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70 Years Later: In a Lonely Place

19 June 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Seventy years after its release, we visit auteur Nicolas Ray’s fifties film noir murder mystery.

Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy
Running time: 94 minutes

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a Hollywood scriptwriter chasing his own demons. He gets into fights in bars, on the street, with friends, with strangers. He’s a difficult customer and no one can quite pin him down. Needing help with a potential new project, he asks a young check-out girl at Paul’s restaurant to visit his apartment and read through a book he is supposed to be adapting. Everything seems above board and she soon leaves again for home, watched by Dix’s curious, sultry neighbour Laurel (Gloria Grahame). So when the young girl, Mildred, turns up murdered the next morning, suspicion falls on Dix as the last person to see her alive.  

Based on the novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes, the film takes us down a long and winding road into the darkness of a person’s soul. At the time it was made, it was an incredibly modern and ambitious project. Some of the filming techniques used, such as a POV shot from Dix’s perspective, or the shadowy lighting used to highlight a character’s eyes, still feel very fresh. The ending in particular is so shocking, that it truly deserves being listed as one of the 1001 films to see before you die. Dix Steele is a complex character, executed perfectly by Bogart. As the layers of his personality are gradually stripped away piece-by-piece, tensions rise. Unlike most film noir in that era, you can really see the ugliness side of his personality bubbling away underneath. It is a remarkable portrait that shows off Bogart’s full range and justifies the title of greatest male star of classic American cinema, given to him by the AFI.

I hope that these days, a woman like Laurel wouldn’t give Dix the time of day

However, I can’t let it pass without going into Dix Steele’s behaviour a little further. Watching it with a contemporary perspective, I found myself more uncomfortable than I think even Nicolas Ray meant me to be. Dix Steele might have been crafted to be one of the first sexy bad guys, but these days behaviour such as his leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As Dix and Laurel fall in love, she is subjected to an insidious form of domestic abuse that is hard to watch. Of course, part of the purpose of the film is to make the audience question whether or not Dix is capable of Mildred’s murder, with the “has he, or hasn’t he?” tension keeping us right on the edge of our seats. 

He needs to be enough of a villain to make it believable if he was found guilty, but it’s also just as important to show how Laurel could have fallen in love with him in the first place, and this is where his behaviour becomes extremely problematic. There is just too much gaslighting; I’m thinking of lines such as: “You’ll go when I tell you to go and not before” and “If you don’t let me go, I’ll kick you right out of here”. To me, it’s not a question of whether Dix is a good or bad guy but more a question of why Laurel is subjecting herself to such a horrendous, one-sided relationship. It makes the outcome of whether he’s guilty or not a bit redundant. I like to think we have learned something over the last seventy years. Whether he’s acquitted or not, I hope that these days, a woman like Laurel, strong-minded and independent, wouldn’t give Dix the time of day.

Did you know? Actress Louise Brooks wrote that Bogart and Dix shared similarities, saying: "The character's pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart."

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