IN A LONELY PLACE
directed by Nicholas Ray with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame runs May 4-10 at Grand Illusion
AFTER JAMES DEAN, whom he would later immortalize in Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray could not have found a more suitable messenger for his surly concerns than Humphrey Bogart. A notorious leftist in Hollywood circles, Ray loved loners, and he heralded the beatings they took (and gave) in strikingly cynical genre pictures that strained against their pretty packaging. (He even had a blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter playing the world's most famous loner in his Biblical epic King of Kings.) Though most remember Bogie as the reluctant hero of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, not many recall how willing he was to mess with that persona, both in public—he and wife Lauren Bacall were among the few celebs to oppose McCarthyism—and, even more provocatively, on the screen.
Ray's 1950 In a Lonely Place opens with a shot of Bogart's Dixon Steele nervously gazing at us through a rearview mirror, and it's that same haunted backward glance that informs the rest of the picture. Made at the height of the Red Scare, the movie has cinema's most likable tough guy play a sour outcast who vents his bitter disillusionment through irrational fits of violence. Fed up with the Hollywood system, Steele is a brilliant screenwriter so jaded that even the news of a girl's brutal murder doesn't cause him to flinch (though he's the last person to have seen her alive). When a suspicious pal—one among many—questions him, Steele wryly suggests that the police "look for a man like me, only without my artistic temperament."
He finds fleeting redemption in the arms of neighbor Laurel Gray, played with an active eyebrow by soft-hearted tough-talker Gloria Grahame (who always looks ready to take a punch). Laurel gives Steele his alibi because she sees the withered goodness in him, but she, too, is soon wary of the terrifying outbursts that have her asking, "Why can't he be like other people?" That we can understand her growing fear, yet still sympathize with Steele's disturbing differentness, is a mark of the movie's success on its primary dramatic level.
On another level, despite its occasional stiff melodramatics, Place's shattering denouement reveals an unmistakable, unhappy subtext—that love is not the only thing destroyed by a society's paranoia.