In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

For the first 85 or so minutes of this film, I saw some great cinematography and captivating, eavesdropping-allowing sets (the prison-like bars in Bogart’s apartment, and then his and Gloria Grahame’s ability to spy each other from their respective windows across that wonderful courtyard, encapsulate this film’s themes in a nutshell), Bogart’s boozy failing screenwriter having testosterone pouring out of his ears and having a zinger for EVERYTHING (the Socratic Method was to answering a question with another question as the Bogartian Method was to answering a question with an impossibly clever comeback), the goofy little agent acting as the Gazoo to Bogart’s Fred Flinstone, a murder mystery, and Bogart striking up an unlikely romance with a beautiful woman amidst that mystery – the ingredients of a nice but not quite remarkable little noir that fit right with the others of its day.  I wanted to be Dixon Steele.

And in the final 10-15 minutes, the veil was lifted.  Even before this point, I was getting the sense that the murder mystery of the girl we think left Dix’s apartment before she was found dead the next morning was far from being at the forefront and was meant to be more of a psychological catalyst for the potential failure of Dix’s and Laurel’s romance and the return of Dix’s alcoholism and potentially violent nature, but not even that observation could prepare me for that agonizing and absolutely terrifying ending.  Suddenly, that ending turned a typical noirish film of its day was into a film YEARS ahead of its time in its depiction of an abusive relationship, and all the ingredients of such that we take for granted today from the testimonies of battered women on the Maury show (but he’s so sweet most of the time…).  The whole time it’s pretty obvious that Dix didn’t murder that girl, but despite all the evidence supporting his story, we still have that shred of doubt that Laurel has, and it’s all because behind that sudden zest to write again and the kisses and lovey-dovey words, he’s an insecure ticking time bomb, and any monkey can see that.  He’s still a good, likable person, but just has a deep and inexcusable flaw that it seems not even he can control, which is why we can still sympathize with him despite that temper that gets him in trouble more often than not, and why we can somewhat demonize Laurel for willingly putting herself in harm’s way by choosing to stay with him, despite clearly being the victim in this flawed relationship.  Both characters are sympathetic, and both are deplorable – don’t we all have our virtues and our vices.

By the end of this film, that murder mystery that would’ve been front and center in a lesser noir or lesser film altogether becomes completely irrelevant – Laurel even says so.  Against all odds, especially given its harmless and damn near jolly beginning with the miserable yet very likable Dix, this turned into a deep character study and a deep study of gender roles five years before Ray would further analyze and even subvert those roles in “Rebel Without a Cause,” featuring what might be one of the most passionate romances I’ve seen in a film – so passionate, in conjunction with who these two people are and more importantly who they’re capable of becoming, that it’s doomed.  And suddenly, I was sickened with myself for having wanted to be Dixon Steele.  He fooled me the way he fooled Laurel, and himself.



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