She’s the face (and seductively positioned legs) of our Columbia Noir program on the Criterion Channel and the costar (with Humphrey Bogart) of a 1950 classic directed by her husband at the time, Nicholas Ray. In a Lonely Place tops Slant’s new annotated list of the top one hundred film noirs of all time and will screen on Friday as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s series What Price Hollywood. A little over three years after Karina Longworth told her captivating story on the sorely missed podcast You Must Remember This, and two years after Annette Bening played her as a vulnerable vamp in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Gloria Grahame is back on our minds—and screens.
Introducing Slant’s new feature, Derek Smith notes that contributors have taken an “expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears.” Counting down to the top, Grahame first appears in Robert Wise’s 1959 heist movie Odds Against Tomorrow (the real stars are Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte) before coming on strong in the top ten. As Penelope Bartlett points out in her notes on the Columbia Noir program, the studio may have been angling for Marilyn Monroe to take on the role of the girlfriend of Lee Marvin’s sadistic mobster in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). They settled for Grahame, who not only “gives one of the greatest performances of her career,” as Bartlett suggests, but also, as none other than director Lindsay Anderson wrote for Sight & Sound in 1954, “acts with brilliant wit and considerable subtlety.” The Big Heat is “a feast of resonant terseness,” writes Slant’s Chuck Bowen, “and its subject is ultimately what’s pointedly missing from it until the heartbreaking ending: sullied, qualified compassion, in a prosperous world with a foundation deeply eaten up by hypocrisy and corruption.”
As for Slant’s #1 selection, In a Lonely Place is, Bowen argues, “a tricky thriller that’s understated in its exploration of the theme of dream versus reality that governs most Hollywood-set mysteries. Like all insecure, domineering control freaks, Dixon (Bogart) must be the big fish of his own pond. It’s a pond that can house no other fish, and he chafes at the stifling limitations of this prison while feeling incapable of reaching beyond it. His one attempt to escape it, pulling Laurel (Gloria Grahame) into his own hell, proves unsuccessful, and we’re as grateful for her as we are heartbroken for him.”
Once again, the role of Laurel might have gone to a bigger star. In one of the supplements to our release, director Curtis Hanson suggests that it might have been Ginger Rogers or Lauren Bacall, but “there can only be one Laurel Gray in anybody’s mind, and that’s Gloria Grahame.” Imogen Sara Smith adds that “Grahame’s troubled intelligence and sensual vulnerability make her more moving than any other actress would have been.” And introducing the scene below, Melissa Anderson argues 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.”
By the time the cameras rolled, Grahame and Ray’s marriage was already falling apart, and at Screen Slate, Caroline Golum argues that “Grahame’s is among any actors’ finest mid-divorce performances.” Writing about the film for Hyperallergic, Ela Bittencourt points out that the “eloquence of Ray’s cinematographer, Burnett Guffey—the way he catches in close-up, and in her deliberate, increasingly stifled movements, Laurel’s growing despair—plays out like a psychological horror. Laurel falls out of love as desperately as she fell into it, but somewhere in her subconscious a voice whispers that Dixon isn’t a man to spurn. It’s this insinuation—a mere hint of violence, in a place permeated by it, and by taciturn acquiescence—that keeps In a Lonely Place such a painful, and riveting, film to watch.”
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