In A Lonely Place

US (1950) Dir. Nicholas Ray

In 1950 Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve were released, both casting a satirical eye over the fickle nature of Hollywood celebrity. A third film sharing a similar theme was also released that year but unfortunately stayed in the shadows of the other films, despite having plenty to offer of its own.

Screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is known for his sharp tongue and brusque, often aggressive manner as much as his writing talent in Hollywood. When asked to adapt a crime novel into a screenplay, Dix invites young hatcheck girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) back to his home, since she has read it and can explain it to him.

The virtuous Mildred evades Dix’s charms so he sends her home with money for a taxi. The next morning Mildred has been found murdered and Dix is the prime suspect. He earns a temporary reprieve when his new neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) gives him an alibi, serving as a springboard for a romance to blossom – until Dix’s volatile behaviour begins to cast doubt in Laurel’s mind.

The fifth film from director Nicholas Ray is based on the novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes and, like many film adaptations, created a divided audience. Hughes herself didn’t object to the changes but her readers did; ironically it seemed Ray and writers Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt foresaw this as Dix is chastised in one scene for his script not sticking to the original novel!

Of the three Hollywood satires, Ray’s is the least mordant, relying instead on the complexities of Dix’s personality and his relationship with Laurel. It has been labelled a film noir but really, a handful of elements in this film are cut from that cloth, yet it is too intense and dark to be described as a simple romantic drama either.

Furthermore, whilst the mystery of Mildred’s murder provides the skeleton of the plot, it quickly slips into the background, only occasionally returning to the fore. Dix is friends with one of the detectives on the case, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), on hand to keep everything in line while Dix gives Brub’s superior Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) a lashing of his caustic tongue.

This doesn’t mean that Dix is treated any less lightly as a suspect, while his fame on the street is negligible compared to others. Dix’s track record as a hot head with charges of violence to men and women against him does not a good character reference make. So why does Laurel find herself falling for this irascible and emotionally stunted old scribe?

Laurel takes on the job of typing up Dix’s hand written scripts, while her no-nonsense personality and easy-on-the-eye appearance have Dix smitten – in fact he believes that Laurel is the one to complete him. But, Dix’s self-control is often just an insult or run-in away from taking a back seat to his fists getting some exercise, and the more this occurs the less comfortable Laurel feels in Dix’s company.  

Another side of Dix’s personality revealed to us is his disturbing glee in exploring the mechanics of murder. In one chilling scene, Dix has Brub and his wife Sylvia (Miss Jeff Donnell) re-enact Dix’s vision of Mildred’s killing, the light breaking up the shadowy setting as it focuses intensely on Dix’s face, contorting and grimacing with a devilish smile that borders on orgasmic pleasure.

Brub and Dix’s agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) put this down to Dix having a writer’s vivid imagination which may be true, but elsewhere Dix’s lack of emotional response aside from anger indicates a damaged psyche. Without a shared backstory, we can only speculate as to what created this monster in Dix – a failed love affair, a rough childhood, a disconnect from his parents, perhaps even jealousy of not being famous for his work.

Laurel is also a curious case, presented to us without any accompanying notes for reference. She is, predictably, an aspiring actress so her interest in Dix could be the doors he could open for her vis-à-vis her career. Yet, when asked if she takes a salary for assisting Dix, she replies she does it for love. Maybe she is into older men and this was real love for her, but it doesn’t make their union any less turbulent.

One of the key alterations was to the ending, considerably more tragic than the one in the final cut, although it was actually filmed. Nicholas Ray felt it was too horrific, even though he helped write it, so he closed the set except the two leads and shot the finale we see on screen. While a case can be made for both, the second ending arguably carries a deeper poignancy and emotional weight by being less explicit.

It is also helped by what is considered one of Bogart’s finest performances. Silent film legend Louise Brooks, who knew Bogart before he was famous, said Dix was closest to the real Bogart she knew. A caustic, quick to temper alpha male, Bogart channelled his past noir roles suffused with an inner self-loathing to make Dix so complex, we are left to wonder if we should root for him or not.

Providing the glamour and sympathetic counterbalance is Gloria Grahame, who breezes in like a reverse femme fatale – sleek and alluring but without the devious succubus tendencies. Putting aside the age difference and precipitate nature of her falling for Dix, Grahame creates a credible love interest in Laurel, quite the miracle as she was in the midst of a separation from husband Nicholas Ray at the time!

Recently given a Blu-ray release here in the UK, In A Lonely Place is a film which might not shake the foundations of the genres it covers, but is worthy of a reappraisal as a slice of taut metaphoric storytelling, buttressed by a masterful lead performance from Bogart.