I have always loved old movies. I probably go see more old movies in theaters than I do new ones. So I was excited when I saw that Film Forum here in New York was playing the recently restored In a Lonely Place as part of their Women Crime Writers series. Here was a Bogart film I hadn’t seen, and I could see it in the theater as if it was playing for the first time!
I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite having watched Humphrey Bogart films since I was a kid, I had missed a truly great one.
In a Lonely Place tells the story of Dixon “Dix” Steele and Laurel Gray. While it is based on the novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes, and while Hughes was pleased with the film, it is only loosely related to the book. Films loosely based on books is actually an ironic theme of the film, as Dix is a down-and-out screenwriter charged with the task of turning Althea Bruce into a movie.
Having not read the book, he talks to a hat check girl who did read it and takes her home to have her tell him about it. Later that night, the girl is murdered. Laurel Gray is Dix’s neighbor, who happened to see Dix in his apartment the night of the murder and could thus confirm his alibi to the police.
Not that this absolves Dix of all danger. He is introduced to us as a highly pugnacious sort. He picks two fights with different people not even 10 minutes into the film.
Laurel doesn’t suspect him, however. In fact, she even falls in love with him. She says she’s never been happier in her life; Dix says she’s the one he’s always been looking for.
But this is precisely where the film stops being about him. Up until now, he has been the main character. He is the one “in a lonely place,” he is the subject of all our concern, and Laurel is, frankly, pretty uninteresting.
It switches gears, however, and now Laurel becomes the main focus, so much so that, by the end of In a Lonely Place, we don’t care about Dix at all.
Enter Martha, Laurel’s…nurse? (It isn’t clear.)
“You can’t be a nurse-maid and a sweetheart, a cook and a secretary. You have to think of yourself,” she tells Laurel.
This description turns out to be true, as we see Dix giving orders and Laurel taking them. “You’ll go when I tell you to go and not before,” Dix says, lightheartedly. (Dix is what my wife and I would simply call, “The Patriarchy!”)
Having watched a lot of old movies, I have sadly become accustomed to seeing blatant examples of chauvinism. In Holiday Inn, for example, Marjorie Reynolds is caught in a tug of war between Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and who she prefers, or if she even prefers either of them, is completely beside the point. In North by Northwest, Eva Marie Saint becomes a spy for the FBI, and when Cary Grant asks why such an attractive young woman would want to do such a thing, she says it’s because no man asked her to marry him.
Whole movies have been ruined for me because of such blatant chauvinism. I have become used to rolling my eyes, or sighing in disappointment, or scoffing in disgust. But when I saw In a Lonely Place, I didn’t do any of that. I felt like the movie was on my side, like there was a mutual understanding that what was going on was terrible.
While the movie might at first seem primarily concerned with whether or not Dix is guilty, that is not where the suspense lies. There is no crescendo when he is being suspected, no scene of him looking over his shoulder, expecting the police. We don’t see him sweating or pleading his case. This is not a movie about an innocent man fighting for justice.
What we do see is a woman afraid for her life, reaching out to friends, asking them for help. The suspense is in worrying about Laurel’s fate as we see Dix’s anger explode. It’s in watching her try to think of how to escape him when he asks her to marry him, and in watching her call for an airplane ticket while he’s not in the room.
While In a Lonely Place does not pass the Bechdel test, it is significantly astute in its presentation of this oppressive relationship. I would even say it was ahead of its time. The film was made in 1950. Such relationships tended to be portrayed in problematic manners.
A classic example is A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski is portrayed as a helpless passionate type who just gets ahead of himself sometimes and explodes in rage. Stella is his support, the one he comes to when he’s upset, and the one he regretfully cries to when he realizes how horrible he’s been. He can’t help it, and she’s just got to deal with it and take care of him.
In a Lonely Place, however, resists that tendency. When Dix’s agent tries to persuade Laurel not to leave, he offers precisely that broken narrative: “He has to explode sometimes. That’s just the way he is! You’ve got to take it all–the bad with the good.” But we aren’t compelled by this advice, and, it turns out, we’re not supposed to be.
The man’s contrition does not save him. The woman’s concern for her own well-being is taken seriously. In a Lonely Place portrays the harsh reality of the relationship, and portrays it as something that the man cannot redeem. The emotional and physical abuse in this film is taken seriously as irredeemable violence, not kinky entertainment as it is in 50 Shades of Grey. There is no “Stand by your man” message here, as there is in other films.
Hollywood is so obsessed with happy resolutions and love stories that we often get reconciliation at the price of justice. In a Lonely Place denies us such a resolution, and it’s a better movie for it.