If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
Such is the state of Humphrey Bogart’s character Dixon Steele in the Noir epic In A Lonely Place. Steele is a fading screenwriter, a bitter, paranoid, violent barfly with a hair-trigger temper. When his devoted agent offers him a chance to rejuvenate his career by turning a trashy best-selling novel into a script, Steele grudgingly agrees. He then invites a restaurant hatcheck girl who has the read the book to his place to tell him the story, so he can avoid the hassle of having to read the crappy book himself. Alas, the hatcheck girl is murdered a couple hours after leaving Steele’s apartment, and Steele becomes the prime suspect in the killing. The closest Steele has to an alibi is his new neighbor, Laurel Gray, who happened to see the hatcheck girl leave Steele’s apartment alone. The murder mystery quickly takes a backseat to the relationship that develops between Steele and Gray.
My favorite scene in In A Lonely Place is the one in which Steele summons the nerve to go to Gray’s apartment to ask her if she’s decided whether or not she wants to start a relationship with him. Bogart’s Steele is a hand-wringing nervous wreck. He’s fallen hard for Gray, who is played by Gloria Grahame. Grahame’s Laurel Gray has snapped Steele out of his cranky crash to the bottom. Infatuated like a blushing schoolboy, Steele imagines a new beginning with Gray. Gray is his last chance to escape his lonely descent into oblivion. Bogart is completely convincing as the sweating, fretting Steele, desperate to know if Gray will commit to him. Up to this point, Grahame’s Gray has been cool and coy, keeping Steele at a distance, but when she agrees to begin a romance with him, Steele is instantly transformed. “I know your name! I know where you live!” he says in a non sequitur of malignant triumph, his hands around Gray’s neck as he is about to kiss her.
By the end of In A Lonely Place, it is Laurel Gray who is the hand-wringing nervous wreck, terrified nearly out of her wits she is just one ruffled Steele feather away from having the shit beat out of her. And the hatcheck girl murder is mere afterthought compared to the mystery of Steele’s sick psyche.
In A Lonely Place has one of the great unhappy endings in film history, as Steele trudges wearily and alone to his apartment, undone by his damaged soul. He’s the precursor of the modern American wife-beater, a slave to his emotions, unable to control his behavior, and a helpless witness to his own destruction. Bogart is no Johnny One Note tough guy, here. He has to play the divided soul, and he gives a top-notch performance as man whose better angels lose out to the bitter angry angels of his dark nature.
As much as I like the naughty Noir nymph Gloria Grahame, it must be said the role of Laurel Gray is a little beyond her usual cheap tramp range. She’s a little too toying in the beginning, and a little too melodramatic at the end. But this is only a minor distraction from an otherwise early masterpiece of Obsessive Love, American Domestic Violence Style.