7. In a Lonely Place
Bogart’s deepest and most pained performance. It’s completely overlooked – or – not completely – People who are film-buffs know this movie, or Nicholas Ray buffs – Bogdonovich’s essay about Bogart is why I sought this film out – Bogdonovich is unequivocally a fan of this performance. He references it as often as he can – it’s so funny – I think he is really determined to get this film back into regular circulation.
You know how Bogart, even though he gets burnt by dames from time to time, seems to skate through situations with a slight grin – as though the disappointments of the world are not for him? No, no, not him – he’ll never be hurt too bad – he’s too much of a realist. Or if he DOES get hurt – he will handle it in a way that does not break him. He will still stand tall. He may have a secret hurt (oh, Ilse!!) – but he will go on. This is the romance of Bogart. This is why we don’t just love Bogart, we admire him.
The Bogart we see in film after film would never have an existential crisis, a crisis of faith, a dark dark night of the soul. There are exceptions to this, of course – but the exceptions just prove the rule. Or he has SCENES within a film that show his capacity for emotion – to give depth to the character – but those moments where the character lets it all out are (heh heh) out-of-character. Like the scene in Casablanca comes to mind: where he sits with his bottle and goes back into the flashback … Good moment – it’s a lesson in how to act a close-up. I swear! But that’s an out of character moment for Rick – it’s a low moment, a drunken moment … The overall impression of Rick is not that he’s a broken man. Bogart doesn’t do broken. The “strawberries” interrogation scene in Caine Mutiny is another exception – but that also just proves the rule – because that character is truly mad.
But something different is going on in In a Lonely Place – a film that has been largely ignored by the general public, as well as by Bogart fans – who seem to prefer his snarky detached stance. Maybe that Bogart stance makes them feel better about themselves. The hoards of guys out there who want to BE Bogart … might feel rather uneasy watching him in In a Lonely Place – and mistake their own unease for Bogart giving a bad performance, if that makes sense. (By this I mean, they cannot adjust their own ideas of the actor in question – and so they write the performance off, out of hand … because it’s not what they “need” from the actor. I can think of many examples of this.) Now sometimes an actor’s performance just sucks – but that is NOT the case with Bogart here – and this performance should take its place at the top of the list, when people reference great Bogart parts. But there’s a fan-faction who need Bogart to be a certain way, because it validates certain things in them - the best things: honor, character, etc. – To see him as a bitter repressed sour-puss screenwriter, who cannot control himself – who is deeply unhappy, and also deeply repressed – who CAN’T do the right thing … perhaps to the point of murder – where he’s not just detached, but on the fringes of a breakdown … well, that would make those guys in the audience maybe look at themSELVES in a different way. So they brush off the performance. “Ah, that’s not REALLY Bogart.” I don’t blame these guys, by the way, for having this serious identification thing going on with Bogart … it makes perfect sense. I only mind it if it means they will not accept him in this, his greatest part.
It’s close to home. This is a film about Hollywood (Bogart didn’t make many of those). And not only is it a film about Hollywood but it’s about the lowest man on the totem pole: the writer. It’s a biting and VERY angry look at the world of show business, very much ahead of its time. Hollywood has always been a navel-gazing place – there are tons of films about making films … It’s hard to do it well. In a Lonely Place is one of the best films made about “the business”. (Others on the list would be: All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard – and I would also say King of Comedy. Scary movie about the underbelly of celebrity.)
Bogart’s character ends up falling in love with Gloria (“I’m just a girl who cain’t say no”) Grahame – a woman with a wonderful mushy face, sharp alert eyes – and the two of them have some GREAT scenes together. This is a movie about and for grown-ups. These are two grown-ups drawn to each other. She’s a smart woman, maybe a bit worn down by life. She gets by. But she has character. Bogart never did well with floozies – the pairings were never satisfying. Bogart did well with sassy smart ladies.
But watch how it goes downhill. As Bogart’s life unravels in the film – he begins to cling to her tighter and tighter. She is no longer a woman with a wonderful mushy face and smart eyes. She is his salvation. His life preserver. He’s desperate. She must not abandon him. She must not be allowed to abandon him. Things start to get ugly and a little bit creepy. She starts to get scared of him.
It’s truly disorienting to watch this film the first time. You are so used to the Bogart persona, so you assume you know where it’s all gonna go … and then you realize … slowly … that things are NOT going that way … that this guy is NOT a “winner” – he’s scrabbling for a foothold, and he is slowly losing it. He’s in agony. He begins to take it out on the people around him, the people he loves. You see him cutting himself loose from the actual salvation he needs.
To compare: Imagine a Rick in Casablanca who – instead of saying to Sam that dark night in the cafe – “If she can stand it, I can! Play the song!” – instead he jumps on Sam, slaps his face, holds him down, and strangles him until Sam agrees to play the song. Imagine a Rick who punches Ilse in the face.
This is the territory we are in in In a Lonely Place. And instead of it looking like a “character role”, or like Bogart “acting” – I always get the sense that I am watching the part that is the closest to Bogart’s actual self. It feels like the most personal work I’ve ever seen of his. It is a truly painful movie to watch. (And yet – I recommend it so so highly!)
To watch a movie star of his caliber mess with his own image so deliberately and so WELL is truly breathtaking. There’s a moment in a restaurant when Bogart, in an impulsive moment of rage, reaches out and knocks his agent’s glasses off his head. The first time I saw the film I had to rewind this moment 10 times. It’s so violent – even though it’s just a person’s glasses. And it’s not movie violence – which can have a tendency to seem rather planned out or stagy. It feels like real violence. You know how sometimes public outings can go suddenly very wrong? From out of nowhere? Like – you’re doing fine, and suddenly you’re having a fight with your spouse that is so intense that you can’t back out of it … That’s what this moment is like. Something is revealed – such an intense betrayal – that Bogart’s character cannot deal with it in a social way – and quick as a whip, reaches out and bangs his agents’ glasses off his face.
This is a spontaneous moment. You really feel Bogart letting his own rage out. Rage at his own career. At not being taken seriously. At being trapped at a studio that did not respect him as it should. At working for NOTHING. He knew the salaries of Grant and Gable and Cooper. He knew he was being screwed. He was a big star … but on some deep level, he was truly not liked, and he knew it. But this is all really personal stuff … stuff of resentment, and shame, and buried humiliation. Stuff that Bogart never put into his roles. Why should he? His thing was detachment, backed up by strong moral character – a guy who would come through when you need him.
The reality was much MUCH darker – and it is in In a Lonely Place that Bogart explores it. So often when a great actor with an established style “explores” another angle – it’s a disaster. This is a triumph. It’s FASCINATING to watch Bogart – you literally do not know what he will do next.
I think fanatical Bogart fans didn’t want their image of Bogart messed with – and so they ignored this film.
Their loss, man. It’s their loss.