In a Lonely Place (1950)
Dixon "Dix" Steele's (Humphrey Bogart) ferocious, pained, staring eyes are highlighted in a rear-view mirror (without ever looking at himself) under the film's opening credits, as he drives in his convertible down night-lit streets in Los Angeles. [Note: Seeing oneself honestly, and to be 'seen' (understood, known or recognized) by others are two of the film's main motifs. Dix's eyes are again shadow-highlighted during the re-enactment of the murder in the dinner scene, and are also emphasized in the film's climactic scene.]
At a stop sign, another convertible in the left lane (at a four-way stop) is alongside his car. Its glamorous blonde passenger (June Vincent, uncredited) recognizes him, calls him by name, and asks: "Don't you remember me?...You wrote the last picture I did at Columbia." He quips: "Well, I make it a point never to see pictures I write." The male driver (Charles Cane, uncredited) gruffly leans forward and angrily snarls with a provocative reprimand: "Stop bothering my wife." Dix speaks back to the wife: "You shouldn't have done it, honey, no matter how much money that pig's got." The insulted husband demands: "Pull over to the curb," inciting Dix to open his car door - after barking back: "What's wrong with right here?" The challenged driver pulls away.
Dix arrives at his usual hangout, Paul's Restaurant. [Note: It was modeled after Bogey's own usual fashionable lunchtime hangout, Beverly Hills' Romanoff's, where Bogart often ordered his favorite meal: ham and eggs.] A group of kids are waiting outside, and one of them (Billy Gray) asks for his autograph, although another girl scornfully advises: "Don't bother, he's nobody." Dix tells the autograph seeker: "She's right" - revealing his poor regard for himself in the eyes of Hollywood.
A group of acquaintances greets scriptwriter Dix, outside the restaurant - all are members of the hierarchy of Hollywood's film-making business:
- Lloyd Barnes (Morris Ankrum) - a successful "big" director - who Dix bitterly claims "made all his money before the income tax"
- Agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) - Dix's loyal and nurturing agent [Note: The role was reportedly based on film executive and agent Sam Jaffe.]
Dix admits to Mel that he often doesn't answer his phone and keeps withdrawn from the world. The restaurant's hat-check girl, later identified as Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), is "almost finished" reading a book left for Dix by Lloyd. He is told by his agent Mel that all he has to do is approve a possible scriptwriting project (to adapt the best-selling book for the silver screen) to be put on salary. Mildred adds: "Oh, I think it'll make a dreamy picture, Mr. Steele, what I call an epic...A picture that's real long and has lots of things going on." She asks to read the last few remaining pages while he is in the restaurant, and boasts: "I know the end, I always read that first." Mel stipulates that star-struck, celebrity fame-seeking Mildred is typical of the low-brow, tasteless, vulgar "audience" that Dix would be writing for.
At the bar, Dix speaks kindly to a sad, alcoholic, washed-up thespian friend Charlie Waterman (Robert Warrick), a former silent-era matinee idol who was from the classic "old school" of Shakespearean acting. [Note: It is possible that Dix sees himself in his own lonely fateful life as a "nobody," similar to Charlie who is now unrewarded and neglected by Hollywood after an initial stellar career.] Mel proposes that Dix agree to work on the script for a picture to be directed by Lloyd: "You've been out of circulation too long," but the unemployed Dix insists: "I won't work on something I don't like." Lloyd refers to Dix's reputation for being down-on-his-luck with very few recent hit screenplays, and reminds him that his last picture flopped. Dix defends himself against accusations that he is a loser - he claims director Lloyd's financial success is only because he has exploitatively and uncreatively repeated the same picture year after year:
Lloyd: Are you in any position to be choosy? You haven't written a hit since before the war. And your last picture...
Dix (belligerent and sneering): So it stunk. Everybody makes flops except you. You haven't had one, because you've made and remade the same picture for the last twenty years. You know what you are? You're a popcorn salesman.
Mel again encourages Dix to adapt the best-selling novel Althea Bruce for the screen, when another obnoxious producer/director arrives - nicknamed Junior (Lewis Howard, uncredited) by Dix. The 2nd-generation son-in-law of a studio executive-chief [Note: he attained his New Hollywood privileged position through nepotism rather than talent] boasts of his latest picture's successful preview in Pasadena, and then cruelly insults and taunts Dix's friend Charlie as a has-been: "You call this an actor? He hasn't been able to remember a line for the last 10 years...Pop made a star out of a drunkard...Movie idol of the Roaring 20's." When the producer/director dumps his cigar ashes into Charlie's drink, Dix (known for frequent fights, according to a restaurant witness - "There goes Dix again" - soon identified as Dix's battered ex-girlfriend Fran) engages in brief fisticuffs with him before the altercation is broken up and the two directors leave the restaurant. Dix promises Mel that he will read the novel by the next morning.
An actress "between pictures" named Fran Randolph (Alix or Alice Talton, uncredited), Dix's ex-girlfriend, questions why Dix hasn't called her. [Note: Later, she is identified as one of the victims of Dix's violent and abusive streaks when he broke her nose, although she later dropped the charges and claimed she ran into a door.] After he acts slightly condescendingly towards her, she observes his propensity for putting her down - literally: "Do you look down on all women or just the ones you know?"
Then, to avoid having to read Althea Bruce overnight, the tired-sounding Dix asks hat-check girl Mildred, who lives in Inglewood with her Aunt Cora, to accept his offer of a ride home. She refuses to go with him ("It's my policy to never go out with the customers") - until he explains that she could succinctly summarize or synopsize the plot of the book for him. Hoping for a brush with celebrity status ("You make me feel real important"), she cancels (sacrifices) her date with boyfriend Henry Kesler (an in-joke -- the name of the film's Associate Producer) and accepts Dix's offer - although mispronounces the name of the book as Alathea Bruce. He tells the disinterested waiter serving him ham and eggs: "There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality."
Dix and Mildred enter his Spanish-styled ("hacienda-like") apartment complex's courtyard with a fountain, where they briefly pass his upstairs, across-the-courtyard neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) returning home. [Note: The Beverly Patio Apartments, with single units facing a courtyard, were modeled after Villa Primavera, the one director Nicholas Ray lived in when he first came to West Hollywood. After splitting from his wife Gloria Grahame, Ray began living on the set during filming.] They must enter through prison-like bars into his apartment, which also has the appearance of barred windows with horizontal venetian blind slats (covered with an imprisoning curtain pattern) - he removes his shoes and changes into his comfortable bathrobe as he offers her a drink. He is amused when she fantasizes about how wonderful it is to be a writer:
Mildred: I used to think that actors made up their own lines.
Dix: When they get to be big stars, they usually do.
He wonders if she's changed her mind, when she appears skeptical about his invitation as a "pretense to lure" her to his apartment for sex. After being reassured that he is honorable, she relaxes and asks for a ginger ale with a twist of lemon ("a horse's neck"), and becomes more aggressively forward.
There are many instances in the film of story-telling, or references to past stories (or histories) of various characters. The simple-minded, ordinary-sounding Mildred begins to insufferably (and sometimes with malapropisms) relate the "powerful" story of the trashy best-selling romance novel:
- It was about a widowed rich woman named 'Alathea' Bruce who owned a big mansion and other luxuries on Long Island ("sailboats and cars and jewels and everything").
- Although courted and taken to clubs by many rich men, one day, she was attracted to a new lifeguard named Channing standing outside her window who "looks like a bronzed Apollo."
- She sent her English butler to ask Channing to have breakfast with her. Instead they shared whiskey sours ("It's a very risky scene" - instead of risque!).
- Her husband Lester died under mysterious circumstances - he fell out of a boat when they went sailing together. An investigation was held, although it was unclear whether Alathea killed him or not ("That's kinda left open in the book"). [Note: This is the same plot as In a Lonely Place!]
- She fell in love with the lifeguard, who was really a "student at Columbia University - studying to be a bachelorterologist" (bacteriologist!) - "one of those fellas that looks into the microbes" (microscopes!).
- She told Channing that she didn't kill her husband. With Channing, then came "the dreamy weeks...always together."
- Althea wished to have Channing love her and marry her and together live a "sophisticated life," but he was more interested in "bacteria."
- The eager widow attempted to make Channing jealous by falling into the arms of her lawyer. From Channing's lifeguard station, using his binoculars, he could see into her room. "That does the trick," but her ploy backfired. Channing "refuses to speak to her."
- Then becoming desperate, she tried "everything." "She wants him so terribly, his arms about her. And since there's no other way, one stormy day, she goes out into the ocean, and she swims way, way out, and she starts to scream: 'Help! Help! Help! Help!'".
Toward the end of the long and dreary synopsis, an unimpressed Dix retreats to his bedroom, opens his patio door, and voyeuristically notices Laurel ogling him - she is standing on her upstairs balcony - elevated and framed through his window. [Note: The positioning of their apartments is important - they are both linked and separated by the connecting courtyard. Also, the film's love story and the fictional, exaggerated romance in the book both reference viewing an attractive person through a window - marking the beginning of a budding romance that eventually ends badly.]
Mildred's loud overacting and histrionics worry Dix, who rushes to her side to hush down her volume: "Honey, I have neighbors." As a writer, he knows very well that nosy neighbors can easily misconstrue what they witness. [Note: From Laurel's viewpoint, she saw Dix in his dressing gown, knew he was with a young woman late at night, and heard her enthusiastic screams for 'Help.' Laurel did not know that Mildred was acting out a death in the book. What Laurel 'sees' and hears foreshadows the suspicions that authorities have about Dix being involved in Mildred's murder.]
- Channing wouldn't swim out to save her, because he thought it was just another one of her tricks. As she continued to scream help, he suddenly realized she was in danger.
- By the time he swam out through the breakers to her, she had "gone down. She's joined her husband Lester in the sea."
At 12:30 am, because it's late and he's tired, Dix suggests that he not drive Mildred home. He sends her off to a taxi stand right around the corner on Santa Monica Boulevard. He crassly pays her $20 ("two tens") for her time (and "valuable service") and for the taxi, and walks her to his door. [Note: There is no shot of Laurel witnessing anything about Mildred's departure.]
Early the next morning at 5:00 am, Beverly Hills detective, Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an army buddy who had served three years in the war with Dix (Dix was his commanding officer), awakens his irritated friend. He recalls: "You make me homesick for some of the worst years of our lives." It is however, not a "social call." Dix wrongly thinks that he is being asked to go to the police station because the "Junior" studio executive in Paul's restaurant had filed a complaint against him.
At the Beverly Hills Police Department during a recorded interrogation, Brub's overzealous boss Police Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is suspicious about why Dix took a hat-check girl home with him (an "eccentric thing to do"). Lochner also questions her departure from his apartment: "Why didn't you call for a cab? Isn't that what a gentleman usually does under the circumstances?" It is clear that Dix has already been informed of Mildred's brutal murder. She was dumped between 1:00 and 2:00 am from a moving car onto the side of the road in Benedict Canyon. Dix is asked why his reaction is so callous, remorseless, and unemotional:
Lochner: What's your reaction? Shock, horror, sympathy? No, just petulance at being questioned, a couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele.
Dix: Well, I grant you the jokes could have been better, but I don't see why the rest should worry you. That is, unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion.
After an examination of the corpse, it is determined that the killer used his "vice-like grip of an arm," not his hands, because the strangulation shows no marks on Mildred's neck. Dix is shown three graphic, black and white photos of the crime scene - the camera remains fixed on the images of death, immortalizing Mildred in a garish way - as he is further questioned. His only reaction to Mildred's death is two words: "Poor kid." [Note: Although Dix is ultimately cleared of murder, it was entirely conceivable that he could kill Mildred - reflecting his own symbolic desire to strike at the non-aesthetic, cheap, and pulpish underclass world that he so thoroughly despised.]
When he realizes he is considered a prime suspect, Dix's new next-door neighbor who moved in a few days earlier, Laurel Gray, might be able to corroborate his innocence. She is summoned to the detective's office, where she faces Lochner, while Dix (whom she has not formally met) is positioned behind her. Laurel is asked: "Do you know this gentleman?" She turns around to briefly look at Dix behind her. She claims that she doesn't know Dix, but saw him a few times at the apartments, and was told by the proud apartment manager that he was a "celebrity" tenant. She also states that when she first came home, she saw him go into his apartment with a girl. When told that the girl was the murdered Mildred Atkinson, between 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning, Laurel again turns and pointedly looks toward Dix behind her, to intently study his face and size him up for the remainder of the interview.
After she arrived home shortly after midnight, she states that she saw Mr. Steele about a half-hour later when he said goodnight to Mildred at his door ("I saw him at his door saying goodnight to her") - and she is "positive" that Dix did not leave with the girl. [Note: However, there is no evidence in the film that confirms her alibi.] As Lochner crosses the room and positions himself next to the suspect, Dix testifies that he also saw Laurel on the hot night: "She was standing on her balcony in a negligee." Both Laurel and Dix frequently glance at each other during the interrogation. Laurel confirms what Dix says: "He was looking at me." She then bluntly describes why she paid attention to her new neighbor and took an interest in him - almost love at first sight:
I noticed him because he looked interesting. I like his face.
As an afterthought, after Laurel has left the office, Lochner asks: "Do attractive young women often admire your face, Mr. Steele?" Dix replies that most women are not as "outspoken" as Miss Gray. In the outer corridor, Dix offers to drive Laurel home, but she declines: "Thank you, but I always go home with the man who brought me." Brub notes to Lochner that Dix is difficult to comprehend: "It's hard to tell how Dix feels about anything. None of us could ever figure him out." But then states that Dix was liked by his officers, and is of the opinion that Dix is innocent. On the other hand, Lochner feels that Dix is "hiding something - I doubt if it's the proverbial heart of gold."
During his walk home, Dix requests that a black young man anonymously send two dozen white roses to Mildred Atkinson's home, without a card. He can't be bothered to find the address and suggests - with the payment of a few more dollars: "Look it up in the papers. She was murdered last night."
When Dix arrives at his apartment, a distressed Mel is awating him, and upset about the 7:00 am tabloid headline-news of the murder:
Checkroom Beauty Murdered. Distinguished Screenwriter Takes Hatcheck Girl Home To Tell Him Story.
After Dix mentions the name Laurel Gray (who lives across the patio and likes his face), Mel recalls that she's been "going around with Baker...the real estate Baker" - and assumes that she wants an acting part (Dix is hopeful: "I know a part she'd be good for"). Mel looks her up in a casting directory: "She's been in a couple of low-budget pictures." Dix reacts to Laurel's picture: "Wonderful face." Mel is fearful that the deal to adapt Althea Bruce will be called off, and just wants to know if Dix is "in the clear." To deliberately upset and provoke his agent, Dix insinuates that he might have committed the murder, but that he was smarter and told a better story than the investigating Police Captain:
He's a smart fellow, that Lochner. A couple times, he almost had me. It was his story against mine. But, of course, I told my story better...I was smart. I covered all the angles, I have an airtight alibi.
Worried that Dix is truly guilty, Mel wishes he would confess, and then offers to help Dix get a lawyer with his connections, or maybe get him across the border into Mexico.
At the same time, Police Captain Lochner is shown solemnly and slowly dictating a lengthy compilation of Dix's previous recorded incidents of violent altercations, from press clippings:
- February, 1946, beer parlor brawl on Santa Monica Boulevard, Steele was brought to the station, then discharged with a warning
- March, 1947, fist-fight with producer, fractured the producer's jaw and was fired
- June 22, 11:00 pm, Frances Randolph screams for help - and charged she was beaten up, then denied the charges, and alleged her nose was broken by running into a door
Deputy Ted Barton (William Ching) notes: "He plays rough."
While Mel is discussing Dix's fate, Laurel appears at his door, and Dix introduces her as his "alibi." She requests that he keep her "name and address" out of the papers. Mel offers a comment: "It's much easier to get peoples' names into papers than to keep them out," and says he will try to help her (without promising anything). Dix then compliments her on providing a life-saving alibi, based upon his face:
It's a good thing you like my face. I'd have been in a lot of trouble without you.
She admits she never really saw much: "I have no idea what you did after you closed your venetian blind." He mentions that she has a better view of his apartment than he has of her living quarters: "You can see into my apartment, but I can't see into yours." She promises not to take advantage of the fact. He remarks that he is curious about her: "I would if it were the other way around. I'd try to find out who you're hiding from." She confesses she is "not hiding, just avoiding" - the real estate tycoon named Baker. She recalls that they had been thinking of getting married - but she sensed: "It wouldn't have worked" and she exited out her own "back door" - without any forwarding address.
He reminds her of her statement about his likeable face, and calls her crazy. She dodges his attempt at a kiss:
Dix: You know, you're out of your mind. How could anybody like a face like this? Look at it...
Laurel: I said I liked it. I didn't say I wanted to kiss it. [Note: The line was delivered as if she was Lauren Bacall, Bogart's wife, co-starring in one of Bogey's earlier films, To Have and Have Not (1944).]
He recognizes her as a "quitter" - the "get out before you get hurt" type. He commends her: "I suppose you save yourself a lot of trouble that way." She confesses: "I think twice before I get into something." She declines his forward invitation to dinner when she quips about both of them having dinner - separately. She listens to his further compliments about how perfect, no-nonsense and unique she is (in the glitzy, false, fame-obsessed town), but again cautions him about rushing things in their new relationship:
Dix: When you first walked into the police station, I said to myself: 'There she is. The one that's different. She's not coy or cute or corny. She's a good guy. I'm glad she's on my side. She speaks her mind and she knows what she wants.'
Laurel: Thank you, sir, but let me add, I also know what I don't want, and I don't want to be rushed.
At Lochner's urging, Dix's WWII buddy Brub calls and invites Dix to have dinner with him and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) the following evening. Over dinner, Brub discusses the recent murder with "no clues, no motives, no suspects." Mildred's boyfriend Henry Kesler was reported to have gone to bed after the broken date. His mother brought him a piece of pie, and his father heard his snore. The next morning after hearing the news, he came to the police station "terribly upset."
As a scriptwriter, Dix tells Brub that he and Lochner haven't seen enough who-dunnits: "We solve every murder in less than two hours." Dix suggests: "You want me to help you solve this murder?"