I was born when she kissed me…I died when she left me…I lived a few weeks while she loved me
Over Thanksgiving I was able to spend time with my parents, and one night my Dad suggested that we watch one of his favorite classic films. However, I had to promise to blog about it. This weekend I posted a clue on my Twitter and now we will find out who guessed right! The film that we watched was IN A LONELY PLACE, directed by Nicholas Ray.
Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter with a volatile and violent temper. He spends his time with his agent, Mel Lippman (played by Art Smith), and a formerly great but now alcoholic actor, Charlie Watermann (played by Robert Warwick). One night Dix meets Mel at Paul’s Restaurant to have a few drinks and to hear about a possible new script. Dix it seems, has been out of circulation for a time and is in need of a hit. Mel appears to have the answer by way of a book adaptation for a trashy best selling novel. The problem is that in order to adapt this novel, Dix needs to read it. However, salvation comes in the form of a check girl named Mildred Atkinson (played by Martha Stewart). Mildred has not only read the book but loves it, and is more than willing to relate the entire story to Dix over drinks at his apartment. But Mildred isn’t that kind of girl, so don’t get any ideas. She breaks her date with her boyfriend, Henry Kessler (played by Jack Stewart), and heads off with Dix, as Mel promises to call on him around 11AM the next day. Upon arriving at his apartment the two cross paths with Dix’s striking neighbor, Laurel Gray played by Gloria Graham. Both Dix and Laurel exchange meaningful glances as Mildred notices the architecture. Dix and Mildred spend a few hours together at his apartment going over the story, which is just as sordid and sappy as you can imagine, before Mildred takes her leave. Dix is already in his robe and slippers, and having already noticed Laurel on her balcony, heads off to his bedroom in the hopes of maybe one more look.
Early the next morning, long before Mel is due to show up, Detective Brub Nicolai (played by Frank Lovejoy) knocks at Dix’s door. Dix answers dressed as he was the previous night. When Brub asks, Dix states that he was asleep and has been home all night. Brub, a former soldier under Dix’s command and now a detective, tells Dix that his boss wants to talk to him at the station. Dix seems unaffected by the news, and gets ready while making light conversation with Brub. At the station Dix is questioned by Captain Lochlear (played by Carl Benton Reid) as to his activities the previous night. Dix answers all questions with a cavalier attitude that annoys Captain Lochlear. Hoping to provoke some reaction from Dix, he informs him that the reason why he is here is because Mildred Atkinson has been brutally murdered. She was killed the previous evening around 12:30AM, strangled and thrown from a moving car. Since Dix was the last person to be seen with her, naturally the police have some cause to suspect him. Not helping is the fact that Dix has a long record of fights, assaults, and even violence against a old girlfriend named Fran Randolph, as well as his general “I don’t care” demeanor. But before things can go any further, in walks Laurel Gray. She has been brought in to corroborate Dix’s claim that he did not leave the apartment with Mildred but instead stayed home. She does this while matter-of-factly admitting that she remembers Dix because she “likes his face”. With his alibi verified Dix is allowed to leave, but Captain Lochlear is still convinced that he is guilty. Bub feels differently however, believing that Mildred’s boyfriend deserves a second look.
Dix returns home to find Mel in a panic, not knowing whether or not to believe the rumors that Dix has murdered someone. He knows Dix and is his closest friend, but there is a part of him that doesn’t know how far Dix’s rage can take him. Dix teases Mel by going along with the story that he has murdered someone and just pulled a fast one on the police. Mel is about the have a heart attack when the doorbell rings and who should it be, but Laurel Gray. She and Dix exchange pleasantries and flirtations, while Dix thanks her for backing him up. The phone begins to ring inside and it is Brub, calling to invite Dix to his house that night for dinner. But Brub is really asking because Captain Lochlear is convinced that Dix is guilty, and hopes that Brub will be able to gather more information from him over dinner. Dix agrees to go to dinner but also asks Laurel for a midnight date that same night.
Dix goes to dinner and meets Brub’s wife Sylvia, played by Jeff Donnell. Over the course of the meal, the subject of Mildred Atkinson comes up again and Dix says that while he did not kill her her, he has a theory on how it was done. He claims that his writer’s imagination gives him insight and he can think like the killer would. He has Sylvia and Brub act out his theory of the crime, and is so convincing that Brub himself is carried away into almost strangling his wife. Dix again seems unfazed by this, shrugging it off as a good story. He takes his leave of the now uneasy couple, and hurries back to his apartment for his date with Laurel. Three weeks later Dix and Laurel are inseperable, side by side at all times. This relationship has done nothing but good for Dix. He has given up drinking and, much to Mel’s delight, is writing again. He is working on the script for the bestseller when Laurel is summoned to the police station. Captain Lochlear is still on the hunt for evidence that Dix is guilty and he believes that Laurel has it. At the police station he confronts Laurel with the truth about Dix, his history of fights, of violence, and finally his abuse of Fran. Faced with all this evidence, he asks, how can Laurel still believe that he is innocent? But Laurel holds firm, stating her faith in Dix, and leaves the station. But the seeds of doubt are sown.
Some time later Laurel and Dix are spending an enjoyable evening with Brub and Sylvia at the beach. Everyone is having a lovely time, until Dix finds out about Laurel’s meeting with Captain Lochlear. Angry at being kept in the dark and accusing Laurel of conspiring against him, Dix speeds off in his car with Laurel beside him. The ride in silence for a time until Dix’s erratic driving almost get them into an accident with a teenage football star. When the young man approaches Dix with fury, Dix in turn attacks him and nearly beats him to death. He only is stopped by Laurel’s screams. Afterwards Dix seems calmed and almost apologetic towards Laurel, and the two drive home. But Laurel is becoming increasingly uncomfortable around Dix, her own doubts about his innocence beginning to come through. As much as she loves Dix, there is a part of her that is not entirely sure that he isn’t capable of murdering someone. Just as she is beginning to consider leaving Dix, he proposes. What can she do? Does she accept the proposal of a possible murderer or refuse and risk his wrath?
IN A LONELY PLACE is a film that I feel resonates just as much, if not more, with today’s audience as it did when it was originally released. The threat of violence that surrounds Dix grows more and more menacing as the film progresses. In the beginning Dix is charming and funny, if just a little hot headed. But as the story goes on, the moments of charm and wit decrease, replaced with more and more moments of paranoia, jealousy, and rage. We begin to feel, along with Laurel, a growing unease and an increasing suspicion. Do we really believe Dix when he says that he is innocent?
Nicholas Ray and his then wife, Gloria Graham, were going through a divorce during the filming and I think that it had a big influence on the film. The ending was shot twice, with the second version being the one that is included in the film today. After you have watched the film go and look up what the first ending was supposed to be, then compare it to the one that is. If you take into consideration that the second ending was concocted by a man going through a divorce I think it makes the ending even more powerful because it feels like a true emotion coming straight from the director to the screen.
This film is one that I enjoyed very much but also one that I feel that I will need to see again because there are so many facets and layers to discover. While the story itself is engrossing and the acting superb, I still don’t feel like I have gotten everything from this film that I can. IN A LONELY PLACE is definitely a film that I recommend at least one viewing of, if not multiple. It is a story and a film that will keep revealing pieces of itself each time we return to it, just like Dixon Steele.