Even if you’re a fan of the great Humphrey Bogart, you might find it hard to believe that he “played juveniles or romantic second-leads in drawing room comedies [in the theatre], and is said to have been the first actor to ask “Tennis, anyone?” on stage.” As a pre-teen, I watched his films on Saturday afternoons when a local television channel aired classics. I loved Bogart’s characters: the wounded cynic who was tough yet vulnerable, powerful yet caring.
His most memorable films reinforced his “Loner with a Heart of Gold” role: the private investigator with a femme fatale client in The Maltese Falcon (1941), a Noir classic based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; the self-sacrificing expatriate in Casablanca (1942), which was Bogart’s first romantic lead in film; and private investigator Phillip Marlowe in the complex and somewhat convoluted Noir The Big Sleep, (1946), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Until last month, when I first learned of Dorothy B. Harris’ 1947 Noir serial killer novel, In a Lonely Place, however, written in Limited Point of View from the perspective of the killer himself, and its 1950 film adaptation, I never realized that Humphrey Bogart had played a man suspected of being not just a murderer, but a serial killer. Bogart’s angst-ridden and angry character Dixon Steele in the film adaptation of Harris’ novel, is one of his most “fascinatingly complex” roles, one that has earned the film a place in multiple the Top 100 lists.
Bogart plays once-successful screenwriter Dixon Steele, who is being urged by his agent and colleagues to adapt a trashy bestseller into a script to get his own career back on track, i.e., earning money. Annoyed by the book’s banal content, Steele feels oppressed by the assignment. He attempts a shortcut: instead of reading the entire “epic” novel himself, he asks a young coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) at one of his favorite restaurants to come back to his place to tell him the story. When the two arrive at his apartment complex late at night, Steele glimpses the woman of his dreams, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is a new neighbor.
From that point on, Steele’s life is a tumultuous roller coaster ride. As he tries to write a screenplay for the book he doesn’t even like, he finds himself irresistibly attracted to the mysterious and somewhat aloof Laurel. Worse, he’s under investigation for violent crimes, including a gruesome murder.
Though the film seems to start somewhat slowly and has some inappropriate comedic moments, especially those involving the drunken actor who’s a friend of Steele, and many scenes with Steele’s agent (Art Smith), it mostly concentrates on the disturbing story of Steele’s vivid (albeit scary) imagination and his even more frightening rage.
The isolation, moral ennui, and angst driving Steele to desperate acts of savagery that begin to terrify even his long-time agent, the beautiful but restless Laurel, and close friends Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell).
It’s not only the most intense performance Bogart ever gave, it’s considered by many to be his best: “revelatory, vulnerable,” and “unnerving.”
Because the film In a Lonely Place is only very loosely adapted from the novel, I wouldn’t recommend that you read the book beforehand, as the differences between novel and film will confuse you. Instead, watch the film — or read the novel — separately from each other. This film, called the “purest of Existential primers,” is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.
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