off and further alienates his admirers, pushing him farther into the lonely place he already inhabits.
But Steele is also capable of tenderness, although even his loyalties can lead him to violence. Early in the film, Steele punches out a producer who dares to mock his best friend, a once fine actor now lost to alcoholism. Sold by the studio as a murder mystery, In a Lonely Place is actually something else. It’s a portrait of an artist, a brilliant man whose creativity, especially when stifled, puts him at odds with both the assembly line atmosphere of the Hollywood in which he plies his trade, and with society at large. It takes Hollywood to task as effectively, if not as outrageously, as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. It is Bogart’s best film since Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and possibly his best film of the 50’s (it is certainly superior in all respects to the much overrated The African Queen). It also appears to be one of his most personal films. As Steele, Bogart is almost playing himself, an artist longing for a project that challenges his talents, and frustrated that his gifts are too often treated as a commodity, something exploited by those who lack his integrity to make a fast, convenient buck. This frustration feeds his violent, self-destructive tendencies. Even such minor touches, such as Steele’s fondness for ham and eggs, apparently reflect Bogart’s own preferences.
Though many of Bogart’s films from the 1950s, such as the wretched Tokyo Joe and his insipid teaming with June Allyson in Battle Circus, misused his considerable talents, In a Lonely Place takes full advantage of them. Nicholas Ray’s fine direction, Andrew Solt’s unpredictable screenplay, and Bogart’s brilliant performance make In a Lonely Place worthy of its reevaluation and now esteemed place in the Bogart canon.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks