In a Lonely Place May 1, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Gloria Grahame , trackback
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.
Ray’s best and most characteristic film (edging out Johnny Guitar by a small margin) begins with Bogart as Dixon Steele driving through the Los Angeles area, his reflection captured in the car’s rearview mirror. When he comes to a stop, a female passenger of another car begins talking to him about a movie he had written, but he doesn’t recognize her, the film’s leading actress, because he’s never seen the filmed version of what he wrote. Steele is ready to erupt after the actress’s male companion chides him for harassing his lady even though she had begun the conversation, but the car drives away. We soon learn Steele is a screenwriter of dwindling commercial success and attempting to retain his creative integrity. His new project is to adapt a bestseller, one that’s destined to become an epic - “a picture that’s real long and has lots of things going on,” according to Mildred Atkinson, the ill-fated hat-check girl who’s read the book. Since Dix doesn’t seem too interested in reading his source material, he persuades the girl to relay the story at his apartment. Mildred initially balks because she has a date, but the lure of celebrity is overwhelming and she relents.
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.
The burgeoning love story between these two lost souls is cinema of the highest level. Bogart somehow abandons any lingering artifacts of Sam Spade, Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. He is Dixon Steele, one of the essential characters in film history. I’m always impressed by Bogart’s performance each time I see it. The frighteningly real and dangerous portrait of a man constantly on the brink of unbridled violence was a daring choice for Bogart at this stage of his career. It came not long after he left Warner Bros. and formed his own production company, Santana, which produced In a Lonely Place and the Ray-directed Knock on Any Door. Bogart deserves credit for taking risky, unsympathetic roles which often yielded his best performances like Dixon Steele, Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the demented Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.
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.
It’s not the plot, though, that makes In a Lonely Place so hypnotically mesmerizing. The characters Ray and screenwriter Andrew Solt give us are terrifically flawed individuals doomed by their own fates. Steele is controlling, paranoid and unabashedly vicious, but Grahame’s character somehow tames him for a brief period. As the line that Dix wants to work into his screenplay goes, quoted here at the beginning, Laurel has given him new reason to live and work and blossom. His creativity peaks when she enters his life, even if it’s while working on a script he’s not incredibly proud of writing. She’s the best thing to ever happen to him and he likewise becomes a source for her happiness during their few weeks together. The stars only briefly align though, and he manages to sabotage their relationship through his savage violence while driving home on a road similar to the one where Mildred Atkinson was murdered. Suddenly, Laurel is no longer sure if Dix is innocent and it becomes clear that he was capable of the crime regardless of whether he actually did it.
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.
Early on, Dix accuses studio men of being “popcorn salesmen,” a brilliantly denigrating truism. Even by 1950 (or 1949, when the film was shot), it’s reasonable to assume that Nicholas Ray didn’t have too fond of an opinion of Hollywood. This was only his fifth film, but the director had already suffered through RKO forcing him to make A Woman’s Secret, a forgettable melodrama that has hardly any of Ray’s fingerprints. He was then eager to work with Bogart and Columbia on Knock on Any Door and the partnership flourished with In a Lonely Place. Given his political persuasion, there’s also little doubt that Ray was very much against the burgeoning Hollywood witch hunt at the time. (Art Smith, who played Steele’s loyal agent Mel Lippman, would soon be blacklisted as one of the names given by his former Group Theatre collaborator Elia Kazan.) Surely it was more than coincidence that Ray modeled the apartment complex where Dix and Laurel live after his own first home in 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.
Though Ray is uncredited with the screenplay, and the opening titles list Edmund H. North for the adaptation despite his questionable involvement in the final effort, his stamp is all over the film. The book by Dorothy B. Hughes (who also wrote the source novel for Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse) shows Dixon Steele as a serial killer who repeatedly murders and rapes women in a psychosexual rampage. The first-person narrative of the novel differs significantly from Andrew Solt’s screenplay. In Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Ray’s personal script notes illustrate his substantial contribution to the finished film and make clear that the director’s impact was critical in turning the writing of Hughes and Solt into what would become the archetypal Nicholas Ray movie.
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.