Saturday, January 20, 2018

Classics: A Review of In a Lonely Place By Lauren Ennis

Moral ambiguity, suspicion, smoldering femme fatales, and the ever present threat of menace are just a few of the features that have become synonymous with film noir. The 1950 noir classic In a Lonely Place twists these familiar elements to create a unique entry in the genre that remains startlingly fresh nearly seventy years after its release. Equal parts 50’s kitchen sink drama and 40’s whodunit, the film takes noir off of the mean city streets and into the supposed comfort of the home as it explores the ways in which a murder upends a couple’s life. Easily one of the most haunting entries in the noir genre, In a Lonely Place turns genre and social conventions inside out in a way that will leave viewers questioning the darkness lurking within us all.

Love means never calling the homicide unit
The story begins with former hit screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) descending into alcoholism and depression as he struggles to revive his fading career. He reluctantly accepts an assignment to adapt a trashy bestseller, but refuses to read the book, opting instead to hire the hat-check girl at the local watering hole to summarize the plot for him. The girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), happily obliges and accompanies Dixon to his apartment, but is promptly sent on her way the moment that her summary is complete. When the police discover Mildred strangled to death on the side of the road the next morning, Dixon becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Fortunately for him, however, his sultry neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) saw Mildred leave his apartment and provides him with an alibi. After meeting at the police station Dixon and Laurel strike up an acquaintance that quickly surpasses neighborly as she becomes his muse and consuming obsession. Even as the couple grow closer, however, Mildred’s unsolved murder remains an unspoken but palpable barrier between them. When continued pressure from the police causes Dixon’s notorious temper to resurface Laurel begins to question if the man she loves could be capable of murder.

In a Lonely Place stands out from its fellow noirs by subverting the conventions of its genre and era to reveal the dark side of post-war America. The film takes viewers on a twisted journey from almost its first frame as Humphrey Bogart appears on the screen in what appears to be another of his signature world-weary hero roles. As the film continues, however, it becomes apparent that the trademark Bogart cynicism is actually an indication of something far more disturbing, as Dixon careens through an evening marked by drunkenness, belligerent arguments, and bar fights. When Mildred Atkinson’s body is found just minutes into the film, audiences are already questioning if he might be the villain after all. As his character falls under the spell of Gloria Grahame’s captivating Laurel, however, Bogart’s familiar charm resurfaces, leading viewers to further question Dixon’s actions and motives. Through its warped portrayal of the persona that made Bogart a lasting cinematic icon the film calls into question not just viewers expectations, but also the cynicism and vigilantism consistently promoted in noir as a whole. Similarly, the film calls gender roles and sexual double standards of its era into question through its sympathetic portrayal of Laurel in spite of her checkered past. As the film progresses, Laurel evolves from the brassy moll role that Grahame was so often typecast as to something far more substantial; a complex and tormented woman. As the story’s focus shifts from Mildred’s murder to its effect upon Dixon and Laurel, the film toys with viewers yet again as the central question becomes not who committed the murder, but how vast a shadow can one crime cast over a community. By the time that the film reaches its emotionally shattering conclusion the notoriously warped film noir genre will look more distorted than it ever has before or since.

Does this mean I might not get the girl in the end?
Even with its superb script, the film easily could have become just another b-thriller if not for the brilliant work of its cast. Frank Lovejoy’s sympathetic portrayal of Dixon’s friend sergeant Nicolai highlights his character’s inner conflict. Ruth Gillette lends the film much needed comic relief in her role as the couple’s sassy housekeeper, Martha. Art Smith imbues his performance as Dixon’s agent and confidante with an essential warmth and good humor. Martha Stewart approaches her brief role as Mildred with an infectious enthusiasm which ensures that her character resonates as more than a mere plot device. Even while surrounded by apt supporting performances, Bogart and Grahame own every frame in which they appear. Bogart captures the nihilism beneath the surface of Dixon’s charisma in a brilliant inversion of the cynical brand of cool that he made famous. Grahame is every bit his match as she portrays Laurel’s outward confidence and inner vulnerability with equal skill. Together, the pair expertly bring their characters to life in a way that makes each fracture in their damaged souls achingly real.

In a Lonely Place captures the isolation and disillusionment concealed beneath the surface of post-war America with a poignancy that sets it apart from other noir films of its era. Through the combination of its intelligent script and raw performances the film more than earns its status as a classic. For a visit to the not so good old days, join Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham for a haunting journey In a Lonely Place.

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