Any paean to noir seductress nonpareil Gloria Grahame—mine included—can’t hope to surpass this encomium from Boyd McDonald, one of her most ardent and articulate devotees. Saluting Grahame’s performance in In a Lonely Place (1950) in his essential 1985 compendium, Cruising the Movies, the unimpeachable critic writes: “She had the sullen, bored walk and talk of someone who can’t be shocked, isn’t afraid and just doesn’t give a shit . . . Grahame’s male co-stars, no matter how they posed and swaggered, had no weapon to compete with her lipstick; without the slightest effort, simply by standing there with those lips, she stole scenes from everyone else on the screen. I never take my eyes off her lips, but just sit waiting for her to open them and say something.”
The first time Grahame opens her lips, so often formed into a perfect moue, at about nine minutes into Nicholas Ray’s Los Angeles–set noir, she says, “Excuse me.” As uttered by this sexually confident performer, even this most prosaic of requests becomes an alluring entreaty. Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, an actress who has been in “a couple of low-budget pictures,” is trying to pass Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a screenwriter prone to paroxysms of rage, and Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a hatcheck girl at a Romanoff’s-like restaurant whom Dix has invited back to his place for help on a script—and who will be found murdered a few hours later. Laurel has recently moved in to a flat just across the courtyard from Dix at the Beverly Patio Apartments. When they see each other from their windows shortly after their initial encounter on the sidewalk, it’s clear they’re already deeply in love. Later in the film, she’ll tell the police detective who considers Dix the prime suspect in Mildred’s death that she “liked his face”; Dix will say of his mondaine inamorata, “She’s not coy or cute or corny.”
The depth of their besottment is electrifyingly evident when we see the couple seated around the piano where Hadda Brooks performs a sultry version of “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You.” They are cocooned in their own private ecstasy of whispered thoughts and lustful glances. “Anything you want to make you happy?” Dix asks Laurel during the final bars of the jazz standard; Bogart, his solicitous query serenely yet hungrily delivered in this scene, conveys a raw need that matches his screen partner’s aching intensity. She leans in to her lover’s ear and murmurs something. The words are unintelligible, but the look on Grahame’s face is not: her eyes closed, she is lost in desire. More than any other moment in Ray’s film, these few seconds perfectly distill the couple’s erotic bliss. But the reverie won’t last long. Growing increasingly alarmed by Dix’s short fuse, his violence, Laurel turns to pills to ease her tormented sleep.
The man directing Grahame in this story of a doomed romance was her husband, Nicholas Ray, with whom she shared a similarly hopeless union. (Following A Woman’s Secret from 1949, In a Lonely Place was the second of two movies they made together, though Ray did take over directing duties for 1952’s Macao, another Grahame vehicle, after Josef von Sternberg was sacked by producer Howard Hughes.) They had married—each for the second time—in June 1948, the wedding ceremony expedited owing to Grahame’s pregnancy. Their son, Timothy, was born in November of that year, and In a Lonely Place was Grahame’s return to movies after taking a break to tend to her infant.
By the time shooting on the film commenced, in the early fall of 1950, the Ray–Grahame marriage had been foundering for a while, the discord largely the result of her provocative behavior and his jealousy and need to control her. (After many breakups and reconciliations, the rocky union ended for good in 1952, when Ray caught Grahame and his thirteen-year-old son, Tony, in an intimate moment. Grahame and Tony Ray married in 1960.) Largely a PR gimmick, the document—known as the “Mr. and Mrs. contract”—that Grahame, on loan from another studio, signed to work on In a Lonely Place is almost a parody of extreme uxorial devotion. According to Patrick McGilligan’s 2011 biography of Ray, the actress’s contract stipulated the following: “[M]y husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct, and even command my actions during the hours from 9am to 6pm, every day except Sunday, during the filming”; an additional clause forbade her to “nag, cajole, tease, or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”
It is impossible to imagine anyone commanding Grahame’s actions, whether on or off the clock, and the same holds true for Laurel—one of the rare Grahame characters whose sexuality isn’t linked to venality (as it is in David Miller’s Sudden Fear from 1952) or masochism (as evidenced in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat from 1953). Even when she becomes a cheerfully self-sacrificing helpmeet to Dix, staying up all night to type the pages of the screenplay he’s been working on, Laurel retains a steely autonomy, an ineradicable boundary. McDonald singles out Grahame’s lipstick, but I’d argue that the most devastating device in the actress’s arsenal is her right eyebrow, her most versatile, irrepressible anatomical feature. When arched, it serves as a semaphore, communicating disdain, dismissal, dread, or desire—sometimes all at once. That flexed ridge signals that no matter how abject the circumstances that Grahame’s characters may find themselves in, they will always maintain some core of dignity. I never take my eyes off her eyebrow but just sit waiting for her to raise it, as she does in this scene: in an early conversation between Dix and Laurel, occurring in his apartment shortly after she’s provided an alibi for him at the police station, that spidery, sculpted strip of hair transforms into an instrument of weaponized flirtation.