Ask someone what Humphrey Bogart‘s best performance is, and you are likely to hear “Casablanca” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre“. Without a doubt though, his portrayal of Dixon Steele in Nicolas Ray‘s “In a Lonely Place” is his most raw, honest and accomplished, and anyone who does not even consider it an option, has simply not seen it.

Screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart), faced with the odious task of scripting a trashy bestseller, has hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) tell him the story in her own words. Later that night, Mildred is murdered and Steele is a prime suspect; his record of belligerence when angry and his macabre sense of humor tell against him. Fortunately, lovely neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) gives him an alibi. Laurel proves to be just what Steele needed, and their friendship ripens into love.

The title of Nicolas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” works on a few different levels. For one, we are told by the police that the murder Dixon Steele is accused of occurred “in a lonely place”, on a road above a canyon. More importantly though, it is a description of the psychological state of Steele. A screenwriter who is surrounded by friends and admirers, yet feels alone and detached from others. The film is initially presented as a murder mystery, but it very quickly becomes apparent that this is not the focus of the film. The murder is an event which allows us to study the effect it has on the character’s relationships.

Dixon Steele is a volatile and violent personality at times, and intelligent and charming at others. Traces of Bogart’s usual cool charisma occasionally reveals itself during Dixon Steele’s euphoric high-points, such as when he finally opens up and makes a rare connection with neighbour and accidental alibi Laurel Gray. During the many lows though we see what is arguably Bogart’s most naked and vulnerable performance. While titles such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon showcase his suave and effortlessly cool machismo, In a Lonely Place takes him to a whole new level, as he swings with ease from maniacal rage and paranoia, to charm and wit.

As Steele’s dark side is revealed to Laurel, the films develops into something which feels very similar to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, as Laurel (along with the viewer) starts to wonder if he could be a murderer. Steele’s paranoia is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his accusatory speeches and actions push Laurel into acting suspiciously as she begins to doubt his innocence. Thankfully Ray succeeds where Hitch (or was it RKO?) miserably failed – with a deliciously dark and ironic conclusion. It is in this thematic framework that Gloria Grahame really comes into her own, walking the tightrope of doubt and trust with subtlety, personifying the audience’s feelings, and is nothing but believable as her character lets suspicion overtake her.

Just as Billy Wilder‘s “The Lost Weekend” was one of the first films to accurately paint a picture of life-threatening addiction, In a Lonely Place – while never explicitly stated – could be one of the first films to realistically portray the isolation of a man dealing with social illness, and the trials of manic depression, and you can’t help but feel Ray has an all-too familiar handle on the subject matter, perhaps confirmed by sets which are copies of his childhood home.

All in all this is a very smart film. It’s a deceptively complex character and relationship study, a suspenseful experience, and a very realistic portrayal of the swings of depression and mania. Ray coaxes a raw, natural performance from all the players, but Bogart especially gives the performance of his career as Dixon Steele. If anyone ever doubted that Bogart lacked range, they should be pointed towards “In a Lonely Place”.

4.5 / 5

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