Early in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, there’s a noirish meet-cute in a police station. L.A. screenwriter Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is suspected of murdering a hat-check girl he’d invited to his apartment. Dix’s neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) has been brought in to verify that she saw the girl leave Dix’s place as he claims. Dix doesn’t seem worried: he is, in fact, completely untroubled by the young woman’s death and by the fact that he’s a suspect. That alone is enough to sharpen the detectives’ interest.
We know that Dix had noticed Laurel before, from across the courtyard; we saw her just as he did, aloof and unapproachable as she paused on the steps to her apartment. Being a suspected murderer wouldn’t seem to be the most promising way to bring an attractive woman into your orbit, but for Dix it kind of works. “I like his face,” Laurel coolly informs the cops at the station, and Dix grins wolfishly. It’s clear that a lot of women have liked his face. Probably the hat-check girl did too, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t kill her.
Wondering just what’s going on inside people’s heads is a big part of what makes In a Lonely Place go, and while much of the focus is on Bogie’s Dix Steele, Laurel is every bit as mysterious. Grahame imbues her with a haughty, high-class sensuality, her sculpted eyebrows suggesting a change in mood for every millimeter they’re raised or lowered, the rest of her face inscrutable. She lets us peek through sometimes, usually when she begins to doubt Dix’s veracity. But we never learn a lot about her, or what drives her.
After establishing herself as Dix’s alibi, Laurel becomes everything else to him: lover, muse, bartender, nursemaid, housekeeper. Dix savagely beats a man to unconsciousness on the side of a road and then picks up a rock to bash in his skull; she stops him. She has become his conscience, too. Like a lot of women in abusive relationships, she keeps giving up parts of herself until there aren’t any parts left to give. Why she sticks with him for as long as she does is the real mystery here, why she chooses to constantly walk on eggshells, chattering happily to distract him from one perceived slight or another in order to keep him from blowing his top. She avoids one such blowup by consenting him to marry him, and another by packing her bags furtively, planning to skip town.
Grahame plays a brassier version of this inscrutable dame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953): as tough cookie Debby Marsh she is hotheaded gangster Vince Stone’s girl, and like Laurel she is in a relationship that puts her in constant danger. She refuses to walk on eggshells around Vince, though, and she gets all the good lines. It’s only the monomania of bull-in-a-china-shop detective Bannion (Glenn Ford) that forces her to go too far. Bannion bullies Debby into giving him inside information on the mob, and she ends up with a disfigured face for her trouble. We’re supposed to empathize with Bannion, whose too-perfect marriage was ended with a car bomb, but it’s clear he doesn’t much care what happens to anyone else (absurdly, Bannion insists to his young daughter that the late Mrs. Bannion is on an unannounced vacation, a ruse that would seem to cut against his reputation as a clean-cut truth-teller). But it’s Debby who holds our attention.
The truth is, we can’t muster up much sympathy for Bannion and his wife, who are too thoroughly and tiresomely devoted to one another to be interesting. Mob boss Mike Lagana is better company — at least he has manners. But it’s Grahame’s Debby whom we genuinely like and want to see get out of it clean.
But what is it, really, that Debby is after? She never tells Bannion — which only makes sense, since he’s hardly listening. Is she looking to redeem herself from the wanton life of a gangster’s moll? Does she want to bring down the rotten syndicate she’s become a part of? Does she — dare we say it — want to be the next late Mrs. Bannion? We don’t want that to be true; Debby is far too compelling to pine for a station wagon and a house in the suburbs, isn’t she?
A number of film writers over the years have tried to draw a line between Gloria Grahame’s salacious personal life and her screen performances. It’s an understandable impulse — we always want to see behind the masks that actors wear — and in spite of the fact that actors openly deceive us, we still hope that what we see on the screen tells us something true and meaningful. But Grahame’s performances are refreshingly muted, providing not the slightest clue to the tabloid-ready personal life happening offscreen. Much of the mystery in these films is driven by what’s going on behind her eyes.