There’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.
Just because you might be innocent of one crime doesn’t mean you’re a saint who’d never commit another. We’ve seen this type of complex premise as recently as “The Night of”, a miniseries about racial prejudice and police neglect wherein the accused (and audience) is unaware of whether he committed murder. And as facts of the evening in question are put into context, details also surface about the defendant to color him in a different light than initially assumed. Our duty is then to dissect which new information is relevant because a pattern of past violence doesn’t make him guilty of this specific act. Only that he’s perhaps capable. It’s therefore near impossible to separate how we feel about the person from what we know about the crime.
Those who’ve lived with and loved the accused can’t stop themselves from wondering if he’s duped them all along. We suddenly doubt him rather than his guilt. It’s these same circumstances that cloud Nicholas Ray‘s seminal film noir In a Lonely Place. Scripted by Andrew Solt (from an Edmund H. North adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes‘ novel), this mystery’s accused man is a screenwriter in a rut named Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart). He’s awoken one morning by a detective friend (Frank Lovejoy‘s Brub Nicolai) with news that the girl he took home the night before was thrown from a car and killed. Steele explains how he didn’t know the deceased and that his invite was strictly professional despite how “celebrity male takes hatcheck girl home” seems on paper.
Steele was asked by his agent (Art Smith‘s Mel Lippmann) to read a novel director Lloyd Barnes (Morris Ankrum) had tapped for his next film. It just so happened that young Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) already finished it. So Dixon figured it’d be easier to hear her summary in the comfort of his living room than pore over the pages himself. His neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame)—a woman he’d seen, but not yet properly met—luckily was watching as Mildred left alone. As an alibi it appeared airtight, especially for Nicolai considering he’d served with Steele during World War II and knew he wasn’t capable of such a crime. Unfortunately, however, it remained dubious to Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) once Dixon and Laurel start to date.
Who should we believe? We never see what happened after Mildred left Dixon’s apartment and Laurel went to bed. So it’s feasible the screenwriter exited his home and caught up with the girl before reaching the taxi station. Steele has multiple run-ins with the law stemming from his violent temper: a few fistfights (we saw him get into one the night in question) and a domestic battery charge. He’s a man with a code and the punch to back it up whether the law is on his side or not. He’s also a man with an imagination that’s allowed him to kill women a variety of ways via Hollywood entertainment. And since Mildred’s sweetheart’s (Jack Reynolds‘ Henry Kesler) parents vouched for his whereabouts, Dixon is the prime suspect.
So we weigh the facts (a volatile man with the means to commit the crime showing no empathy when told the news) against character witnesses (Nicolai giving the benefit of the doubt, Lippman not believing his friend capable of homicide, and Laurel’s love-tinted gaze) without ever setting foot in a courtroom. The filmmakers do everything in their power to sow our doubt alongside those who care about Dixon onscreen, the constant poking and prodding instilling a heavy sense of paranoia in everyone involved. It’s inevitable then that Steele would become wound tight enough to blow in full view of his champions. And as stories of his past reach Laurel’s ears, even she must question her level of trust. After all, she’s been burnt before (having ran from another man not so long ago).
The tension therefore shifts from Mildred’s murder to an event that hasn’t happened (if it ever will). As we watch Dixon become more distant (writing again thanks to his new muse), demanding (requiring her to make his meals, type his pages, and love him unconditionally) and depraved (his hypothesis about how the “real” killer did the deed is told with relish), we conversely witness Laurel’s growing fear. We begin to read meaning into situations and dialogue that aligns with our own preconceptions thanks to her unease and his unpredictability. Facts can no longer be defined objectively as we’ve made up our own minds about Dixon Steele’s identity. Eventually what he did or didn’t do doesn’t matter because we believe it’s possible. The power to kill exists within him.
Or does it? What if he’s just a tad hot under the collar? What if he simply loses control, showing remorse in the aftermath? He saw war after all. And everyone is quick to say that he’s lost his touch since coming back. Whether PTSD or plain old aggression, the “artistic” mind that he says stops him from being able to hurt another soul who doesn’t deserve it (the definition of deserve a loose one for him) has been altered. So maybe it’s not really him who commits these heinous acts. Maybe he’s as much a victim as those he harms. Well, as we’ve learned the past month with Devin Faraci, Harry Knowles, and Harvey Weinstein, we cannot allow such sympathetic lenses to negate obvious instances of abuse.
In the end Steele is a bomb driven by impulse. His potential for carnage is marked by irrefutable evidence thanks to a couple of well-placed interruptions barely stopping him from killing someone else. So whether he’s Mildred’s assailant or not, there are at least three characters we must worry about in the aftermath of her death. Dixon is haunted by demons and perhaps could be cured of them if he received the help he needs, but until then we can’t know his intent. When a man is just as likely to give someone a hug as punch him/her in the face, we must assume the worst and hope for the best. And when the person on the receiving end is haunted by her own demons, love proves irrelevant.
So we watch In a Lonely Place with a mixture of anticipation and dread. This isn’t your usual hard-boiled detective case searching for a killer while being sidetracked by a femme fatale. Instead it’s a rather complex descent into the psychological struggles we face within a world of possibilities both joyous and heartbreaking. Ray ensures his actors (Bogart and Grahame are fantastic) flicker between the undefeatable lovers caught on a cloud of bliss and the tortured, jealous, and enraged products of scorn and horror they are in equal measure. Reality often makes it so we can’t reconcile those two parts of ourselves—the nightmares endured preventing us from being whole. Adopting a guilty until proven innocent ideology becomes our hope for sanity. It may even save our life.
Watched in conjunction with Season One of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills.