In a Lonely Place (1950): Nicholas Ray’s Film Noir, Starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in Iconic Performances (LGBTQ, Lesbian Subtext)

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.

Grade: A- (**** 0ut of *****)

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

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 most iconic performances, as Dixon Steele, a cynical screenwriter with violent temper who’s suspected of a 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—both literally and figuratively.

It 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 American critics (primarily Andrew Sarris).  It should be noted that the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema had elevated Ray to a cult status in the 1950s, particularly after watching the back-to-back movies, “Johnny Guitar” in 1954 and “Rebel Without Cause” in 1955, which they considered seminal works of the American cinema.

Critical Status

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 commercial 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 back to her place.

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 murder the night before.

Dixon’s new neighbor tenant, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) is also brought to the police station and confirms seeing the girl leaving his apartment alone, However, Lochner remains suspicious as Dixon appears to be showing little sympathy for the dead girl.

A friendship (and then romance) evolves between Dixon and Laurel, an aspiring actress with few screen credits to her name.  The new 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.

Detectiive 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, Mildred’s jealous boyfriend, Henry Kessler, confesses to the murder, though it 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 offered Bogart a complex role that he felt strongly about. Though he played a writer, the part enabled him to show his mixed feelings toward acting as a profession, the pride in his art and skills on the one hand, but also the self-absorption, latent rage, and frustration over the lack of control.

As the scholars Alan Silver and Ward have pointed out, “Dixon is a noir hero, trapped in a compulsive role, caught almost frozen between a dark past and a bleak unknown future.” He is an alienated man, beset by inner demons of violence.  Dixon was blacklisted by the industry not because of his politics, but due to excessive drinking and brawling.

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 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 initially approved of the ending, he later disliked it, claiming to have improvised the current one on the set.

Auteurist critics have 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 the specific genre.

Yet the movie is periodically–and strangely–romantic in its depiction of how love can, at least temporarily, redeem and enrich one’s life.

Lines to Remember:

Dixon describing the epic genre: “And what do you call an epic? You know a picture that’s really long and has lots of things going on.”

Lesbian Subtext

Actress Ruth Gillette plays Martha, a woman who give Gloria Grahame an erotic massage. With hushed voice, the mature and heavy blonde woman whispers into Grahame’s ear, in insinuating tone, “Come on, angel, relax.”

She is the one who warns Grahame that Bogart is trouble. Director Ray stresses the sexual resonance by lining up the shots to suggest woman-on-woman physicality.

Intertextuality and References

The movie is densely self-referential, replete with autobiographical references.

It’s a commentary on the bogart persona, sort of a synthesis of other famous roles.

He is politically unconscious, feeling guilt and anxiety over his professional life.

The movie also makes allusions to Ray and Grahame’s failed marriage (see below).

End Note

Gloria Grahame and Nicholas Ray’s marriage fell apart during the shoot of this film and the couple eventually divorced in 1952.


Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele
Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray
Frank Lovejoy as Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai
Carl Benton Reid as Captain Lochner
Art Smith as Mel Lippman
Martha Stewart as Mildred Atkinson
Jeff Donnell as Sylvia Nicolai
Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman
Morris Ankrum as Lloyd Barnes
William Ching as Ted Barton
Steven Geray as Paul, Headwaiter
Hadda Brooks as Singer


Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Robert Lord
Screenplay by Edmund H. North. Andrew Solt (adaptation), based on In a Lonely Place 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes
Music by George Antheil
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Edited by Viola Lawrence
Production company: Santana Productions (Bogart’s company)
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date: May 17, 1950
Running time: 94 minutes

Essay written in 2009.

Length: 1298 words

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