Notes on a Noir: In a Lonely Place

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.“

Foreword: This post is in conjunction with the Park Circus Film Noir Blgoathon. Park Circus is a UK distribution company dedicated to bringing classic film back to the big screen. In honor of the re-release of the seminal film noir Gilda to select theatres in the UK, today Park Circus is hosting a blogathon in honor of the film and the medium of noir. The Park Circus catalog includes, along with Gilda, the greatest film noirs ever made including Kiss Me Deadly, He Walked by Night, The Big Heat and, my favorite, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.

The film noirs of director Nicholas Ray roll off the tongue like Raymond Chandler mystery novels: They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground. Just the mere sound of them evoke seedy bars at one-am, hallway shadows in dingy apartment buildings, and dark winding roads of asphalt—the latter of which is precisely how Ray’s In A Lonely Place opens. We see only Humphrey Bogart’s eyes in the rearview mirror as he navigates the late-night Los Angeles traffic.

Bogart is the volatile Dixon Steele: a Hollywood screenwriter with a scathing wit and hot temper who is never far from a fight. (There are two within the first ten minutes of the film.) He sits at his favorite lounge, an industry watering hole, tossing around possible dialogue to waiters (“there’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality”) and sparring words with fellow scribes: “One day I’ll surprise you and write something good,” he says with good-natured bitterness.

Dixon’s agent has just tasked him with adapting a silly novel into a good script. Rather than wade through the pages, he asks a hat check girl to come home with him and tell him the story. Sound like a proposition? It isn’t.  Steele is much more interested in his hot new neighbor across the courtyard. The girl leaves, Steele goes to bed and first thing in the morning he is called to the DA’s office for questioning over her murder.

What unfolds is a superbly crafted game of chess between DIxon, the hell-bent DA, Bogart’s best-friend detective and, of course, the dame who loves him, Gloria Grahame. The film is a psychological thriller. Bogart’s Dixon Steele is darkly complex— his vulnerable insecurity manifesting itself with bouts of explosive violence and keeping us guessing, right up to the final seconds of the film, as to whether or not he committed the crime.

But at the core, this film is not a whodunit. It is a love story.

Dixon is a loner. From what we can tell, he has exactly one good friend—and a long list of enemies. The passion of his relationship with Laurel is so all-consuming it suggests that she is the first woman he has ever truly loved— made all the more poignant by the fact that she will probably end up being the only woman he will ever love.

New York Times film critic Terrence Rafferty recently noted about the noir genre that “what makes [these films] so unmistakably American is that the violent outcomes always seem to come as a surprise to them. … They thought they were going to be on easy street. There’s a weird, little noted streak of optimism in film noir, a berserk hopefulness…”

And for Dixon, the source that ‘berserk hopefulness’ is Laurel. But she is a woman with a history of running away from herself, and as Dixon loses control she slowly finds herself questioning him.  And once her trust in him is compromised, there is no turning back.  Wanting to love him but tormented by doubt, Laurel tries to run. Dixon’s dangerous insecurities take hold. He tightens his grip on her, desperate to keep her from running away, and when his hands close around her neck we know that means even if he has to kill her.  The fact that the DA has cleared his name of the crime now means nothing.

The words from his script bare Dixon’s tortured truth: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.“

Bogart’s chemistry with Grahame is white hot, as is Grahame herself—when she whispers “I don’t want anyone but you,” her lips muffle her speech as they press against Bogart’s cheek—it is one of the sexiest lines ever spoken.

Like many of the best noirs, Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles–  a city that is more of a plot device than a mere setting. There is something sinister and dark lurking beneath the bright lights of Tinseltown. A bitter subterranea of thwarted dreams and lonely, lost souls.

Of which Dixon Steele is just another face in the crowd.

Please check out the Park Circus blogathon for a round up of today’s noir posts, and to learn more about Park Circus films’ truly wonderful initiative!

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

8 thoughts on “Notes on a Noir: In a Lonely Place

  1. You absolutely read my thoughts! Bogart’s best role and best performance. I think it was this role — not Casablanca, not Maltese Falcon — that truly cemented his status as the eternal outsider, forever cynical, too cool and too insecure to ever find happiness — the opposite of what Americans thought of as a movie “hero.” Maybe that’s why the French became so enamored of him or his image, and some have argued that this love of an American anti-heroic figure inspired Godard, Truffaut, Melville (all of whom created films with male characters who were inspired by Bogart), in what became the French “new wave” at the dawn of the 60’s.

    And Gloria Grahame was the most explosive actress working in American film at the time — watching her best work (and she’s even better in “The Big Heat”), you never knew what would set her off and when. Yet in this film and this character she holds back and actually serves as an island of sanity or serenity that Bogart’s Dixon can’t manage to hold on to until it’s too late and he’s lost her — which in his world was pre-ordained, as in his own words, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.“

    As far as Rafferty’s remarks, I would argue that there is no film noir outside of American film of the late forties up to the mid fifties. It’s the contrast between “normal” basic American optimism and the dark side of existence that Americans “woke up to” with World War II, nuclear holocaust and mass murder on an unprecedented scale: that contrast is what makes film noir “noir.” Centuries-old European pessimism is what it is, but it’s never film “noir.” Just my opinion. . . 🙂

    PS, I noticed in the poster for “In a Lonely Place” the producer’s credit for Robert Lord, a writer and producer who had been in the movie business since the 20’s, and wrote and/or produced among others, “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Little Caesar,” “Footlight Parade,” “Heroes for Sale,” all depression-era classic American films, and a whole bunch of early Barbara Stanwyck and Kay Francis pictures, including the original story for the classic soap operetta, “One Way Passage,” WB, 1932, with Kay Francis and William Powell, which will be the subject of my next post in a continuing series on the career of Kay Francis, . . . so stay tuned! Thanks.

    Oh, I also wanted to let you know that I “borrowed” your “Pictorial” name for my current post,

    And before I forget, congrats on your “freshly pressed” recognition . . . I didn’t realize it until I saw the thousands of comments on your recent “maps” post. Well earned!

    1. Oh Gene, this blog simply would NOT be the same without you! I always love reading your posts– they are always so insightful and you never fail to teach me *something* I wasn’t aware of before. (i.e., Robert Lord…!)

      Spot-on, as per usual, about Bogart (and perhaps even more so, director Nick Ray) and the New Wavers. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel in Godard’s “Breathless” absolutely speaks for itself.

      Actually, do you happen to remember whether or not In a Lonely Place the movie poster that Michel sees in Breathless? I’m going to have to check… would be quite telling if it is…

      1. Because you’re so kind, I checked . . . Belmondo stops (about 18 mins into the film) in front of a theater with the poster advertising “The Harder They Fall,” Bogart’s last film from, what 1956, I think? “Breathless” was made in 1959, so that makes sense i suppose. Still, it’s Bogart and that’s the image Belmondo’s character seems to be emulating or trying to . . .

  2. Wow! Some fantastic writing from both you and Gene Zonarich. Lots of insight into character and genre. I’ve always been drawn to film noir and Bogart. Always been a loner. Always wanted to be cool and calm and maybe a little dangerous. Never quite made it, though. Sam Spade and Rick Blaine have to be two of my favorite characters that Bogart ever made his own. I can see how I’ll be a constant visitor to your site.

    1. Thanks so much for dropping by and for the comment! If you’ve never seen Woody Allen’s “Play it Again, Sam” you might get a chuckle out of it: all about a writer who wants nothing more than to be, as you put it so well, ‘as cool, calm and a little dangerous’ like Bogart.


  4. Great post and insight. This is one my favorite noirs and definitely the best of Bogie. Gloria Grahame is amazing in this role and woefully seems to be a bit forgotten in modern times. The behind-the-scenes drama of this film is also interesting. I’ve been of mind to write a play or script biopic of Grahame taking place during the filming of In A Lonely Place.

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