With the recent release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and the controversy that still swirls around Hollywood, Film’s Luis Freijo takes a look back at the 1950 Classic In a Lonely Place starring a young Gloria Grahame
The recent release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has helped new audiences to discover the actress Gloria Grahame through her last months of life and her relationship to Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). However, Grahame was also a successful actor in the golden age of Hollywood whose acting skills were framed in the feminine model of that period in cinema history. She got a contract from Louis B. Mayer, from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in 1944 and was cast steadily from that year until 1959. After that, she worked mainly in TV shows until her death, although she came back to mainstream cinema with Melvin and Howard 1980, a year before her death. She appeared in important classic films such as It’s a Wonderful Life! (1946), Crossfire (1947), The Greatest Show on Earth(1952), The Big Heat (1953), or The Bad and the Beauty (1952), for which she won the Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role. Nevertheless, here we are going to remember Gloria Grahame by focusing in what was probably her best role and her best feature film: In a Lonely Place.
In a Lonely Place was directed by Nicholas Ray in 1950, with a screenplay by Andrew Solt and Edmond H. North that adapted a story by Dorothy B. Hughes for Columbia Pictures. With Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame as lead actors, the film was presented as a yet another Bogart thriller. Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a screenwriter that invites a young girl over to his home in order for her to tell him the story of a novel that he is supposed to adapt. The girl is murdered on her way home and Dix becomes the primary suspect, although his neighbour Laurel Gray (Grahame) provides an alibi for him. A relationship starts to develop between them, but Laurel remains increasingly unsure of whether he actually committed the crime or not.
The plot might seem indicative of the typical film noir tropes. The presence of Bogart was enough to highlight this genre-link, since he was the one that had reached its most remarkable peaks (for instance, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep). It didn’t matter that he was the potential murderer in the film. By then, he had gained more complexity in his acting abilities and had previously been cast as a vicious characters (the magnificent The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) or even as killers (in underrated Curtis Bernhardt’s Conflict), so it might be a possible option. However, Nicholas Ray and his screenwriters used this generic conventions to hide a set of ideas that transcended a mere film genre.
For starters, In a Lonely Place develops a discourse about film industry, and it’s not a positive one. Ray was always an outsider in that world, and eventually his career would be prematurely killed off because of that. Film business in In a Lonely Place is portrayed as a nest of money-grabbers, ruthless businessmen that feel no respect for old professionals (like the “thespian” played by Robert Warwick) and that don’t have any trouble with adapting a lousy best-seller because it’s profitable instead of trying something more artistic. And the alternative is not much better: Dixon Steele, the only character that defies this statu quo, is a troubled, violent man who is not able to propose a different ethical approach.
It’s precisely Steele’s violence what constructs the film’s main topic: abuse. Because In a Lonely Place deals with abusive relationships, and mistreatment against females. Bogart and Grahame were absolutely superb in their roles, because they perfectly assumed a subversion of the archetypal roles of the film noir genre. Steele is seen at the beginning as the normal Bogart character: tough, cold, but with apparent sensitiveness inside. However, as the story advances, he will reveal himself as an extremely violent man, ready to quickly resort to punching and kicking with his producer, his agent, any bystander and, of course, his girlfriend. Gloria Grahame also manages to portray a very subtle evolution. She starts as a variation of one of Lauren Bacall’s typical characters, as self-assured and strong as them, but soon she begins to become overwhelmed by the deranged Dixon. In a Lonely Place provides strong evidence about how good both actors could be.
Overall, In a Lonely Place offers the view of “progressive” Hollywood (both Ray and Bogart were spokesmen against the witch-hunt led by senator Joseph McCarthy) on abuse against women, which is very interesting to analyze in the light of our contemporary stand on it and the reports against industry members in the last months, because it basically shows women’s fear but fails to openly denounce it. But, especially, it remains a monument to Gloria Grahame and her importance within classic film history.