It is not impossible to believe that before Nicolas Ray there was never an American director who better understood the unbearable fragility of being human. From his debut film, 1949’s film noir They Live by Night, Ray approached the most masculine of genres and infused it with an intense embrace for his protagonists who were always trying to stay one step ahead of their existentially fatal choices. From Jesus Christ to James Dean, Ray always found a poignant humanity on the script’s page and a way to allow his actors to bare their souls in front of the camera’s gaze.
Ray would always proclaim that the most personal film he ever made was 1950’s In a Lonely Place, the second film Ray made under Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Pictures Production banner (their first was 1949’s rather pedantic Knock on Any Door). The story which Ray and Bogart found themselves drawn to was based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, originally featuring a World War II veteran who impersonates others’ identities while sating his appetite for brutal murders. Possibly forced by the Production Code to tone down the violence, but probably more influenced by Ray’s natural instinct to trace his myriad flaws in his alter-egos, the focus of film’s screenplay was shifted to the story of Dixon “Dix” Steele (Bogart), a down-trodden Los Angeles screenwriter whose violent and self-loathing impulses conflict with his ability to find work, making him the prime suspect in the murder case of a girl he barely knew.
Like Ray’s feature debut, They Live by Night, the true heart of this film noir lies not in the hardboiled dialogue nor the mystery of who killed Mildred Atkinson – James M. Palmer once wrote that “Anyone viewing In a Lonely Place solely as a murder mystery will surely be disappointed” (1) – but in its wretchedly real depiction of love in all its complicated beauty. The fraught relationship at the centre of the film is between Dix and his neighbour, weary actress Laurel Gray (played by a headstrong Gloria Grahame, Ray’s real-life wife). First seen from afar – both emotionally and physically – she comes closer to Dix when she provides him with a much-needed alibi, assists him to write his screenplay, and finally the grants love he so badly desires and eagerly reciprocates, tenderly, tragically, and truly.
But as Dixon Steele would probably understand, dramatic structure dictates that an obstacle must test their love in order to prove its strength. The film’s greatest gift is an understanding of the maturity of its characters and its audience – for the fault, dear reader, lies not in the stars but in the couple’s hearts. Their relationship is forced to contain not only their sincere love for each other, but also the magnitude of their insecurities, their inability to communicate normally, and the stress of the ongoing murder investigation – all of which cause Dix’s violent streak to resurface and force Laurel to re-examine the man she loves before his violence turns upon her and escalates towards the unthinkable. Even in the film’s most romantic moments, every frame is laced with Dix’s possessiveness over Laurel. The film’s tragedy lies in Dix’s acute knowledge of his own imperfections, always drawn from insecurity rather than malice. When he does indeed spiral towards self-destruction, the gravity of his guilt – as he takes a moment to compose himself – is beautifully echoed by Diego Rivera’s painting, The Flower Carrier, positioned on the wall.
When Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall was unable to play Laurel because of contractual difficulties with her studio, Ray marshalled the talents of his own spouse Grahame in a casting move that highlights the very “homemade” nature of this production. Saving star couple Bogart and Bacall a potential examination of whatever cracks they may have had in their seemingly perfect union, the film can instead be viewed as a final farewell poem to the turbulent “shotgun” marriage of Ray and Grahame, who quietly separated during filming and divorced shortly after. Indeed, the film’s most famous lines (“I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me”) have become a poignant ode to the temporary nature of all relationships. Channelling through Dix, Ray conveys an examination of his own temper, his fear of hurting his wife, and his own sad realisation that the end of their relationship would ultimately be for the best.
If Dix remains one of Ray’s many alter-egos, it’s also very possible that the director’s good friend Bogart found his own personal traits and demons in this, his deepest role (it even appropriates his habit of ordering ham and eggs). Dix provided Bogart with a vehicle to rage against the machine that had undervalued and underpaid him time and again, as well as the “popcorn salesmen” more interested in the speedy earning of profit than the laboured journey of art. Louise Brooks once observed that of all the roles Bogart played, it was indeed Dixon Steele that reminded her the most of the relatively unknown actor she knew during the 1930s:
In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character’s, the screenwriter’s, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart. (2)
If Bogart managed to evade Dix’s despair due to his new freelance status and happy marriage, the darkness crowding his character remains so deep that it could have supplied enough material for a sequel (which sadly never materialised). As Ray himself once said, “At the ending of that film, you do not know whether the man is going to go out, get drunk, have an accident in his car or whether he is going to go to a psychiatrist for help. And that’s the way it should be.” (3) As Laurel and Dix face an uncertain future, Ray’s final question to his audience would have made Sartre proud: Is a man doomed to face the eternal return of his past mistakes, or does he have the power to rewrite himself as a new character?
In a Lonely Place (1950 USA 94 mins)
Prod Co: Columbia Pictures/Santana Pictures Production Prod: Robert Lord Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: Andrew Solt, from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes Phot: Burnett Guffey Ed: Viola Lawrence Art Dir: Robert Peterson Mus: George Antheil
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Robert Warwick, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell