Only an actor with the talent, charisma, authenticity and magnetism of Humphrey Bogart could play a character by the name of Dix Steele with the kind of conviction that slowly morphs our inevitable giggles to terror and sadness. It goes without saying that Bogey is an undisputed cinematic legend, but what continues to strike me about his work is the raw humanism that he displays. There’s a darkness and danger that seems to permeate his being in every role. That razor’s edge tone especially seems to stand out in an era of Hollywood’s Golden Age that had a penchant for stock, sympathetic, archetypal characters and stories that either feigned tragedy or provided light, comic escapism. Bogart is always a shot of existential angst into an era that seemed to be going through a kind of dramatic Enlightenment. In a Lonely Place isn’t as well known in the Bogey canon as films like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the indomitable Casablanca, but it may stand as the ultimate Bogey film and performance because no film seems to have so thoroughly captured the man himself (Louise Brooks said as much in her essay “Humphrey and Bogey”).
But Bogart is hardly alone in making In a Lonely Place a masterpiece. Shot during 1950, it joins films such as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve from the same year that take a cynical form of self-examination of Hollywood, the filmmaking process and those who inhabit the world. But only a director like Nicholas Ray with his affection for outsiders could have taken the traditional romance, mystery-thriller noir and turned it into an examination of trust, loneliness, pain and the volatility of the creative spirit. In a Lonely Place is certainly a piece of postmodern, metafictional deconstruction, but at heart it’s an intimate character portrait that eschews the frequent lightness of All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, by comparison, In a Lonely Place feels much more malevolent than either, frequently reaching almost Shakespearean heights of tragedy in which Bogart plays up the ambiguity between hero, anti-hero and villain.
After briefly establishing Bogart’s Dix Steele’s explosive personality, the film begins with a scene that feels like a dramatic counterpart to the one that opens Sullivan’s Travels; both feature a cinematic artist (Dix a screenwriter, Sullivan a director) battling with the commercialism of Hollywood which wants them to churn out sure-fire hits instead of artistically substantial material. But while Sturges’ masterpiece is bursting at the seams with its crackling, witty dialogue and comedy, Ray’s film keeps itself muted while concealing its true identity. Dix ends up inviting a hotel girl home to tell him about the book that she’s read for which he’s supposed to write a screenplay. She agrees, but Dix finds himself in trouble when he’s informed by the police the next day she’s been murdered. This is where Gloria Grahame’s Laurel Gray joins the film by clearing Dix’s name since she saw him in his apartment (from her adjacent room) after the girl had left.
It seems unfair to play up Bogart’s (and director Ray’s) greatness in the film and not mention Gloria Grahame. The role was originally meant to go to either Lauren Bacall (the obvious choice) or perhaps Ginger Rogers. It was Nicholas Ray who truly believed Grahame, his wife at the time, was perfect for the part, and indeed she is. Her role isn’t as flashy as Bogart’s, but she gets to provide the film’s stability and backbone, and her natural wit and intelligence along with natural attractiveness creates a character that’s smart and beautiful without being untouchable. Her Laurel and Bogart’s Dix are a wonderful study in opposite methods of characterizations; with Bogey it’s about establishing the volatility of a character, which allows for dramatic eruptions when needed. With Grahame, it’s about establishing her core character and then observing how she changes throughout the events that transpire.
Immediately when the two meet at the police station Dix is infatuated with her, especially after she reveals she was watching him “because he had an interesting face,” and the two soon begin a love affair. If there’s one aspect of the film I could point to for being the epitome of how something should be executed in the cinema, it’s in the way that Ray and his screenwriter, Andrew Stolt, establish the mutual attraction of the leads. It only takes a few select close-ups and a supremely nuanced performance from two fine actors to make the audience intuitively understand why these characters become so intertwined. One thing that drives me nuts about so much modern romance is that I never believe that the characters are really attracted to each other, and without that believability all of the romance, and all of the danger produced by an obsessive romance, is lost before it’s begun.
Dix and Laurel’s relationship proves a miracle for Dix, who begins turning out page after page of the screenplay he was hired to work on. This pleases Dix’s agent, Mel Lippman—played by Art Smith in a light character role that adds a bit of refreshing levity to an otherwise dour film—who looks forward to them getting married. But when Laurel starts getting glimpses at Dix’s violent temperament, which can be set off by the slightest thing, she’s forced to reassess her love for him and perhaps question whether or not he actually did commit the murder. It’s truly at this point that the believability of Dix and Laurel’s love becomes crucial, because when the film starts unraveling we have to understand why Laurel doesn’t simply leave immediately. Instead, Ray has infused the disintegration of the relationship with a palpable sadness where the death of their love takes on the tone of an elegiac dirge. There’s truly fewer things sadder than the realization that two lonely people who have found happiness through each other aren’t destined to maintain that love forever.
The reason why the film’s despondency never crosses into maudlin melodrama is because Ray adds a layer of possible violence to the film. In fact, there are very few examples from Hollywood’s Golden Age I can think of in which love, lust, loneliness and danger were mixed so explosively. In a Lonely Place feels like the personification of those trucks carrying nitroglycerin in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear; with a single wrong move these characters could pass from alive to dead. If you throw into the mix that the film is unusually sexy for its time the mixture becomes all the more potent. When Dix first kisses Laurel we can feel the obsessive possessiveness, but as the film progresses Laurel seems to find herself in various states of undress, whether it’s alone in Dix’s bed or receiving a massage from her (likely lesbian) masseuse. While it’s never explicit, the scene in which Dix has his friend, the policeman Brub (Frank Lovejoy), act out the likely murder of the hotel girl with his wife, the manic ecstasy in Bogart’s face when describing it takes on an almost erotic asphyxiation quality.
This scene proves to be a crucial one in the film as it not only epitomizes the instability of Dix’s character, but it also relates back to the film’s metafictional commentary on filmmaking and the difficulty of being an artist in a commercial system. For this brief moment, Dix the screenwriter becomes Dix the director, instructing the pair what to do. Here Ray’s lighting takes on a spotlight quality, highlighting the perverse excitement on Bogart’s face. After this point we truly believe that his character is capable of editing, which gives scenes such as him rushing off in his car with Laurel (after discovering that she had gone back to talk to the police investigator) a tempestuous dramatic intensity. When Ray manages to reduce this down to his two leads is when the film reaches its boiling point; by the end, Ray has managed to shift our sympathies to Laurel (no small feat when you have Bogart playing opposite) and the peril in which she finds herself.
But for all of the film’s drama—which frequently borders on the kind of horror that only Bogart’s villains could induce—it’s truly the poignancy that the duo of Bogart and Ray conjure that is the most lasting. It becomes evident near film’s close that the relationship must end in either tragic death or blissful marriage. Considering the increasing dissolution of the romance it seems inevitable that Ray will opt for the tragic, but the miracle is that he does find a middle road—one that is arguably more devastating than the originally scripted death. Without giving it away, I’ll simply say that In a Lonely Place may have the bleakest ending in film history, and it’s amazing that Ray has done this without ending with a death. But the mark of a great artist is the ability to better tradition, and in this film Ray has found something worse than death, and that’s life with no hope for love or salvation.