Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn't produced a decent screenplay in a decade, also due to having served in the US army during WWII. One evening his agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith, 'Quicksand') gives him a mediocre, but best-selling, book to read, so he can turn it into a screenplay. Steele is not exactly interested and takes hatcheck girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) home with him, who just finished the novel and is raving about it. He wants her to give him a summary, and sends her home afterwards. The next morning he's woken up by his old army friend Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy, 'The Hitch-Hiker'), who's now a detective. Mildred was found murdered, strangled and then thrown from a moving car. Steele is suspect #1, at least for police captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid, 'Convicted'), as he's the last person to have seen Mildred and he has a long list of assault charges indicating a violent disposition. At the police station Steele shows very little interest or remorse for the murdered girl, but his new neighbor and actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, 'Crossfire') gives him an alibi as she saw Mildred leave his apartment. Steele and Laurel fall for each other, hard. But Steele treats the murder almost like a joke, never really denying his involvement, and Laurel is feeling more and more doubts about Steele's innocence as time passes by, also because Dixon Steele has a volatile personality that can turn to violent rage in a matter of seconds.
The movie acts out in 2 halves, the first half is more concerned with Dixon Steele and his possible involvement in the murder, in the second half the murder takes a bit of a backseat and this part is more concerned with Laurel, as the romance between Dix and Laurel intensifies and she sees more and more of Dix's dark side and starts to doubt his innocence, or at least her own feelings about his possible involvement. The movie ends with a dramatic, intense and moving finale that is an acting tour-de-force. Those who say film noir and romance don't mix, need to see this movie.
The movie title reflects Dixon Steele's position in life, he's in a lonely place, created by his own persona. He's intensely cynical, moody, defiant (even when there's no reason for it) and seemingly always ready to burst out in anger and rage. The police records on charges filed against him for assaults and fights only speak against him. But despite being unlikeable and hard to deal with he also has a loyal side to him. In his own way he's also a rebel without a cause (Nicholas Ray pun intended). Steele doesn't deal well with stress and frustration, he lashes out and takes it out on anybody who happens to be in his vicinity. Steele has plenty of demons within, and is not afraid to let them out every so often. But he also sees Laurel as his last shot at a real relationship, a shot at redemption, which also makes him feel obsessive over her. Bogart, who shared a number of Steele's traits in real life, is perfect here, as the deeply flawed Dixon Steele who you should dislike and even hate but who you still care for, because there's a glimmer of humanity inside him, and his love for Laurel is so genuine.
Gloria Grahame is amazing as Laurel Gray, I might even prefer her performance here over Bogey's. Grahame was able to convey her beauty in sleazy ways like in 'Crossfire' (which earned her an Oscar nomination) and 'The Big Heat' as well as in classy ways like here, and she was a very gifted actress, more so than she's usually given credit for. Bogart, naturally, wanted his wife Lauren Bacall for the part of Laurel Gray but Warner wouldn't lend her out for the movie. But Grahame's own failing marriage at the time with director Nicholas Ray ended up giving her performance a very real and personal edge that shines through. Laurel's background story of her previous relationship isn't given a lot of attention, but enough so to make her character vulnerable despite her quick-witted remarks and general confident and very classy demeanor. Suffice it to say, Bogart and Grahame have incredible chemistry in this movie and their romance is as real and alive as any classic cinematic romance.
Steele makes a very good point in the movie when Laurel and him talk about a love scene he's written and he remarks how it is such a good scene because it is clear the two characters love each other without having the need to say 'I love you' constantly, comparing it to him preparing breakfast for them while she's sitting there half-asleep, claiming anybody can see they're in love. It is touching because of the lack of 'I love you's, not despite it. He's also written a few sentences for the screenplay that sum up their romance, and thus the movie as a whole, very succinctly:
I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
The cast does a stellar job throughout really, every character has a distinctive personality, and the actors are all doing a great job. Aside from the already mentioned characters, there's a small but memorable part for Robert Warwick as the almost forgotten actor-turned-drunkard Charlie Waterman, one of the very few people that Dixon Steele does not feel any contempt for. Steele jokingly, and lovingly, refers to him as 'thespian'. Which had a connection to real life as well, Bogart had the part of Waterman written specifically for Warwick, who helped Bogart out during his early years on the stage, well before his movie career.
Visually the movie is less noir and heavy on shadows than more traditional noirs, but it is used more subtly here to show the darkness in Steele. In one scene Steele is having dinner at Brub's place and has Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) act out the way Steele envisions the way the murder happened. The light that falls on his face changes subtly in this scene to highlight his manic eyes as he gets wrapped up more and more in the scenario. He keeps telling Brub to squeeze harder, almost choking Sylvia, while he watches on with clear glee and excitement. Similarly, in other scenes where Steele shows his dark side, the light becomes a touch more contrast rich, changing the overall mood of the scene together with Steele's changing mood.
'In A Lonely Place' is a truly great movie, one that lingers on inside your head for a long time. It is a noir about the darkness of the soul, not the darkness of a criminal's soul but that of a damaged individual, who has a good heart, but one which might be damaged beyond repair. A must-see movie.