Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you? Bogie, the tough guy hero, sometimes played snivelling villains early in his career, but he was damn scary in one of his later roles, a mentally disturbed screenwriter in the 1950 film, In a Lonely Place.
Based off a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, it begins with screenwriter Dixon Steele being asked to adapt a risque bestseller for the silver screen. On the way to his favorite restaurant he nearly gets into a fight with another driver, and upon arriving slugs a studio head’s son for insulting an older actor who couldn’t transition to talkies. However, he is nice to the kids parked outside the establishment with autograph books, pointing out who they should ask rather than him. Inside, he meets a starstruck young waitress who loves the book he has to adapt; rather than read it himself, he invites her back to his apartment to tell him the plot. She tells him the story, and he sends her on her way. Hours later, he is pulled out of bed by the police, who have just found her strangled corpse in a ditch. As he is being questioned, his across the courtyard neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham) confirms his alibi that he never left his apartment after the waitress left; she can see into his plate living room window.
Dixon and Laurel begin a romance, which is constantly nagged by the murder accusation hanging over him, despite Laurel’s testimony. In one truly terrifying scene, he recreates the murder with a cop and the cop’s wife with storytelling. The police also harass Laurel, trying to get her to admit that she was lying about his alibi (she wasn’t), but do succeed in making her afraid of Dix. And with good reason– he is volatile and has a rich history of domestic abuse, although his ex-girlfriends all declined to press charges. After a car accident, he nearly kills the other driver who called him a “blind knuckleheaded squirrel.” Now desperate to get out of the relationship, Laurel feels too afraid to say no when Dix proposes, though she feels convinced (despite really deep-down knowing otherwise) that he killed the waitress.
Here is the storytelling scene. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EitK0vaEWU.) Now try to sleep. No, look at his expression… try to imagine being in the same room with that guy. This is Bogart in top form, giving a complex portrait of a damaged man suspected of a crime he could very easily have committed. No one is safe from Dixon Steele’s temper– even his loved ones. And he knows he has a problem, but he won’t get help… he just convinces himself that his reaction was right, or that each incidence of violence will be the last one, trapping him and the people around him in a vicious cycle.
The result is probably one of the best film depictions of people in a domestic abuse situation. Aside from establishing his innocence in the murder, the movie never tries to whitewash Dix’s character, as the question very quickly becomes, “what will he do to Laurel?” And what Laurel goes through is surprisingly modern– the victim blaming she puts up with is depicted as wrong, something surprising for the 1950s.