It’s no secret that actors aren’t always acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their best work. Take for example Humphrey Bogart: one of America’s finest screen actors of the mid-twentieth century, Bogart didn’t win an Oscar until his late career appearance in 1951’s The African Queen. Though Bogie clearly enjoyed playing Captain Charlie Allnut, the role wasn’t a particularly challenging one for him.
Contrast it with his performance only a year earlier in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, screening at 7:00 pm on Thursday September 2 at Pacific Film Archive as part of their awkwardly named new series, Swoon: Great Leading Men in Gorgeous 35mm Prints. Bogart delivers one of his best performances in this film, but failed to get so much as a nomination at the 1951 Academy Awards.
Bogie plays Dixon Steele, a high-strung Hollywood screenwriter with a short fuse. Dixon has pretensions of greatness and won’t write any old slop, and when a deadline nears and he finds himself behind, the eight-ball hires sweet young thing Mildred (Martha Stewart—no, no that one) to read him the hot new book agent Mel (Art Smith) wants him to adapt for the screen.
After burning the midnight oil, Mildred leaves with a couple of sawbucks in her purse and instructions to pick up a cab around the corner. Unfortunately, her corpse is found the next day in Benedict Canyon, and Dix is, naturally, the prime suspect. Wartime buddy turned cop Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) is assigned to the case, and though he’s sure Dix isn’t responsible, his pal’s bad temper and repeated outbursts suggest the opposite. A lengthy arrest record for violent offenses convinces Brub’s boss, Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid), that Steele is guilty. All he needs is a confession or some evidence, which he hopes neighbor Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame) can provide.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Andrew Solt’s screenplay for In a Lonely Place is what it doesn’t say. It’s likely Steele’s problems stem from his wartime experiences, but Solt doesn’t bother making an explicit connection. Audiences in 1950 didn’t need it spelled out, of course, as they would have been familiar with the effects of shell-shock on men returning from World War II and Korea. A taboo subject in ’50s Hollywood (as was most psychological trauma), shell-shock wasn’t addressed directly on screen until the Vietnam era — but In a Lonely Place still allows viewers to connect the dots between Dix’s war service with Brub, his post-service record of fist-fights and assaults, and his culpability (or otherwise) for Mildred’s death.
Bogart’s subtle yet intense performance convinces you that his character is capable of murder, while the audience’s wellspring of sympathy for the beloved star slowly drains away as the film approaches its climax. It’s powerful stuff, but some things never change: it’s the sort of work still overlooked sixty years on in favor of flashier, crowd-pleasing turns, such as Bogie’s in The African Queen.
Like so many actors over the years, he got the Oscar he deserved — but for the wrong film.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.