I am convinced that there is only one purpose for the murder of Mildred Atkinson. It has nothing to do with internal coherence or any sort of narrative logic. To grasp the real reason behind existence of such an act in what is essentially romantic drama, one has to reach for the hidden realm of meta-structure. It sounds more obscure than it actually is. Nicholas Ray’s movie deals with ordinary lives. Well, you could argue that there’s nothing ordinary in being a Hollywood script-writer, nor is there anything ordinary in aspiring actresses or crowd of producers, filmmakers and various fucktards creeping around that crowd. I couldn’t deny you such an argument, though ultimately, it makes no difference. The ordinary part of In a lonely place lies in the concept of love, and accompanying concept or relationship. Sure, Humphrey Bogart is somewhat more impulsive, aggressive or bat-shit crazy than your ordinary neighbor and Gloria Grahame is way too gorgeous to be hanging anywhere you hang out, but they still dance to the same tune we used to dance. That’s what makes them ordinary, and that’s what makes them believable, no matter how many decades or layers of class separate us.
The main problem with “the ordinary”, especially in the movie-business of the 50s, is that it’s basically unfilmable. No one wants to pay a ticket just to see his neighbors arguing, no matter how pretty they look. You have to add a spice or two to your average tomato-sauce, just to keep things interesting. There’s a limit to how much tomato-pasta you can actually handle. Michael Bay interprets this as “you have to add explosions to keep things interesting”. Nicholas Ray interpreted it as – you have to have a murder. Mystery helps too, but nothing spells good moviemaking like a juicy murder which, no matter how genre-savvy you are, you can’t solve until the end because you can never be quite sure about your main character. He just might be capable to do such a thing. After all, those writers are all a bit off. No real surprises there. Wanting to make a movie about tiny specks of life that we’re all familiar with has nothing to do with being able to sell it. To sell it, Mildred Atkinson had to die. Her death opened a door to one of the most interesting movies of the 50s, though focus of the interest shifted somewhat during the last six decades.
We established that there had to be a murder just to keep things interesting enough for the movie-going crowd of the 50s. That isn’t the sole reason, though it may be the most apparent one. Still, as we know, murders come in all shapes and sizes and this one serves one other function as well – it misdirects attention and it does it perfectly. Basically what you do is spend time thinking about whodunit and while doing so you start creeping into Gloria Grahame head. Suddenly, you understand her, you understand her fears, her actions and whole causal chain that lead to final separation and something like a tragic end. What you don’t see though, what murder doesn’t want you to see is that there isn’t anything to cry about because Humphrey Bogart wasn’t a kind of guy you wanted to be with in the first place. He is a demanding, violent, dominating, unpredictable man prone to frenzies who doesn’t like to lose and can’t take no for an answer. This time it was murder pushing him to the edge, some other time it would be a cold cup of coffee. The movie tries to excuse him by calling him a genius, a writer, or even a good man and a good soldier, but these excuses can’t go that far. In the discourse of the 50s, good and honest woman should have suffered through all of it, because that’s what love was – suffering and relinquishing of self. Separating Grahame and Bogart without murder wouldn’t have been possible, it wouldn’t have made any sense to the viewers. With murder in the mix situation itself became just enough weird and just enough alien that it justified the separation. Justified or not, movie still ended on a “oh-if-only-it-could-have-been-true” note.
In a lonely place was built upon the paternalistic gaze and whenever I think that there’s more than half a century separating us from the Bogart – Grahame couplings, I find them doing the same dance, under different names, in movies much closer to our time. In a lonely place is a staple that keeps repeating itself. Maybe even an archetype. Unfortunately, one of those archetypes that even an iconic face of Humphrey Bogart can’t quite sell.
|Directed by||Nicholas Ray|
|Produced by||Robert Lord|
|Screenplay by||Edmund H. North
|Based on||the novel
by Dorothy B. Hughes
|Music by||George Antheil|
|Edited by||Viola Lawrence|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|