1950/Director: Nicholas Ray/Writers: Dorothy B. Hughes, Edmund H. North
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart
I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
I can’t even pretend to feign objectivity when discussing Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. I think it’s one of the most exquisite, fascinating films to ever come from Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele is in a class by himself, a truly extraordinary, atypical film protagonist. He’s anything but heroic, a violently troubled man who finally finds love at the same time he’s suspected of murder. I’m afraid I can’t begin to do the movie justice. Rather than read anything written by anyone about Ray’s film, it’s best to just watch it until you become hopelessly absorbed by Bogart, Gloria Grahame and Ray. It’s not possible to accurately capture its brilliance in mere words. At best, I can only touch on why I hold it so dear and the spell it weaves on me.
When Dix is bringing Mildred into his apartment he runs into Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), his new neighbor. Instantly, Dix seems more interested in her than Mildred, but he sticks with the latter. At his apartment, the hat-check girl enthusiastically tells Dix the novel’s plot, but he’s turned off by her childishness. He sends her on her way with two ten dollar bills for cab fare, not even walking her to the nearby taxi stand. Ray then cuts to police Det. Brub Nicolai knocking on Steele’s door at five o’clock in the morning. Dix had served as the cop’s commanding officer during the war, but he soon realizes it’s not a social visit. Mildred was found dead on the side of the road, “in a lonely place,” and Dix was the last known person to see her alive. He’s taken into questioning, but released when Laurel provides his alibi. She thinks Dix has an interesting face and he’s intrigued.
Certainly even Bogart’s signature roles, such as Blaine or Spade, were unconventional heroes, but they’re still undeniably heroes. Their flaws are movie character flaws. Dixon Steele, by contrast, is a controlling, unstable man whose problems are fleshed out or alluded to without apology. While Cooper, Wayne, Grant, Tracy, etc. were, for the most part, retreading their personas in film after film, Bogart was inhabiting these flawed men who often bordered on madness. If pressed on his best performance, I might give the edge to Dobbs, but Dix Steele is a much more complex, difficult character and Bogart makes you think he’s not acting. Just watch the scene where he’s describing how Mildred may have been killed as he insists Det. Nicolai and his wife re-create the killing (in their own home) to be convinced of Bogart’s brilliance.
Steele starts off the film as a cynical, extremely bitter man who seems completely unfazed to learn that the young woman who had been at his apartment the night before has been brutally murdered. Even photographs of the corpse stir no emotion. The question is not whether he committed this unspeakable act, only whether he was capable of it. His guardian angel is Laurel Gray (whose last name surely represents the purgatory she treads between Steele’s violent aggression and her own empathetic curiosity), a new neighbor who happened to see Steele when Mildred was still at his apartment. She lies and tells the police she saw Steele after Mildred left to provide him with an alibi. He then pursues her romantically, resulting in a fruitful relationship eventually tainted by the screenwriter’s inability to overcome his unchained violent behavior.
Like other films directed by Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place works on many different levels. There’s the romance between Dix and Laurel, ill-fated but fleetingly happy prior to Steele’s inevitable self-destruction. We also have a scathing look at the superficiality of Hollywood, exemplified by Mildred’s mothlike attraction to Steele’s “fame” that directly leads to her murder. It’s also frequently categorized as film noir, and the murder investigation, with Dix remaining a prime candidate despite Laurel’s alibi, is constantly lingering in the background. Laurel’s confidence in Dix steadily erodes and she begins to fear what he’s capable of and what he might do to her. Like other great noir protagonists, Dix Steele is unable to overcome his fatal flaw and adapt to the outside world. More atypical is that it’s not death or imprisonment that Steele must face, but loneliness after knowing and feeling the happiness that a change of temperament could have yielded.
It’s that reason, through the film’s brilliant portrayal of the pangs of loneliness, that the relationship between Dix and Laurel surfaces as the most compelling aspect of Ray’s film. Rarely has Hollywood been able to expose with such painful truth the rollercoaster realities of finding someone to heal our innermost pain. As Dix slices open a grapefruit and tenderly exposes part of his soul to Laurel, whose own feelings have begun to ebb, his words about how Hollywood is always getting love wrong become poignantly ironic. The film’s title thus works simultaneously as a literal description of the place where Mildred Atkinson’s body was discarded and the painful, metaphoric emotional state shared by the two main characters. The common denominator, since Dix is a screenwriter and Laurel a struggling actress, is the equally lonely setting of Hollywood.
Regarding the director’s personal life at the time, there’s no indication that any tension stemming from the collapse of Nicholas Ray’s marriage to Gloria Grahame hurt the film. After meeting on the set of A Woman’s Secret, Grahame married her director, but their relationship was, privately, over during the filming of In a Lonely Place. Columbia head Harry Cohn had originally slotted Ginger Rogers to play Laurel, but Ray’s insistence on his then-wife proved right. This might be Grahame’s most accomplished role, an emotionally scarred woman who’s run away from a wealthy lover and finds refuge with a man completely unequipped to protect her. Grahame had a tendency to play less-refined, pouty females, which she did to great effect. Here, though, she’s much more restrained and Laurel is a mature, confident woman who’s still not afraid to make her intentions known. Grahame’s unique speaking voice and habit of raising her right eyebrow are mostly reined in as well, giving the character a natural, reserved effect.
The poster tagline (”with the surprise finish!”) is nearly laughable for its unintentional accuracy. The real surprise is not what the poster is most likely referring to, Steele’s innocence confirmed by Sgt. Lochner over the telephone, but the utter disintegration of the relationship between Dix and Laurel. Movies are supposed to end happily (or they were in 1950, at least), failed romances conclude on good terms and the characters learn something in the process to make them better persons. Nothing even close to that happens here. Dix is only prevented from probably murdering Laurel when the phone rings. His exit is painful, pronounced and final. He walks out of Laurel’s apartment, not headed for his own home, and the audience is left with no indication of happiness, learning or redemption. It’s over between Laurel and Dix and we’re given no hint as to the future.
The original ending had Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, not being saved by the telephone and Dixon Steele murdering her. Returning to his script to type out the lines quoted here at the top of the page, Dix was then arrested by Det. Nicolai for the murder. Ray was unhappy with the conclusion that violence was the only way out for the characters and quietly set up the final scene on his own. He cleared the set except for the principal actors and claimed to have improvised what eventually became the ending in the film. It would prove to be much more powerful and sad than the scripted version. An ambiguity now hovers over Dix and Laurel. Instead of a physical prison, Dix is relegated to a lifetime of loneliness. The great, emotionally devastating ending that remains is unrelenting and unsparing.