Quintessential quote: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
You could recognise the names as they appear on the screen in an instant. Humphrey Bogart – a pop culture icon – and Gloria Grahame – the lesser known, but still good, actress who played the woman you might have loved to hate in the overly reviewed seasonal film, It’s a Wonderful Life. In A Lonely Place is a distillation of both the short-lived beauty of romance and the simmering bleakness of noir, and it displays the fatalism that binds them both.
Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a walking usurpation of the archetype that he set within Hollywood; instead of the sardonic, pragmatic, yet kind-hearted noir-hero who saves the day and gets the ‘dame’ in The Big Sleep, we’re greeted with the unnerving presence of a man who displaces those elements entirely. He’s old and lonely, obviously, as well as hunched and isolated within tightly framed shots. He’s a screenwriter that’s down on his luck and unable to find motivation. He reluctantly has to adapt a screenplay from a novel he hasn’t read. After finding a girl that has read the book in a nearby bar, he takes her home, has her read the book to him, and asks her to leave. The next day, she’s dead, and his next-door neighbour Laurel, played by Grahame, appears. She brings Steele an alibi, a new focus, and the charging energy of the film; a playful, bantering tone, continually undercut by a seething, shimmering anger. From the get-go, the main problem of the film seems to be: did he do it? But the real problem this film concerns itself with is offering a realistic portrayal of love.
This film is about the tender spaces of existence, of love, and, perhaps, works as a commentary on the emerging age of New Hollywood cinema. At the time, cinema was breaking away from the comfort of the Hollywood classics. It’s A Wonderful Life, a film of complete optimism (undertones aside), was no longer what Hollywood was interested in. Now, films were shifting into becoming complex contradictions. There is a dark violence in them that suggests the struggle of moving away from the formulaic, typical narrative arc of man, woman, and optimism that was deemed ‘good’ filmmaking. In a Lonely Place presents to us this deep contradiction through the figure of Steele.
The parallels are obvious: the ageing man being pushed out of his sphere of existence, not caring enough to read the new works of his generation, not bothered enough to write new screenplays for salaries or checks, and instead wanting to exist purely in his own sphere, or to be left alone. Louise Brooks thought that this film, with the “character’s pride in his art, his selfishness, drunkenness, [and] a lack of energy that stabbed with lightning strokes of violence”, had much in common with the “‘real’ Bogart”. Bogart no longer has to play fancified versions of a character he has been pigeon-holed into; here, he can play himself, or at least a more appropriate version of how he wishes to act. The real nuance of this film and the greatest scene from the whole of Bogart’s career can be summarised 4 minutes and 22 seconds in. Here you should pause it, replay it, and watch the change in his eyes and forehead, and the control he has over his body in composing it perfectly to express the form of a man quick to change, and to anger. Am I being pedantic? Of course. But it is here, within this frame, that you can see the details of Bogart’s acting – his face changes, subtly, but intently. It sets an ethos of cinema that dictates that subtlety can be found in the smallest of gestures, in the minutiae of film.
Steele’s counterpart is Laurel, who complements him perfectly. She can play off his wry jokes and can handle conversations with dry wit and ease. She is not the typical Hollywood ‘dame’, nor the femme fatale of noir cinema. Arguably, her plight in the latter half of the film makes her the main character; for once, the noir isn’t about the male’s downfall, but the female’s doubts. These doubts are echoed in the actress’ life, wherein her volatile marriage to the director, Nicholas Ray, was mirrored on screen in the violence, anger and doubts the character expresses for Steele (another reason she, like Bogart, may have chosen this role).
When each counterpart comes together to balance the other out, we are given two characters merely trying to consolidate their loves for one another whilst still being trapped in that lonely place. Steele, unable to prove his innocence (or guilt), and Laurel, unable to fully trust him and scarred by previous commitment, are in a consistently lonely sphere of doubt. Both characters are isolated and alone, and whilst they share the same emotion of love, they remain segregated from each other. It is this lonely and negative space in the film that brings together the components of tragedy – distrust and fear pervade, whilst love whittles away into loneliness.
However, the love, whilst it is there, is stark. One of the greatest love scenes of cinema can be summarised in a scene in which they are in the kitchen together. Laurel remarks:
“I love the love scene. It’s very good.”
To which Steele replies:
“Well, that’s because they’re not always telling each other how in love they are. A good love scene should be about something beside love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit, you sittin’ over there, dopey, half asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we were in love.”
It is, of course, Ray commenting on the ridiculous nature of declarations of love that often seep into the screen. It is, however, a very realistic portrayal of it. Love in this film is not presented as a saviour complex, as it cannot save you from your character, the traits you hold, or who you are. In this film, love is an option and a choice; it can separate you from loneliness or drown you in it.
Whatever prongs of choice pervades you in your personal life, this is a great film regardless. Whether you want a deep commentary on the nature of Hollywood itself, to feel better about your own personality and idiosyncrasies, or be pervaded by a tragic love story with some sharp, witty humour – find this film. Watch it, pause it when necessary to analyse the contrasts of the chiaroscuros lighting (and Bogart or Grahame themselves), and know that this is a film about love and loneliness that feels no need to romanticise.