Following his auspicious debut in 1948, the lovers-on-the-run noir thriller They Live By Night, and a pair of lesser noir melodramas, Nicholas Ray delivered his first masterpiece just two years later with In a Lonely Place. 1950 was the year of that other ultimate Hollywood noir, Sunset Boulevard, yet where Billy Wilder’s take is baroque and exaggerated, the city of Angels as reflected in a fun house mirror, In a Lonely Place is downtrodden, simmering equally in its cynicism and romanticism and is as much an anti-McCarthyist screed, a theme Ray would return to even more explicitly four years later with Johnny Guitar, as an anti-Hollywood one. There is also a rawness and vulnerability expressed by both leads, Humphrey Bogart and Ray’s wife and leading lady, Gloria Grahme, that is striking for the period, even for a director’s whose output is full of wounded misfits and outsiders.
Ray worked with Bogart the previous year on Knock On Any Door, but here he mastered how to use the star’s aura and on-screen persona in ways that had never before been tried. Playing Dix Steele, a famous screenwriter with a real mean streak who hasn’t had a hit for years, Bogie is the cynical, sarcastic tough guy that he typically inhabits, yet here his patent machismo is rendered toxic as he’s tormented by violent impulses that lead to run-ins with the law and destroy his personal relationships. Ray’s protagonist is given fame, friends, even love, but he remains a soul in isolation whose existential struggles remain internal and hidden until the inevitable eruptions burst through the surface, wreaking havoc on those nearest him.
The dualities in the film, however, extend beyond Bogart’s sweetly cynical and impulsively vicious Jekyll/Hyde personalities. Steele’s occupation as a screenwriter is weaved both obviously and subtly into the fabric of the film — obvious in its portrayal of writers as temperamental and among the outcasts in the Hollywood machine, subtle in the way Dix’s profession and knowledge of genre and screenwriting tropes play into the film’s own fatalistic tendencies. Ray toys with the notions of doomed love, edgy, rebellious men, noir narrative conventions and the functions of genre themselves as it morphs into a highly stylized melodrama by its final scenes. With Criterion’s recent Blu-Ray release, In a Lonely Place and all of its wildly idiosyncratic glory can finally be experienced by the wider audience it’s always deserved.
Love (and Death) Story
“I’ve been looking for someone a long time… I didn’t know her name or where she lived. I’d never seen her before. A girl was killed and because of that I found what I was looking for.”
The film opens with Dix driving to a local bar, his troubled eyes staring into the rearview in self-reflection. Soon after getting out of his car and nearly brawling with the husband of an actress who called out to him in recognition at a red light, he finds himself at the bar in a full-on fistfight defending a friend who’d been insulted by a producer. The stage is set as Dix being a firecracker merely waiting to be set off. He is aloof yet charming, playfully convincing the hat-check girl at the bar, Mildred Atkinson, to come home with him and tell him about the book he’s just been assigned to adapt. After she breaks a date with her boyfriend and joins Dix in his living room for a while, he sends her home in a cab, all while his beautiful failed actress neighbor looks on. Of course, the girl turns up dead and Dix, who when the cops show up assumes it was about the brawl, is dragged downtown at 5am and told Mildred was found brutally murdered and left on the side of the road.
The set-up is standard noir fare until we get Dix’s reaction upon hearing the upsetting news — that same cool, sardonic gaze as if he’d been told Mildred had sprained an ankle. After the detective expresses concern about Dix’s perceived indifference and smart-ass retorts, Bogart gives that smirk only he could, saying, “I grant you, the jokes could’ve been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you — that is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of emotion.” It’s simultaneously hilarious and bone-chilling. Like Laurel (Gloria Grahme), who comes down to the station to vouch for Dix and soon gets involved with him, we’re fairly certain he’s not a murderer, but not that he couldn’t be one. And as the two progress with their love affair and the police pursue Dix as the most likely suspect, this divide between what Dix might have done and what he could do becomes one of the film’s main focuses, both in how it tortures Dix and how it ultimately drives a wedge between him and Laurel.
The wounded romanticism that drips from every scene is as raw as anything classic Hollywood would ever produce, aided not only by Bogart and Grahme’s stellar performances, but by Ray’s interjecting his own current marital woes with Grahme into the film. The two were even secretly separated during the shoot and Ray slept at the studio, writing bits and pieces from his own experience into the script. Such unfiltered emotion and direct confession are what make Dix and Laurel such a fascinating, strange and wholly unique couple. There is a beautiful scene at a nightclub that illustrates this delicate balancing of romance and tragedy perfectly. For nearly two minutes, Ray cuts between the singer at the piano cooing a love song and the couple exchanging glances and unheard lover’s talk. He starts with a medium shot of the two, cuts to the singer in close-up then back to a two-shot of the couple as Dix lights Laurel a cigarette smiling knowingly, lights his own, and leans in again to whisper something in her ear making her laugh. He cuts back to the singer and again to the two-shot before pulling the camera back leisurely to show the crowd around them at the piano. It is perhaps the only shot where Dix and Laurel are not only hopelessly and unconditionally in love with one another but also at peace with their surroundings, unimpeded by the ever-present persistence of detectives.
Ray ends the scene in dramatic fashion, returning to a two-shot of the couple, with Laurel’s lustful expression met by Dix’s oddly tranquil gaze. He leans in again asking if there’s anything she wants to make her happy. Ray quickly cuts to a close-up over Dix’s shoulder, his head lowered in a rare gesture of trust and submission, when Laurel whispers, barely audibly to the audience, “I wouldn’t want anything but you.” The dialogue itself isn’t particularly original, but their postures, the sound mix, and unique framing of the shot certainly are. The way she gently leans in and softly speaks that line, almost drowned out by the ambience of the club, gives it a frank intimacy that is uncanny and impossibly moving, beating Lost in Translation by a good half-century. If the scene up to this point was the foreplay, that line was the penetration, sultry and sexually charged yet affectionate. As perfect as this scene and moment are, Ray doesn’t let it linger for even a second. As soon as Laurel finishes speaking, she glances up to see a detective who’d been tailing them entering the night club and one of the most tender and organic of romantic exchanges in cinema dissolves into dust as Dix storms out of the bar with Laurel, angrily telling the detective where he can find them next.
And this returns us to the other side of Dix; the one who fights in bars, who gave an ex a broken nose, whose temper and instability make him as potentially dangerous as he was gentle the moment before. His nature is to be ever-teetering on the edge of destruction, lovingly cajoling with Laurel and some friends on the beach one moment and then storming off upon hearing she talked to the police again, only to drive like a maniac and nearly beat another driver to death until he gives into Laurel’s pleadings for him to stop. It is in this moment, to be discussed in more detail later, that Laurel decides to leave Dix without telling him. His internal struggle between his two sides has now borne a mistrust that creates two Laurels — the one who loves him unquestionably and the other who is terrified of his violent impulses and sheer unknowability.
It is in the moment when these dualities clash that the film’s final climax occurs. In a moment of fear, Laurel said she would marry Dix and later, when Laurel is packing, Dix surprises her at home to get her ring size. Sensing something is off, he bursts into her room and discovers she plans to leave him. Her betrayal becomes his betrayal as he grabs her neck, pushing her onto the bed, expressions of sadness and love covering his face even as his hands are wrapped around her throat, the violence and tenderness forever intertwined. The ringing phone jolts Dix out of his stupor and he stumbles over to hear from the detective that the real murderer has confessed and he is officially cleared of all charges. Handing the phone over to Laurel for the detective to apologize for the strain put on the relationship, Dix knowingly creeps towards the door, glancing back at Laurel as she delivers the death blow — “Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us. Now it doesn’t matter… it doesn’t matter at all.”
What matters in the film, ultimately, is not so much the broader narrative trajectory of the rise and fall of their relationship, but the unique beats that Ray, Bogart, and Grahme each hit along the way. Their ability to play a couple that is simultaneously head-over-heels in love with one another and always on the precipice of destroying that love is an achievement enough, but the achingly tender realness of the emotions on display, Laurel and Dix’s tumultuous yet rapturous relationship and his tortured soul are what help make it one of the most enduring and memorable in all of cinema.