Periscope Depth

in a lonely place

(Retconning this post to be part of Noirvember. Click the tag to see more)

I’ve been catching up on film noir over the last few weeks, with Sunset Boulevard first and, just last night, the Humphrey Bogart 1950 classic In a Lonely Place. Sunset Boulevard deserves all the plaudits it receives, but I don’t think enough people know about In a Lonely Place as well. It’s just as melodramatic, if on a more intimate scale, and a rare heel turn from the 20th century’s least likely leading man.

Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a passionate, cynical screenwriter who’s accused of murdering a hat-check girl. Though he can provide explanations for everything – why, I was just asking her to read me the plot of a book I was adapting, Detective – he’s still the prime suspect until his lovely neighbor, Laurel Ray (Gloria Grahame), gives him an alibi. Recognizing her fascination with him, Steele pursues her and they begin a relationship. He begins writing again at an inspired pace, and she falls in love with his genius. But unanswered questions keep cropping up, and Steele’s occasional flashes of possessive temper set Laurel to wondering.

The movie romanticizes Steele’s emotional instability. It’s easy to get away with, especially in the hands of Bogart, a man whose eyes can flash from tortured to enraged in a hot second. And the cynical lines he delivers with such a lazy drawl convince you he’s a world-weary genius instead of an asshole. “Why didn’t you call for a cab? Isn’t that what a gentleman usually does under the circumstances?” the police captain asks of the murdered girl. “I didn’t say I was a gentleman,” Bogart replies, “I said I was tired.” You see such a flame, on the verge of being snuffed out by the soot of Hollywood, and you want to protect it. You can almost excuse his agent defending his temper to his terrified lover: “You knew he was dynamite – he has to explode sometimes!”

And yet the movie only works because Bogart is, in fact, terrifying. While the audience knows from the beginning he didn’t kill the girl he’s accused of murdering, there are other mysterious incidents in his past, and other flare-ups that Laurel witnesses as well. The movie paints her as a woman in an impossible situation, when in fact her response is the only rational one. Dixon Steele is a violent man who can’t forgive a slight. His friends keep things from him for fear of setting him off, but he’s smart enough to see through them and then immediately suspects the worst. When she trembles at his knock on the door, or feigns a smile to ease his nerves, how else should we expect her to react?

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