One of the most soulful films noir, and surely a very personal film from Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place is about the difficulty of holding a precious relationship together under external pressure and internal suspicion. Humphrey Bogart plays an emotionally volatile writer in a relaxed and unforced way that reveals more of the actor than we usually see: a cantankerous and stubborn man capable of great kindness, but who overreacts violently to boors and sensed disloyalty. Gloria Grahame is radiant as the cool but faithful neighbor who becomes his temporary muse, only to see her love ruined by fear and distrust. The whole enterprise is atypical of 1950 Hollywood product, especially Bogart's other formulaic productions for Columbia. Even in the quirky realm of film noir, this low-key romantic tragedy stands out for its quality and lack of commercial compromise.
I died when you left me,
I lived a few weeks while you loved me.
Nicholas Ray was adept at putting together fascinating character studies with a social basis. His most famous is of course Rebel Without a Cause, but his real achievements are the smaller movies with bold themes - Bigger than Life, The Lusty Men, They Live by Night, On Dangerous Ground, Bitter Victory. Even awkard pictures like Wind Across the Everglades tend toward the unique, interesting end of filmmaking. A dull Nick Ray film is a rarity.
In a Lonely Place expresses passions - what really goes on between a man and a woman - that just weren't being shown in other films of the time. Dix Steele and Laurel Gray are complicated people who don't react with perfect character consistency. Impulsive Laurel stretches the truth at a police questioning, providing Dix with an alibi based on her sense that he's no killer. She's in search of a strong, creative man who can love her very deeply. The chemistry they create together puts them both in traditional domestic roles, into 'a place' where they seem deeply happy.2 But Laurel's no Joan of Arc: the relentless suspicion of the police, and the jealous advice of her masseuse wear down her resistance to doubt. Their true love is a fragile miracle, not a storybook tower of strength.
Dixon Steele is one of Bogart's most complicated characters. He's a decent man with an artistic temperament and a contrary habit of supressing his feelings beneath a sometimes-unstable surface. He's unpatronizingly cordial to the slightly dense hat-check girl, whose fate seems as unjust as that of the then-sizzling Black Dahlia murder case. Dix likes to behave as though the police investigation doesn't affect him, and enjoys riling the cops with his lack of emotion and 'I'm more sophisticated than you are' put-downs. But the murder definitely does disturb the secret man inside, the one Dix himself does not know. Without his being aware, the crisis brings out his frustrated, violent nature.
Steele is far from perfect, and needs a nurturing, creative existence to counter his essential isolation and proclivity for violence. He doesn't like the world much, as he shows by his willingness to brawl when provoked. His motto might be, 'I'm a Stranger Here Myself', Nicholas Ray's recurring personal motto.
Dix is also a romantic who appreciates Laurel and openly declares his love for her in no uncertain terms. He's crazy about her, and there's a period where they seem to be a match made in heaven. But the investigation he pretends to slough off affects him in other ways, bringing out resentment and paranoia. Theirs could have been a timeless love, but for bad timing and impossible pressures.(spoiler)
Refreshingly, the book adaptation by Edmund H. North (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Andrew Solt doesn't use the murder investigation to represent the McCarthy witch hunts. Dix Steele is a suspect because of chance and the fact that he does indeed invite suspicion. His army buddy Brub Nicolai can't keep his official and personal roles apart, and social invitations become opportunities to probe Dix's possible guilt. "He's just an exciting guy", is Brub's defense of Dix's enthusiastic replay of his version of the murder, complete with breathless narration.1 According to the short docu on the disc, the original ending was to have Dix turn out to be guilty, a turn of events that would have robbed the character's violent streak of its 'normality' - he'd just be another psycho killer, repeating the final twist of Curtis Bernhardt's earlier, rather fumbled Bogie vehicle, Conflict. (spoiler)
What we get for a twist at the conclusion, is a revelation. Relationships are delicate animals - they can be killed by the wrong words, the wrong actions. Dix and Laurel are madly in love with one another, but the trust that demand is destroyed when her terror and his rage go over the edge. It doesn't matter that he's innocent, or that they are both in intense remorse over what happened. It can't be taken back, and the romance is finished. Both will have to go back to their personal 'lonely places.'
Ray doesn't overwhelm the picture with expressionistic touches. Burnett Guffey provides the hint of a Detour -like eyelight when Bogart goes into his excited description of the murder (which occurred, the scene's dialogue goes, in 'a lonely place'). There's a killer off-kilter composition in one shot showing Bogie and Gloria looking over their shoulders while seated at a bar, that Fritz Lang seems to have borrowed for Gloria and Lee Marvin in The Big Heat. Most of the film plays out in the romantic courtyard of some faux-Spanish apartments copied from Ray's first Hollywood residence on Harper Avenue. There's enough location shooting to evoke the hazy dawns in Beverly Hills, with the characteristic police station a recurring location. In a Lonely Place has a nice Hollywood ambience, with Dix's regular pals (a buffoonish silent actor, a director (Morris Ankrum) and Dix's agent (Art Smith)) hanging out at Steven Geray's watering hole. It's the kind of place that Dix busts up from time to time, when he goes over the edge.
Perhaps the most sensitive scene in the picture is Dix's moment in the men's room with his agent Mel, after striking him. The ever-submissive Mel has reached the limit of his patience, and as part of his apology, Dix stands guiltily before him, exuding atonement and respect. It's very touching and more delicate than a similar scenes in The Big Knife.
Columbia's DVD of In a Lonely Place does justice to this very special noir. The film restoration is commemorated in a short subject with Columbia restoration VP Grover Crisp, showing the repair of frames that have been torn in the film for decades. The overall polish job is a fine one, with the breathless fadeout hitting just the right note of surprise- without the usual reel-end damage to give it away. The sound has also been given a wonderful scrubbing, as demonstrated on the featurette, making songstress Hadda Brooks' vocal at the piano bar something for Bogie and Gloria to cuddle over.
Another short subject uses director Curtis Hanson to tell the story of Ray's film from the actual Harper Avenue courtyard that inspired the film set. It's a bit long on clips from the film, and a deadly spoiler for anyone unfamiliar with the picture, but it gets the job done. Writer Andrew Solt makes an appearance as well. Not bad for a docu on a picture without a surviving star or director. The doc doesn't dwell on the fiery relationship between Ray and his once-wife Grahame; you'll have to run to the library for the lowdown on that. Grahame later married Ray's son, resulting in some very strange familial relationships ... 'Hey, I'm my own uncle.'
The disc cover art is so handsome, I'm setting it atop my monitor until something better comes along.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
In a Lonely Place rates:
1. Actor Frank Lovejoy became so strongly associated with Red-Baiting
Warner pictures like I Was A Communist for the F.B.I., that we forget that in 1950 he was associated
with several movies by left-wing talent who were subsequently blacklisted - Carl Foreman, Cy
Endfield. The eerily
subversive Try and Get Me! casts him as an unemployed working man who falls into a spiral of
reckless crime and a botched kidnapping, all to give his family the simple security denied him in
an America portrayed as harsh and heartless. From my reading, it looks like Nick Ray was spared
the blacklist by luck, and a positive association with RKO chief Howard Hughes. Some of Lovejoy's
mannerisms in In a Lonely Place take on an entirely different feeling, after the
unforgettable Try and Get Me!.
2. Their relationship might not make some modern viewers happy, as Laurel
immediately becomes Dix's unpaid typist, housemaid, cook and personal assistant.