Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

DOROTHY B. HUGHES – In a Lonely Place. Duell Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1947. Pocket #587, paperback, 1949; Bantam, paperback, 1979; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984. Feminist Press, softcover, 2003.

IN A LONELY PLACE. Columbia, 1950. Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart), Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

   A terse, gripping and effectively-written novel, but perhaps too well done to be much fun. The story is told from the third-person POV of Dixon Steele, a would-be gentleman of leisure living off the generosity and gullibility of friends and relatives who think he’s working on a novel. Steele is a confirmed misogynist, but to be fair, he’s also a misanthrope with a dim view of his fellow men and the society that demands he work for a living.

   It’s hard to stick with a character like this very long, but Hughes does an excellent job of trapping us in his psyche, revealing little by little just how sick and self-absorbed he is. Meanwhile we see him hooking up with an old war buddy who is now an L. A. police detective and romancing a neighbor lady, Laurel Gray. We also learn that there has been series of stranglings in the area — and Dix is the killer.

   The killings are neatly conveyed, with Hughes telling us just enough about each one to impart a sense of brutality and horror without getting unpleasantly graphic. But it’s the characterizations that make the story work, not only Steele’s but also his cop-buddy, the buddy’s wife, and especially the neighbor-lady; Laurel Gray is a perfectly-realized character: intelligent, independent and just bitchy enough to seem real.

   And if the book as a whole left me a bit down and creepy-feeling, I still have to say it was wonderfully done, as we watch Steele’s hunter/hunted game with women (hunter) and the Law (hunted) draw to an end we knew was coming but couldn’t look away from.

   In 1950 Columbia took the title and the character names and made a film out of them, discarding most of the rest. And a damnfine film they made, too, though lovers of the book must have been somewhat dazed and confused by it.

   Here, Dixon Steele is a conscientious Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t had a hit since before the war, in a town where you’re only as good as your last movie. He’s also subject to what we might nowadays call PTSD, prone to heavy drinking and fits of violence. Given a chance to adapt a trashy best-seller for the movies, he finds a hat-check girl who has read and loved it (“It’s what I call a epic!”) and takes her to his apartment to tell him the story so he won’t have to read it.

   Thus when she turns up strangled the next day, he’s the logical suspect. He’s tentatively cleared by the luscious neighbor-lady (Gloria Grahame in one of her best roles ever) but as they begin a relationship, she’s nagged by suspicions that he may be the killer after all — an opinion shared by the LAPD.

   So you’ve got the characters, the locale and a strangling carried over from the book, but that’s about it. In fact there’s an eerie echo-chamber effect in a movie that has nothing to do with the book it’s based on, where the main character writes a screenplay that has nothing to do with the book he’s supposedly adapting. Unintentional no doubt, but it still packs a certain resonance.

   And that’s about it for the film too, as we get as rather uneventful hour or so of Laurel and Dix falling in love, Dix throwing getting more violent, Laurel growing afraid and the cops getting more suspicious. No chases, tense walks in the fog or suspenseful cat-and-mouse, but it does convey a sense of edgy melancholy that evokes Hollywood wonderfully.

   Nicholas Ray’s fine eye for setting a scene and his fluid camera literally keep things moving, and the leisurely pace left me totally unprepared for a fast and unforgettable climax unlike any other. In a Lonely Place could be a lot slower and twice as long, and it’d still be worth sitting through just for the wrap-up.

   By the way, you can read a lot of gossipy trivia about the making of this film — director Ray and star Grahame were married when the movie started filming, but not when it finished — but my favorite bit involves Robert Warwick playing a faded, boozy has-been actor. Warwick himself was a star of the silent films and on Broadway, where, at the height of his fame, he took time to encourage a struggling and not-very-good young actor named Humphrey Bogart. Bogart never forgot his kindness and repaid him with this small but juicy part.