In a Lonely Place (1950):  The Best Bogart Film You’ve Never Heard Of

After fourteen years of taking orders from Jack Warner, Humphrey Bogart wanted more control over the pictures he made, more money, and more time off to spend on his boat.  Due to his massive success in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the Bacall films, Bogart signed a very favorable 15-year contract in 1946 with Warner Brothers.

The contract gave him the right to choose his projects and directors, and to make films outside of Warner Brothers in his own production company, named Santana after his boat. 

He and director Nicholas Ray adapted Dorothy Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a woman who knows that her boyfriend is paranoid and violent at best, and a brutal murderer at worst.

There was talk of Lauren Bacall playing the woman—the Bogart and Bacall box office was still strong—but Jack Warner had his limits.  Bogart could make films under his own banner, but Bacall was still under contract to him.

Things worked out for the best, as I don’t think I’m alone in not wanting to see Bogart strangle Bacall, even in fiction.  Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, took the role and did a marvelous job with it.

In a Lonely Place tells the story of Dixon Steel (Bogart), a jaded and alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter with a flaring temper that often ended with him slugging someone in a bar.  He takes a girl home with him one night to tell him what she thought of a novel he was going to adapt into a screenplay. 

He sends her home, but she’s found dead—brutally murdered—in the morning, and Dix is the prime suspect.  He would’ve been arrested immediately but for the fact that his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame) witnessed the girl leaving his home alone.

Despite their inauspicious meeting at the police station, Dix and Laurel, two hard-boiled cases, fall in love.  Laurel is at first certain that Dix is innocent of the crime, but as she gets to know him, she sees flashes of paranoia and rage.

Dix is jealous and temperamental.  One night he gets road rage and nearly beats the driver of the other car to death.

Frightened, Laurel decides that despite her love for him, she must break off their engagement.  She has come to believe that he did murder the woman, and that he could do the same to her under the right circumstances.

Sensing something is wrong, Dix demands to know why Laurel is acting so cagey with him.  Realizing she is planning to leave him, Dix goes into a blind rage and begins to strangle her on her bed.

The strangling is interrupted by a telephone call—the police calling to tell Laurel that the true murderer of the girl has confessed, and Dix is finally in the clear.

The film ends as Laurel, disheveled and half-strangled, looks over at Dix, who is horrified at what he has nearly done.

“Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us,” she tells the bewildered police captain over the phone.  “Now it doesn’t matter…it doesn’t matter at all.”

Bogart and Grahame have a nice chemistry, and this biting noir hits all the right notes.

Perhaps director Nicholas Ray was in the right frame of mind to direct his wife in such a cynical picture, as their marriage was disintegrating during the filming and ended soon after.  There are tales, never fully proven, that Grahame slept with Ray’s 13 year old son Anthony from a previous marriage.

True or not, Grahame married her former step-son Anthony Ray ten years after the filming of In a Lonely Place.  Grahame had a son with Nicholas, and later two sons with Anthony.

That must’ve made for some interesting Thanksgivings.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

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Review of In A Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame

Born to Be Bad (1950):  Love of the Grift

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott
Born to Be Bad (1950)

By nearly every account—most especially her own—Joan Fontaine offscreen was miles apart from the naïve and adoring women she often played onscreen. 

Biographer Charles Higham (admittedly not the most reliable biographer, but that’s a story for another day) found her, “relaxed, super sophisticated, brittle, unromantic, and pagan,” as well as, “flippant, cool, tough, and somewhat offhand.”1

During the filming of Born to Be Bad, she was in the midst of her second divorce, the most acrimonious of her eventual four.  Though she was ultimately dismissive of all four of her husbands, William Dozier was the one who bit back the most in public.

“Joan would be smiling and charming and then there would be a barb,” Dozier said. “Finally, she lost one friend after another.  She’s the kind of woman who inevitably ends up alone.”2

As if proving his point, nearly twenty years later Fontaine would give the following quote to the London Daily Express while still married to Alfred Wright, eventual ex-husband number four:

“Obviously a wife has to do a lot of pretending to be successful; to make a difficult, selfish husband of hers feel that he is the greatest man alive even when she knows damn well that he isn’t.”3

Perhaps that’s why she was attracted to the role of Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad, a woman who pretends to be innocent and sweet to lure unsuspecting men into her web of deception and discards them once they’ve served their purpose.

Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Zachary Scott, Fontaine

Christabel Caine arrives in San Francisco to attend business school and take over for her uncle’s secretary Donna (Joan Leslie), who is about to marry.  (Remember, reader—this is 1950.  There’s no need for a plot device to explain why Donna couldn’t possibly continue working after becoming the wife of a wealthy man.)

Donna is efficient, good-natured, and in love with fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), who has come by his wealth through family money but is down-to-earth and kind.  She agrees to host Christabel while the final wedding preparations are made.

Christabel’s uncle has described her as a young woman looking for honest work and a place in the world after spending months taking care of an elderly aunt.

Her uncle is the first—but not the last—man she’s snowed.

Christabel has an entirely different agenda—she means to replace Donna as the rich wife of Curtis Carey, not as her uncle’s secretary.

The film—and the audience—delights in Christabel’s ruthless machinations as she expertly plants the seeds that will lead to mistrust and the ultimate destruction of Donna and Carey’s relationship.

There’s a slight fly in the ointment—while Christabel’s plan is unfolding, she falls in love with Curtis’ friend Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan).  She tries to have it both ways, luring Curtis into marriage while having an ongoing affair with Nick.

And ends up losing them both in the end.

Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad (1950)
Robert Ryan, Fontaine

But even then, it’s clear that Christabel’s true love is the grift itself, and we are left with no doubt that in losing a husband and gaining a fortune, the now rich divorcée has gotten exactly what she wanted.  And lover Nick, for whom she had genuine affection?

Well, every war has collateral damage. 

Born to Be Bad is entertaining, and has the advantage of being made in 1950, when the production code was breaking down and allowed Christabel’s moral crimes to go unpunished.  In fact, the film ends with a satisfying wink to the audience, letting us know that Christabel will have no trouble finding her next mark.

We’re only sorry that we won’t be able to watch her put the poor sap through the ringer.

Born to Be Bad Verdict (1950):  Give It A Shot

Notes

  1. Higham, Charles.  Sisters:  The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

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Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott in Born to Be Bad (1950)