Introduction to In A Lonely Place

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Transcript of an introduction to a screening of In A Lonely Place, April 2016.

Hello everyone, and thanks for making the effort to come out to today’s Fantôm Cinema for this afternoon’s movie, In A Lonely Place.

I’ve been writing about movies the past 20 years or so, and I’ve just put out a book collecting together some my film pieces, called Supporting Features. The shadowy masterminds behind Fantôm Cinema were kind enough to ask if I’d like to do something to launch the book here today, for which I’d like to thank them again.

Half of this book is interviews with actors and directors. The other half is made up of essays about films and filmmakers, and In A Lonely Place is one of the films I write about in there.

I think this movie is a prefect fit for this Fantôm Cinema strand – one of the things they’re interested in exploring in the films chosen here is the connections that can be made between artists’ lives and their work, and In A Lonely Place is absolutely full of those connections. It’s a movie you can love on its own terms, just on the face of it – but if you scratch the surface, it’s also a deeply personal film, to an extent that was very rare in the Hollywood of the period, and much rarer there today. It’s like a hall of mirrors: in this film you can see reflections of the real lives of the people who made it, and you can also catch glimpses of what was going on around them in Hollywood itself.

In A Lonely Place was released in 1950, it was directed by Nicholas Ray, and it stars Humphrey Bogart, who was also the producer of the film, and Gloria Grahame, who was also the director Ray’s wife.

It’s based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy B Hughes, which was published in 1947. Hughes was one the great American crime writers, and In A Lonely Place, the novel, is way ahead of its time – it’s the story of a serial killer called Dixon Steele, a guy who drifts around LA raping and murdering women, told from his point of view. As a book by a woman writing in 1947, it’s been held up as a pioneering study of the misogyny of American society and championed as a great feminist text, which it probably is – but it’s also simply one of the great dark LA noir books.

But right from the start, in adapting the book for the screen, Ray and Bogart began moving it much, much closer to home. The main character is still called Dix Steele, but the story in this film is very, very different to the story in Hughes’s novel. For one thing, although the book is set in LA, in the original novel there’s barely any mention of Hollywood or the movies. But Ray and Bogart decided to set their film in the very heart of the Hollywood community, and make it all about people who make films. They hired a scriptwriter, Andrew Solt, to bring their ideas to effect, but the big decisions about the adaptation were made by Bogart and Ray, and Ray added lots of stuff to the script as they were shooting, as he tended to do in all his films.

Bogart plays Dix Steele, and in this version, he’s a Hollywood scriptwriter. He has had some success, but he’s long fallen out of favour, and hasn’t had a job in a long time. This is partly because he’s a bitter cynic who loathes the movie industry and despises all the crap it churns out and hates himself and everyone else for being part of it; it’s partly because he’s a borderline alcoholic; and it’s partly because he’s known to be a violent character – he’s always spoiling for an argument, and usually the arguments end up in a fight. And in a couple of cases, these fights get way out of hand.

Basically, he’s a pretty sick individual – there’s something eating him from inside, he’s prone to paranoia, and he can’t fit in. But, at the same time, you can see he’s also been a pretty great guy in his time, because he still has a few friends who remain fiercely loyal to him, even though he keeps trying to push them away.

His most loyal friend is his agent, Mel, played in a pretty heartbreaking performance by Art Smith – their relationship is positively Shakespearean. Against the odds, Mel lands him a chance at a comeback gig: adapting a big bestselling romantic novel for a movie, a potboiler called Althea Bruce. The thing is, Dix is so disdainful he can’t even be bothered to read the book. Instead, he picks up a hatcheck girl at his nightclub who’s read it, and invites her to come back to his apartment to tell him the story. She does, but he gets bored by her pretty quickly, and sends her home. At the same time, he catches a glimpse of his new neighbour, Laurel Gray, a young, failed actress who lives just across from him, played by Gloria Grahame, and is instantly intrigued by her.

Then, the next morning, there’s a detective at his door: after she left his place, the hatcheck girl was brutally murdered. Everyone knows Dix was the last person to see her, and he’s the cops’ only suspect.

I won’t say any more about the plot, except that the film becomes the love story of Dix and his new neighbour Laurel, and, as he falls under increasing suspicion for the murder, it becomes a study of what happens to their relationship as it comes under the pressure of constant scrutiny from outside.

One of the fascinating things about In A Lonely Place, which is an adaptation of a book that’s nothing like the book, is that it’s a film about a scriptwriter trying to adapt a book, and writing a script that’s nothing like the book.

It was one of two great movies about scriptwriters to come out of Hollywood in 1950: a few months after In A Lonely Place, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was released. There are some similarities – Joe Gillis, the writer played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, could be Dix’s bother: they’re both cynical, they both hate the films they have to make, they’re both almost washed up. But where Joe Gillis is getting desperate – he’ll do anything to get a job – Dix just doesn’t care anymore. In fact, it’s the way that he doesn’t seem to care about the murdered girl that makes the cops more suspicious than anything.

But In A Lonely Place is very different from Sunset Boulevard in other ways. For all its cynicism, Billy Wilder’s film is one of the most visually beautiful films made about Hollywood – all the stuff filmed around the Paramount studios looks gorgeous. But In A Lonely Place doesn’t go near a studio. Indeed, it’s one of the few films about Hollywood where we don’t see representations of studios, or moguls’ offices, soundstages, or movie cameras, or projectors.

Instead, it all takes place on the periphery, in Dix’s little apartment, or the nightclub he goes to, or the police station. It’s like the people here, failed writers, failed actors, have been exiled from Hollywood, and are trying to get back in.

In this, that sense of being exiled, and in making the lead character a scriptwriter, In A Lonely Place seems to touch on something else that was happening in Hollywood. At the time the film was made, the anti-communist witchhunts were in full force, and it was largely writers who were feeling the brunt of it: getting named by terrified friends, getting blacklisted, getting banished, their careers ruined.

By 1950, the atmosphere of informing, compromise, fear and paranoia was intense. A couple of years earlier, Bogart, along with his young wife Lauren Bacall, had actually led the charge against the witch hunts, trying to defend the writers who were getting blacklisted. But as the anti-Red frenzy gathered force and power, he’d retreated and grown quiet about it. Except with this film, it’s as if he shouts about it again. The parallels seem clear – it’s the story of a writer coming under suspicion, who begins to feel eyes on him everywhere he goes, and begins to suspect that his friends are informing against him to the authorities.

As an aside, less than two years after In A Lonely Place, Art Smith, who plays Dix’s agent, was named as a communist by Elia Kazan, and became a victim of the blacklist. Smith was an actor and playwright who had been working since the early 1930s. He barely made another film after this.

Alongside the witch-hunts, while this film was being made, Hollywood was simultaneously coming under other pressures, and beginning to fall apart. On the one hand, TV was beginning to come in; and on the other, actors like Bogart were getting free of their studio contracts and striking out with their own production companies – it was the beginning of the death of the studio system, and all through In A Lonely Place, you can feel this sense of something ending, a fear, a kind of terminal air.

But there are even more painfully personal echoes going on in this movie. Part of what the film is about is a relationship disintegrating. As I mentioned, Gloria Grahame was married to the director, Nicholas Ray – but while they were making this film, they were actually in the midst of a divorce. They’d met and fell in love met while making another film in 1948: she got pregnant, and they married, but it didn’t last long. The story goes that Ray discovered that Grahame had actually started having an affair with Ray’s son from his previous marriage, Tony…and Tony was about 13-years-old at the time. A few years later, Gloria Grahame married Tony, when he was around 20, but that didn’t last long either.

I think, in the intensity of Dix’s suspicions about Laurel, you maybe catch some of the feelings Ray was going through. Gloria Grahame, by the way, is exceptional in this – she was usually confined to the femme fatale rolls, and she did that stuff brilliantly, playing bad girls with hearts of gold who get slapped around a lot, like the moll-type character she plays in The Big Heat, where Lee Marvin throws boiling coffee in her face. But I think she’s a revelation here, and it’s a shame she didn’t get more parts that allowed her to act with this kind of complexity.

But if you’re seeing hints of the real Gloria Grahame in Laurel, I think you’re also seeing some echoes of Bogart’s true love, Lauren Bacall, who was the same age as Gloria Grahame – the names Laurel and Lauren are almost mirrors. Dix is a messed-up older guy, who finds peace and contentment when he meets this young woman – he knows he’s in a bad way, he’s practically given up, but sees an unexpected chance of getting saved when he meets her, just as Bogart himself is believed to have gotten his life on track when he fell for Bacall. Before he met her, Bogart was married to an actress called Mayo Methot, and it was a really notorious relationship, filled with boozing, brawling bust-ups and nightclub scenes – the kind of stuff that Dixon Steele is prone to, in fact.

Bogart brings all of this to his performance, which I think is possibly his best ever. He still has that tough, graceful Bogart charm and humour – there are some brilliant lines of dialogue zinging about early on – but he also lets himself look old and sick,  scary and scared. Finally, the film is all about his character, and his character’s emotions, and they are not always pretty to see. I think it’s a very brave performance, in a film that is an extraordinary piece of work all round. I hope you enjoy it.