It Came from the Library: In a Lonely Place

For a connoisseur of pop-cultural flotsam (and a cheap bastard), there are few better sources than the Calgary Public Library. Movies, TV series, comics, records, even books — the potential for finding hidden gems is nearly limitless, and It Came from the Library will chronicle my excavation.

DVD cover

The find: In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, and directed by Nicholas Ray.

Shelf appeal: Well, Bogart, for a start. And late-career Bogart, at that. Also, the description on the box, involving an unlucky writer and his sexy neighbour entangled in a vintage noir plot, held a certain, shall we say, personal resonance.

The experience: The very definition of a gem. Bogart plays the wonderfully named Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter well past his prime in the eyes of all but his agent. Assigned to adapt a trashy novel that he can’t be bothered to read, he brings home a coat-check girl to explain the plot to him.

The next morning, Steele receives a visit from the local police department. The girl has been found dead, thrown out of a moving vehicle, and Steele was the last person to see her alive. New neighbour Laurel Gray, played by femme fatale par excellence Gloria Graham, provides Steele with an alibi, but it’s not enough to shake off police suspicion entirely. Like Bogart’s best characters, Steele isn’t exactly stable — he’s subdued but prone to violent outbursts, and even his long-time agent isn’t sure he didn’t kill the girl. But Gray falls for him anyway, starting with this scene set just after Steele’s interrogation.

Produced by Bogart’s own production company, Santana, In a Lonely Place gives Bogart a chance to wallow in the darker side of his screen image. Films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca had firmly entrenched his big-screen persona a decade earlier — that of the straight-talking, blank-faced tough guy with a deeply hidden sentimentality — and films like 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had shown what happens when that sentimentality disappears, but Lonely Place finds Bogart getting genuinely ugly. One scene in particular jumps out: invited home for dinner by a police detective who’s also an old war buddy, Steele encourages his host to re-enact the murder, to better understand the killer. Though he’s just following his writerly instinct to get in the heads of his characters, Steele’s fascination with the crime goes more than a little too far, and Bogart’s expression captures every bit of prurient glee. He encourages his old friend to strangle his wife, leering lecherously all the while —he all but licks his lips at the thought of the murder. It’s a nasty bit of work, but it’s impossible to look away from.

Graham, the wife of director Nicholas Ray, also does a fine job as Gray, a role that was supposedly meant for either Ginger Rogers or Bogart’s real-life wife, Lauren Bacall. Swept up in a relationship that she worries will end violently, Gray is constantly torn between love and fear, and Graham is adept at handling that divide. It’s not the typical noir role, in that Gray is neither a damsel in distress nor a manipulative cipher, but then the film itself isn’t a typical noir, either. Despite the requisite amount of murder, fisticuffs, glamourous women and seedy men, it moves beyond the genre thanks to its emphasis on character over plot contrivances, and its embedded critique of Hollywood.

The verdict: Of the Bogart films I’ve seen, I’d put it second only to Casablanca, which is saying something. Definitely worth a rummage through the library’s DVD racks.

Stray quotes: “This is not a costume, ignorant wench. It is the formal attire of a gentleman.”

“A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we were in love.”

“Yesterday, this would have meant so much to us. Now, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.”

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

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