“In a Lonely Place” is a less well-known film in Humphrey Bogart’s catalog but the plot and character combine to play very well to Bogart’s strengths. In the story Bogart is a Hollywood screen writer named Dixon “Dix” Steele who has been down on his luck of late. And in the first scene we also discover that he has an explosive temper that easily leads him into physical altercations. Steele is at a restaurant where he meets up with some colleagues and other movie making types, producers, agents and actors. A producer who is somewhat obnoxious makes a crack about an alcoholic actor that happens to be Steele’s friend and Dix physically assaults him and has to be restrained. During the evening we learn that Dix ix supposed to read a novel for his agent to see if it is suitable for a movie treatment. Because he is too tired and hung over, he asks the hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson, who has read the book to accompany him back to his apartment and recite a summary of the book for him. She agrees and we see her enthusiastically summarize the book to Dix who is obviously unimpressed with the plot. When she finishes, he explains that he is too tired to drive her home and gives her a generous amount of cash to catch a cab around the block on her own. At one point in the scene Dix is looking out the apartment window and he sees a woman standing on her balcony. The two of them stare at each other for an extended moment and Dix is obviously interested. The scene ends with Dix sending Mildred on her way and catching another look at the neighbor woman who is in the apartment courtyard.
The next morning Dix is awakened by a ring at his doorbell. An old army pal of his Brub Nicolai is calling. Brub is now a police detective and his boss, Capt. Lochner, wants to talk to Dix. Dix had been Nicolai’s commanding officer in WW II and their relationship is presented as casually friendly. At the police station Dix is unemotional and seemingly unconcerned to hear that Mildred was strangled to death after leaving his home the night before. Lochner is noticeably suspicious of Steele’s seemingly callous disregard for the girl’s murder but when the neighbor woman who had shared the glances with Dix the night before, Laurel Gray, comes into the police station and in front of Dix confirms the fact that Mildred left Steele’s apartment alone, the police let Dix go home. Interestingly on his way home Dix pays a florist to have two dozen white roses sent to Mildred Atkinson’s home.
The setup after this is two tracks. Dix and Laurel fall in love and we see the relationship vitalize Dix. Notably his screen writing work benefits enormously. He is happier than he has been in years. The other track is Capt. Lochner pursuing evidence of Steele’s guilt in the Atkinson murder. He instructs Nicolai to socialize with Dix and Laurel. Nicolai and his wife invite them to dinner and go out on the town with the couple. These get togethers serve to only increase suspicion of Dix. He really does have a violent and slightly disturbed personality. And finally, Capt. Lochner calls Laurel in to discuss Steele’s long and troubled history of violence. This plants the seeds of doubt about Dix deep into her mind. And it is the catalyst that eventually destroys her trust in him. When Dix and Laurel are at the Nicolais’ home one night it comes out that Laurel had met with Capt. Lochner without telling Dix. Dix flies into a rage and storms away and Laurel barely catches up with him before he drives off into the night like a madman. Driving at seventy miles an hour around winding mountain roads he barely avoids numerous accidents but finally sideswipes a car at an intersection. The driver angrily insults him for damaging his car and Dix pummels him into unconsciousness on the side of the road. But when he is about to brain the helpless man with a large rock Laurel screams at him and brings him back to his senses. They drive off and Dix relates how he’s been in a hundred fights like this. Laurel asks if that makes it better. He tries to justify himself based on the verbal taunt the other driver made. She reminds him that all the guy called him was a “blind knuckle-headed squirrel.” He becomes slightly contrite and lets her drive them home from there. The next day after reading of the attack in the newspaper Dix goes to the post office and sends three hundred dollars to his victim in the name of Joe Squirrel.
But now Laurel is so shaken by the knowledge of Steele’s murderous temper that she even doubts whether he is innocent of Mildred’s murder. She cannot sleep and begins taking sleeping pills. Sensing that things are slipping away Dix tells Laurel that they are going to get engaged that day and married that night in Las Vegas. Too afraid to refuse him she agrees but secretly makes plans to run off on a flight to New York City. She confesses to Steele’s agent Mel that she is leaving him. Mel tells her it will crush Dix and counsels her to give Dix a consolation victory by allowing Mel to have the script approved by the studio before she leaves him as this will soften the blow to his ego. This sets up a scene at the “engagement party” at their favorite restaurant where a call comes in from the studio revealing that Mel gave the script to the studio without Dix’s permission. Dix slaps Mel viciously in the face breaking his glasses. Dix goes into the bathroom to apologize to Mel but by the time he returns to the table Laurel has fled.
Dix confronts Laurel in her apartment and all his suspicions that she is leaving him are on display. She has taken off his engagement ring and is hiding her preparations to flee the state. Finally, a call from the travel agent reveals all and as she tries to placate him Dix grabs Laurel and starts to strangle her. But before it’s too late he comes to his senses, lets her go and starts walking away. The phone rings again and it is Nicolai and Lochner calling to apologize to Dix and Laurel. Mildred Atkinson’s boyfriend has confessed to her murder. Dix lifelessly passes the phone to a still visibly choked and groggy Laurel who listens to Lochner’s apology with vacant eyes. She mentions before she hangs up that a day earlier this news would have meant a great deal more. The movie ends with Laurel watching from her open door as Dix walks dazedly away to his apartment.
This movie comes at an interesting point in the transition from the studio system of the golden age of Hollywood to the aftermath with independent production companies struggling to get movies financed and made. Bogart’s production company was able to capitalize on the talents of the actors, directors and production people available at that point to give the film the polished Hollywood look but he was stepping way from the safe plot devices and social conventions that wouldn’t have allowed a big star like Bogart to steer so far onto the dark side. But this is what Bogart was looking for. Earlier in his career he could be the psychotic gangster but after Casablanca and The Big Sleep he would have to be at least nominally a good guy. This restriction to his choices was against his interests and so he sought out a film noir like this that gave the audience what they wanted.
And it is very effective. Gloria Grahame as Laurel is very interesting to watch. She performs the varying stages of her relationship with Dix in a convincing and entertaining way. The supporting cast is good. But it is Bogart who performs the tour de force. He is given a very good script and he plays it to the hilt. There are nice little touches throughout the movie that actually endear Dix to the audience. He really is a very personable madman. All his friends really do like him even after he beats them up. Bogart’s work in this film compares very favorably to any of his better known and critically praised roles. And the ending is wonderfully dissatisfying. If Bogart had been cleared a day earlier none of his crazed actions would have happened and Laurel never would have doubted his innocence or his sanity. At the same time we see that Steele is a dangerously violent man with the potential to kill in the heat of the moment. A very nice dilemma for the audience to digest.