Unraveling The Tangled Dualities of Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place The Fatalistic Noir as Confessional

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.

Written Into a Corner: The Screenwriter as Harbinger of His Own Destruction

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

The immortal lines above, the ones you’ll most often see referenced in any piece on In a Lonely Place, are not uttered by Dix in melodramatic voice-over as they would be in any other Hollywood film of the time, but spoken by Dix soon after he nearly killed a man in front of Laurel. He says the lines and asks if she likes them to which she replies, “What is it?” With a disoriented look on his face, as if momentarily unsure why he spoke them, Dix replies, “I want to put it in the script. I don’t know quite where.” Laurel, following Dix’s lead, meekly adds “The farewell note?”

The exchange happens right at the transition from the second to third act and with nearly 30 minutes left in the film, Ray foreshadowing the inevitably tragic end of their affair and the film. But this moment and Dix’s profession as a screenwriter play into the proceedings in more complicated ways than simple foreshadowing. In this scene, Dix is both the fully involved tragic protagonist and the observer of his own film’s action, just as Ray is the director off-screen and present on-screen with Bogart as his symbolic avatar, both versions simultaneously struggling with a confounding yet passionate love with their wife and lead actress, one on celluloid, the other in the world.

These dualities are not merely playful postmodernism (a philosophy that wasn’t widely present in cinema until the French New Wave filmmakers, who understandably held Ray’s work in high esteem, popularized it seven or eight years after In a Lonely Place), but the result of careful constructs that allow the director to creatively explore the internal struggles of both his leads, the parallels between Bogart’s fictional relationship with Grahme and his own nonfiction one with her, as well as his film’s own relationship with popular films of the time, its genre, and Dix’s knowledge of its tropes and clichés. With those immortal lines, which he spits out almost as a non-sequitur, there is a vibrant collision between the off-screen and on, the fictional and the real. There is the distinct sense that Dix is a three-dimensional, living, feeling character who is being fed the very lines he has just come up with for his own script and in doing so is writing the end to both the screenplay he is working on and the film in which he is unknowingly partaking.

Laurel’s initial response to the lines is one of confusion, yet she quickly realizes where they belong - the farewell note. Both Dix and Laurel (and perhaps Ray and Grahme) foresee their own demise, yet within the confines of the film, it is Dix who sets it in motion, not by action per se, but internally through his writing. He treads a thin line between his own realness and fictionality, the very nature of his character in every way becoming increasingly unstable throughout the film. It doubles back on this dialogue later, returning to it in the film’s final scene, this time spoken by Laurel who pines, “I lived a few weeks while he loved me” as Dix walks off for the last time. The importance of the transference of tragedy from Dix, who comes up with the lines, to Laurel, who says them within the context of the film, cannot be overlooked. It is as if Ray and Dix share in the creation of those beautifully catastrophic lines and foreseeing the inevitable end (with Grahme for Ray and Laurel for Dix), leave her with the perfect farewell. It is rare that such an achingly personal and confessional moment from the life of an artist works so seamlessly in a piece of art, but this is surely one the high marks of it in cinema.

Dix’s duality as screenwriter and character, both constructer and construct, comes into play in a several other key scenes as well, the most effective and powerful of which arriving when Dix describes a possible theory of how the murder went down to a friend and his wife at dinner. The friend in question is an old military buddy, Brub, who also happens to be one of the detective assigned to the case. Hoping the whole thing is a misunderstanding at first, Brub invites Dix over to dinner to help smooth things over as well as get a little more information from Dix without his supervisor’s oversight. Brub admits to the suspect’s strange nature, even telling his boss that no one in their platoon really knew what to make of Dix, but that they all thought he was a good commander. The meal begins immediately with talk of the case when Dix takes control of the conversation, telling Brub that he and his boss don’t see enough whodunits and, referring to screenwriters, jokes that, “We solve every murder in less than two hours.” He goes on to say, “You have to have enough imagination to visualize the crime,” and proceeds to set up a reenactment.

Dix sets up two seats side-by-side, giving Brub the role of the driver/killer and Sylvia, Brub’s wife, the role of the victim. He positions himself directly across from them, readying himself to write, direct, and view the very murder of which he is accused, creating fiction within the fiction. The sequence begins casually enough, with Brub and Sylvia being more curious than anything else as Dix explains why the murder must have happened in the car. He then leans in and slowly begins setting the scene with a tale of jealousy and revenge, having Brub put his arm around Sylvia’s neck. She responds with a playful smirk, mistaking Dix’s own smile as purely innocent. He continues describing the scene, getting himself increasingly worked up as he tells Brub to squeeze harder and harder, going into more grizzly details as Brub’s fists and arm begin to tighten. Ray cuts back to Dix, whose face is now brightly lit, enhancing the deranged look in his eyes as he grunts, “Harder, squeeze harder” with a violent sexuality overtaking his voice.

Sylvia cries out for Brub to stop once he actually begins to hurt her, and exchanges glances with Dix as if he were the one assaulting her. The three converse afterward, buying into Dix’s description of the crime until he caps it off with a smirk as he says, “I’ve killed dozens of people… in pictures” but goes on to say he could never do it since his “artistic temperament wouldn’t permit it.” This scene again brings Dix’s multiple dualities to the surface — his bruteness and clever playfulness and his being a screenwriter and a character caught amidst the very tropes he himself writes. Much like the infamous lines he uttered to Laurel, the scene again presents Dix as self-aware about his own fictionality, attempting to control the encroaching reality of his situation by ascribing it traits of the typical Hollywood noir.

In doing so Ray is not merely toying with self-referentiality but further delving into the psychic splits that render Dix such a fascinating, tragic character. In being a screenwriter, Dix is by his nature divorced from reality, more of a distant observer of his surroundings than an active participant in it. In his recreation of the murder, we see Dix not excited by the prospect of murder, but by the power in re-creating it from his own imagination. His strangeness comes not merely from a moody nature, but because he is in a constant flux between the real world and fictional ones. This scene is such a wonderful example of Dix’s many dualities that Ray returns to it in a key scene later in the film.

Following the road rage scene described above, wherein Dix nearly killed a motorist he ran off the road, he stops further down the road once he has seemingly calmed down. Shot from the same camera angle as when Brub and Sylvia re-enacted the murder, Dix puts his arm around Laurel and brings her in close. For a brief moment, Laurel and the audience imagine Dix as both the potential murderer of Mildred and simply a potential murderer. In this doubling, as with the “I lived a few weeks while she loved me” lines, scenes created by Dix within a fictional construct — the first for his screenplay, this one to explain how the murder could have happened — come to fruition. The inner demons that Dix explores in his own writing and imagination are made external and turn against him as his screenwriting is inextricably intertwined with his own self-destructive tendencies.

There are other scenes that convey this idea, but the most crucial is a moment that is, for a change, surprisingly tender and forgiving toward Dix. He’s in the kitchen cutting up a grapefruit when Laurel comes in and teases him for straightening out the curve in the grapefruit knife. The two gently banter before Laurel mentions Dix’s script and how much she liked the love scene. Dix replies with an amusing yet touching retort:

“Well that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit. You sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we’re in love.”

Again here is Dix simultaneously partaking in and commenting on the scene he is, aloof in his observation yet present in his true feelings of love towards Laurel. Earlier in the film, a character asks him if he’s a mind reader, to which he replies, “Most writers like to think they are.” It’s a witty line at the time but it foreshadows the depth to which Dix will become aware of his own fictionality and the audience aware of the guiding hand of Ray behind the scenes.

These collisions between the fictional world and the real world within which they are constructed make In a Lonely Place all the more richly detailed and emotionally engaging. Where post-modern elements of so many films these days are present for little other reason than sheer cleverness, trickery or comic effect, Ray uses them to fuse his own emotional pain and wounded masculinity with that of his character. He and Dix are one and the same as reality is reflected in the film and the film, in turn, is reflected in reality. This duality along with the various dualities of Dix’s character all work to create an emotional terrain that can be traversed in a number of ways, all rewarding. The film is still a masterpiece if viewed purely on the surface as a fatalistic noir, but when its layers are peeled back, revealing the sheer amount of thought, creativity, pain, and suffering that went into nearly every frame, it’s becomes clear why In a Lonely Place deserves its place among the greatest films of all time.

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