“In a Lonely Place,” directed by Nicholas Ray in 1950, is not an easy film to classify because it doesn’t fit into any one genre. Most critics label it as a quintessential film noir, but it’s also an existential drama, a murder mystery, a self-reflexive film about Hollywood, and a most personal work in the short but impressive resume of its cult director.
“In a Lonely Place” was adapted to the screen by Andrew Salt and Edmund H. North from the 1947 novel of the same title by Dorothy B.Hughes, with major contributions from Ray. It features Humphrey Bogart in one of his best and iconic performances, as Dixon Steele, a cynical screenwriter with violent temper suspected of murder.
This strange, haunting, melancholy film offers a mordant commentary on the Hollywood industry, centering on hard-boiled characters, while dissecting the very notion of celebrity. The title suggests characters that exists and are entrapped in a lonely place—literally and figuratively.
I may not be a coincidence that the movie was made in the same year in which two other biting satires were produced about the inner workings of showbusiness: Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” which contrasts the Old and the New Hollywood, and Joseph Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning “All About Eve,” an inside look at the Broadway theater.
Though praised at the time of release, the movie was not a commercial success. And it’s only in the last two decades that the film’s reputation has increased after second analyses by major critics, both American (primarily Andrew Sarris) and Foreign, though the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema had elevated Ray to a cult status in the 1950s, particularly after the back-to-back seminal movies “Johnny Guitar” in 1854 and “Rebel Without Cause” in 1955.
Hailed as a masterpiece of the noir genre, Time magazine named it one of the 100 best films of all time in its 2005 list. In 2007, “In a Lonely Place” was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Register for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Bogart plays Dixon ‘Dix’ Steele, a witty, cynical, down-on-his-luck scribe who has not had a success for a long time, a result of heavy drinking and belligerent personality. Meeting his agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith), at a nightclub, the latter asks him to adapt a book for a movie. It’s a book that the hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), is about to finish reading. Too tired to read the novel, Dixon asks Mildred to his home to discuss the book’s plot. Upon hearing the contents, he dismisses the book as trash and sends her home.
The next morning, he is awakened by an old army buddy, now a police detective, Brub Nicholai (Frank Lovejoy), who takes him to be questioned by Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid). He’s the main suspect in Mildred’s murdered the night before. Dixon’s new tenant Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) is brought to the police station and confirms seeing the girl leaving his apartment alone, but Lochner remains suspicious for Dixon shows little sympathy for the dead girl.
A friendship and then romance evolves between Dixon and Laurel, an aspiring actress with few screen credits. The love affair encourages Dixon to go back to work, much to his agent’s delight. However, Dixon continues to behave strangely, saying things that upset his agent and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell).
Later, Lochner tries to manipulate Laurel by relating incidents of Dixon’s violent temper in the past. Late at night, Dix and Laurel go for a drive and get into an accident: Dixon beats the other driver and is about to strike him with a rock when Laurel stops him. It’s a turning point in their relationship, opening Laurel’s eyes as to the real nature of her beloved man. Distrustful and fearful, even after accepting his marriage proposal, Laurel begins to question her feelings, leading to a violent confrontation and physical abuse. (See Photo 2)
In the end, when Mildred’s jealous boyfriend Henry Kessler confesses to the murder, though it’s may be too late to salvage Dixon and Laurel’s relationship. The final image depicts Dixon and Laurel together in the same frame, but they are alone, decidedly not facing each other.
“In a Lonely Place” offers Bogart a complex role he felt strongly about. Though he played a writer, the part enabled him to show his mixed feelings toward acting as a profession, pride in his art and skills but also self-absorption, latent rage, and frustration over lack of control. As the scholars Silver and Ward pointed out, “Dixon is a noir hero, trapped in a compulsive role, caught, almost frozen between the dark past and a bleak future.”
The scenario deviates considerably from the book. In the original ending, Dixon strangles Laurel to death, and Sgt. Nicolai arrests him for her death. Dixon then tells Brub that he had finished his screenplay, and the final shot was to be of a page in the typewriter which has the lines Dixon had earlier said to Laurel in the car: “I was born when you kissed me, I died when you left me, I lived a few weeks while you loved me.” Nonetheless, though Ray himself approved of the ending, he later disliked it, claiming to have improvised the current one on the set.
Auteurist critics have correctly pointed out that “In a Lonely Place” manifests Ray’s consistent themes of failure, loss of innocence, destructive violence, cynicism, and emotional alienation. His bleak, distrustful worldview informs most of his pictures not matter what genre they belong to. Yet the movie is strangely romantic in its depiction of how love can, at least temporarily, redeem and enrich one’s life.
Gloria Grahame and Nicholas Ray’s marriage fell apart during the shoot and the couple eventually divorced in 1952.