In a Lonely Place is back in cinemas from 26 November 2017
A Gloria Grahame season runs at BFI Southbank from November-December 2017
- Spoiler warning: this feature gives away plot details for In a Lonely Place
Hardboiled heroes certainly know how to eat and drink. Take Humphrey Bogart as cynical and washed-up screenwriter Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place (1950). We’re first introduced to Dix on his way to Paul’s, a Hollywood bar and restaurant where he meets his agent Mel (Art Smith). Over a gin and tonic (for Dix) and glass of milk (for ulcer-plagued Mel), they discuss the project – an adaptation of a trashy novel – before Dix ends up in a punch-up with a callous director who insults one of his friends. Happily for Dix, he’s friendly with proprietor Paul and escapes with nothing more than a warning to take things outside next time.
Having worked up an appetite, Dix orders ham and eggs, which are brought to him with some slices of toast (in mock deference Paul tells Dix he will select the eggs himself). This is the first meal we see Dix tuck into and it sets the standard for what he eats and drinks throughout the rest of the film – namely breakfast-type food paired with hard liquor.
Given Dix’s erratic working hours, it’s not surprising that he tends to favour food that can be eaten at any hour. Fuelled by ham and eggs, he heads home to work. He takes with him Mildred, a hat check girl from Paul’s, who’s read and loved the book he’s been asked to adapt.
Rather than bother to read it, he asks her to relate the story to him. At first she thinks he’s picking her up and refuses, but when she realises she has the chance to assist a well-known screenwriter, she changes her mind.
Back at Dix’s apartment, he fixes a strong drink for himself and a soft one for her (ginger ale with a twist of lemon – she advises him that it’s called a Horse’s Neck). Mildred’s briefly perturbed when Dix disappears to his room and returns in his dressing gown (a scene that carries an added sense of threat in light of recent revelations about the behaviour of powerful Hollywood men). But Mildred soon relaxes when Dix tells her he needs to be comfortable to work and asks her to begin the story.
After the briefest of summaries, Dix realises the novel is exactly what he thought it would be and sends Mildred home with cab fare and a reader’s fee. The next morning she’s found dead and Dix becomes the number one suspect.
A witness in his favour is his sultry neighbour, Laurel (Gloria Grahame in one of her finest and most sympathetic performances), who saw Mildred leaving Dix’s apartment. After a brief courtship characterised by wise-cracking and verbal sparring, the two fall deeply in love.
Laurel helps Dix write again, typing up his pages and making him breakfast after a hard night’s writing. One such breakfast we hear requested but never see eaten is: “orange juice, eggs over easy, bacon, toasted muffins, strawberry jam and lots of coffee”. Later, the preparation of breakfast serves as the backdrop for one of the film’s most tense and heartbreaking scenes.
In a wonderfully self-reflexive sequence, Dix leads up to a proposal of marriage by reflecting on the technique of writing love scenes for the movies. While attempting to cut up a grapefruit, he tells Laurel that a writer can’t just have characters simply declare their love for each other. Dix suggests that if this scene was in a film, it would be immediately apparent how deeply in love they are – an emotion conveyed through the simple act of making breakfast (for obvious reasons, usually a landmark meal in a new relationship).
But although Laurel loves Dix, the growing suspicion that he might have murdered Mildred after all, combined with his increasingly violent tendencies, makes her realise that she cannot marry him. As the scene wears on, we see Laurel grow increasingly tormented, afraid to refuse his proposal for fear of what he might do if rejected. She tries to break the moment by exclaiming “the coffee!” and dashing back into the kitchen to rescue the pot from the stove. But it’s to no avail. Laurel and Dix become engaged and host a celebratory dinner at Paul’s that, predictably, ends abruptly, ruined by Dix’s jealousy and paranoia.
Paul’s was based on Romanoff’s, one of Bogie’s own favourite hangouts, and in fact, the character of Dix (hard-drinking, self-destructive, sometimes cruel but also loyal to his old friends) has much in common with Bogart himself. One of Bogart’s biographers describes the actor’s regular trips to Romanoff’s, where he always occupied the second booth from the left and frequently ordered ham and eggs, whether at breakfast or lunchtime (another favourite was French toast, also a breakfast dish). When he wasn’t filming, he’d generally arrive early for lunch, giving him time for a drink (scotch and soda), before eating around two o’clock and then indulging in a game of chess with Mike Romanoff.
Romanoff’s gets a mention in the book on which the film was based, Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, In a Lonely Place (1947), when Dix is trying to decide where to go for dinner:
“He drove over to Wiltshire, not knowing where he’d eat. The Savoy, on up Rodeo, Romanoff’s, the Tropics. He was after good food, but he didn’t want to waste a lot of money on it. Not until Laurel went with him to those spots. There was always the Derby or Sheetz – not for tonight. Neither could fill the hollow within” (pp. 139-140)
The film is a loose adaptation. In the original novel, Dix is a serial killer, whose world and mind we are drawn into and made to share. He’s a handsome young ex-veteran and aspiring writer, but is certainly not a screenwriter, dismissing the idea as something he’d only do if desperate for money.
This Dix also has an appetite, which increases when he’s feeling tired or anxious – particularly about Laurel’s increasing coldness towards him (like her cinematic equivalent, she’s scared of him). There are some lusty descriptions of food in the literary In a Lonely Place – on two occasions he eats the classic American combination of “salami and swiss on rye” – and after Laurel has failed to show up for a date, he begins to fantasise about “dinner, a big hearty, tasty dinner. Steak and French fries and asparagus and a huge fresh green salad, then a smoke and coffee and something special for dessert, strawberry tart or a fancy pastry and more coffee” (p. 157).
Watch the trailer for In a Lonely Place
The literary Dix’s biggest appetite is for killing. For the screen though, director Nicholas Ray couldn’t countenance Bogart as a psychotic murderer. The screenplay shied away from making him a serial killer in the model of Hughes’ protagonist, although the original ending did see a crazed Dix strangling Laurel, just as he is cleared of killing Mildred.
When it came down to it, Ray (who was then married to star Gloria Grahame) couldn’t bring himself to end the couple’s story so nihilistically: “I thought, shit, I can’t do it, I just can’t do it! Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way, they don’t have to end in violence. Let the audience make up its own mind what’s going to happen to Bogie when he goes outside the apartment.”
Perhaps he goes out to get some ham and eggs.