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Double Feature: “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “Dark Passage” (1947)

(Due to the sheer number of films devoured by yours truly, Humphrey Bogart Week has been extended.)

“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Art Smith, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid

For actors, playing a character — or, to be more accurate, a type — is tricky business. Do a poor job, of course, and word gets around, the parts dry up; do an impeccable job and there’s a danger of typecasting. In the late ’30s and ’40s, that almost happened to Humphrey Bogart. He slipped so seamlessly into the hard-nosed characters of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade and the weary, unwitting hero roles (Frank McCloud, Capt. Rip Murdock) that this looked to be his niche in Hollywood. Then along came Nicholas Ray’s claustrophobic murder mystery/thriller “In a Lonely Place,” and Bogart changed his game. Violent, tempermental screenwriter Dix Steele may be the richest character Bogart ever played. His remarkably intricate portrayal of this brutish but articulate and likable man is the defining performance of a touchstone-studded career.

From the beginning, it’s clear that what Dix’s friends and agent (Smith) call “artistic temperament” is really a dangerous, hair-trigger temper. In the opening scene he leaps from his car to start a fight with another motorist; not long after, at a nightclub, a stranger insults Dix’s friend Charlie (Robert Warwick), a washed-up actor and hopeless drunk, and gets a beating for it. There seems to be no bottom to Dix’s rage. So it’s no surprise that when friendly hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) who went home with Dix turns up dead, he’s the prime suspect. But his new neighbor Laurel (a luminous Grahame) offers a solid alibi for him, and the two strike up a flirtation that turns into a happy relationship. Capt. Lochner (Reid) believes his friend is innocent, but his boss (Lovejoy) isn’t convinced. And after witnessing one of Dix’s terrifying blind rages (which nearly ends in murder), neither is Laurel.

Director Nicholas Ray creates an intense sense of connection between his two leads with the apartment building setting — confined and communal, but also somewhat detached and somewhat forbidding, everyone living so close but so far away at once. In many ways, “In a Lonely Place” feels a bit like a precursor to “Rear Window,” in which Hitchcock parlayed the idea into a look at voyeurism. Dix even hints at the idea, remarking that Laurel can see into his apartment but he can’t see into hers … and he’d take advantage if he had the chance. The unusual setting contributes a sense of closeness in the early stages of Dix and Laurel’s romance; toward the end, however, the closeness starts to feel like a trap she’s hooked in. The confinement brings out tremendous performances from all the players, notably Smith as Dix’s long-suffering but understanding agent and Reid, who wants more than anything to believe his friend’s innocence. Grahame makes her dilemma palpable, and painful, while Bogart makes his rages towering and petrifying. Underneath all the exploding anger, though, there’s a romantic with a self-effacing sense of humor. Bogart finds a faultless balance of these two personas, and right up to the harrowing conclusion he yanks our sympathies in both directions. His manners disarm and charm, yet there’s no denying his delight in a macabre recreation of Mildred’s murder. The rampaging zeal in his eyes there will haunt you indefinitely.

Grade: A

~~~~~~~~~~

“Dark Passage”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Bennett, Clifton Young

In literature, first-person narration is a technique that lends a sense of immediacy, a hard and fast point of view. Used sparingly, this perspective can translate effectively into film (consider the opening scene of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”). The trouble with Delmer Daves’ noir film “Dark Passage” is that the technique is used liberally. The entire first half hour of the adaptation is filmed from the perspective of escaped convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), and as time ticks by what seemed innovative becomes grating. Thanks to Daves’ unusual methods, the audience has no sense of who the character is. His looks don’t make him, surely, but hiding his face sets up a frustrating barrier between him and the audience, a barrier that threatens to sour the film altogether. This is not a promising beginning.

With that trusty Bogart/Bacall magic worked in, though, there’s less danger of that happening. (It’s unfortunate that in “Dark Passage” Bogart displays a disappointing lack of his usual snap and wiseguy quippiness.) The pair again play would-be lovers connected by, it would seem, by happenstance: Vincent, a convicted murderer, has escaped from San Quentin prison, and Irene Jansen (Bacall) appears like an angel on the roadside, willing and eager to help him hide from the police. She smuggles him through a police check and into her apartment, where he discovers she is one of the few who believes he was erroneously accused of killing his wife. Irene understands her involvement is risky — “Was I insane to pick you up on the road?” she asks Vincent — but has her own reasons for being interested in this convict’s case. With her support, Vincent sets out to uncover the identity of his wife’s killer, a task made infinitely more arduous by Irene’s nosy acquaintance Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who testified against Vincent at his trial, and the stranger (Clifton Young) whose car Vincent stole just after his break.

Film noir and even neo-noir films generally aren’t noted for their true-to-life plots (the riddle that is the script of “The Big Sleep” is as easy to solve as the chicken-and-egg debate). As such stories go, “Dark Passage” is less complicated than most, but there are some threads that seem glaringly obvious and some — like Vincent’s fly-by-night but miraculous cosmetic surgery — that defy logic and strain our willing suspension of disbelief. Still, this would be a conquerable challenge if the chemistry was right and the acting superb. Unfortunately, neither hits quite the right note. Bacall, all wrenching looks and cat-like allure, is up to her usual slinky tricks, but Bogart seems uncharacteristically subdued, even dour and (gasp!) unfunny, alongside his leading lady. Their embraces and glances generate the expected heat; it’s when they aren’t together that Bogart’s sluggishness becomes all the more noticeable. Bennett and Moorehead, as a warring divorced couple, provide the film’s zippiest lines, with Moorehead chomping up the scenery every chance she gets. Only Young, as the unfortunate driver Vincent beats up, looks to have more fun hamming his character to the nines. He’s twice as lively as Bogart, and that’s the biggest shock of all.

Grade: B-

4 Responses

  1. Superb. What a great read. Kudos to you.

    I grew to love Gloria Grahame, although the Grahame-Ray-Ray love triangle was downright odd and was a bit of a trailblazer for Woody Allen…

  2. In A Lonely Place remains one of my favourite films too, and ranks among the most bleak, downbeat film noirs ever made. As you rightly pointed out, Humphrey Bogart is top-notch in the role of Dixon with his existential angst. The theme of the movie, in fact, seemed to be very similar to the one propounded by Camus’ The Outsider.

  3. I told you that you would like In a Lonely Place. What I love about Bogart’s performance is that he seems to draw on all the characters he has played before but has infused them with greater fallibility and vulnerability. Good job M.

    • @ Colin — Grahame blew me away in “In a Lonely Place.” I will be seeking out more of her films!

      @ Shubhajit — I haven’t seen your comments on the site before, so thanks for stopping in! You are absolutely right; “In a Lonely Place” is one of the most heartbreaking films I’ve seen in years. It’s certainly one of the darker noirs I’ve watched as well. Bogart is just so darn good in it. His eyes and expression during his recreation of the Atkinson murder could give a person nightmares!

      @ Fandango — An excellent recommendation as always (I think Jake suggested this a few seconds after you did). I’m seriously amazed at how Bogart could make a character that violent and unpredictable so vulnerable and likable. His speech about how a good love scene is about something other than love is amazing.

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