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The Uneasy Allegiances of Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’

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At the beginning of David Helpern’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself, the 1975 documentary included on the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray of In a Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray stresses the empathetic worth of his characters and of a sympathetic cinema in general. He notes, “Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are, that you would make the same mistakes that he would make, you can have no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act. Because then you can say, ‘Hell, I could have done that too.'” Of course, this also works the other way around: when a character with whom one has invested their time and allegiances commits an unheroic act, one is left to question their own potential for immoral or dubious behavior. If you can’t trust the apparent hero, who can you trust?

This brings us to In a Lonely Place, Ray’s 1950 film noir, a moody entry in the director’s continuing examination of confrontational individuals who exhibit behavior at odds with society at large and who make relationships difficult for even those who care for them, including the audience. Shunning any sense of admirable star idealism, Humphrey Bogart plays screenwriter Dixon Steele with an abrasive gusto. Suspected of strangling the hatcheck girl he brought home one evening — to summarize a novel he is set to adapt, not for any assumed unsavory purpose — Dix, in the autobiographical Ray tradition, remains true to himself even to his own detriment. When informally accused of the murder, he stubbornly refuses to change his ways, staying belligerent through it all and reveling in his self-imposed outsider status.

Under the opening credits of In a Lonely Place, Bogart’s eyes bounce back at the screen through the rearview mirror of his car, his solitary gaze a troubling combination of anxiety and passivity. Like Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Dix is surrounded by many but is destined to be alone. He has his loyal supporters, such as his agent, Mel (Art Smith), or the washed-up drunken actor Charlie (Robert Warwick), but as others try to warm up to this cold man, Dix cynically observes, judges and exhibits a concentrated social ineptness. Also like Robert De Niro’s disturbed cabbie, Dix scarcely hides his discontent. There are few occasions — and even fewer people — that do not incite an expression of discomfort and disapproval from Dix, his scornful glances and obviously weary exasperation vehemently conveyed by a haggard Bogart.

Based on a story by Dorothy B. Hughes (which paints a murderously different portrait of the maniacal Dix) and with a screenplay by Andrew Solt, who put across a less acerbic view of Hollywood than Ray ultimately imbued in the film, In a Lonely Place was the fourth feature Bogart produced through his own production company, Santana Productions (the first was 1949’s Knock on Any Door, also directed by Ray). As much as his character plays against a laudable heroic type — even against an average Bogart type, which often resisted cozy notions of heroism to begin with — the Hollywood icon clearly saw the value in the property. As Imogen Sara Smith notes in an essay accompanying the Criterion disc, “Bogart’s performance is both a rebuke to the myth of the cool, unflappable hero — a myth that he, more than anyone else, still embodies — and a riskily honest commentary on his real-life penchant for booze-fueled brawls.”

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Despite any past successes, Dix is ambivalent about his currently fledgling career. When an autograph seeker is told not to bother asking for his signature, that the unknown Dix is a nobody, Dix concurs. At the same time, he thinks enough of his status, or at least the prominence of his name, to boldly add an exclamation point at the end of his signature anyway. When he is offered the adaptation of an epic novel, he cares little for the source, hence the enlisting of Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) to simply recount the story, which she has actually read. So while on one hand Dix’s pride will not allow him to work on something he doesn’t like, on the other, he needs the money. (It is a conundrum faced more than once by Ray himself.) The whole arrangement, then, which ultimately leads to devastation affecting at least four characters, is born from carelessness, apathy and contradiction.

Hauled away for questioning at 5 a.m., Dix is not so much angry as he is resiliently contentious in the face of the homicidal accusation. Evidence suggests he was indeed asleep and he has the alibi from neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Yet rather than sitting back and allowing due diligence to do its job, he quips nonstop and takes great joy in a delightfully antagonistic tête-à-tête. The captain chides Dix for his petulance and his “feeble jokes,” and true enough, he is rather belligerent and unaffected. But as Dix mockingly notes, lack of emotion is not grounds for arrest. He is genuine to a fault, and he knows exactly what kind of man he is (“I didn’t say I was a gentleman,” he corrects the police captain when asked why he didn’t call for a cab for Mildred), yet his inscrutable true feelings continually shed doubt on, if not his innocence, at least his degree of empathy, doing little to help his case and to ease our minds.

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But if you are going to go along with Ray and his protagonists, you have to go all the way, and you have to understand and accept that this is who they are. Dix, for example, has been like this since World War II, which Army-buddy and now investigating detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) can attest to. With his dual function of friend and officer of the law, unlike Dix, Brub does elicit instant sympathy. It isn’t easy to be the friend of someone like Dix. At dinner with Brub and his wife, Dix crafts a hypothetical homicide scenario with great relish. As light fades everywhere except on his eyes (Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is but one stand-out technical feature of In a Lonely Place), Dix positions himself as director of the scene and guides the action of the murderous driver. He gives out orders with intense vigor, suggesting the methods of Mildred’s demise. “You’ve given this a lot of thought, haven’t you?” asks Brub’s leery wife.

Dix has a notorious temper and plainly suffers under the weight of his repressed angst. Though he can find an outlet for his violence in his work (killing a lot of people in his stories, as he comments), his combustible personality is perpetually primed to explode and his ensuing rage is terrifyingly probable. Dix argues that what he faces in the accusatory series of events could have happened to anyone, but as Mel contends, “somehow it always happens to you.” A folder full of newspaper clippings and police reports testify to his long history of violence. The captain points to a past full of “fights, scandals, destruction,” the hallmarks of an “erratic violent man.” When an argument breaks out early in the film, and Dix goes in swinging, another customer declares, “There goes Dix again.” And on the home front, during Mildred’s summarization, she yells out in character and Dix quickly quiets her, the suggestion being her shrieking may result in a neighborly response he is not altogether unfamiliar with. Between this instinctive reaction and his unashamed spying on Laurel, something about this man, and this fatal evening, sits uneasy. Even the stalwart Mel has some doubts about Dix’s innocence and wants verification; not that he would leave his client, he just wants to know how best to prepare for the damage control. Most troubling of all is Laurel’s gradual realization that this man she has defended and fallen in love with may not be who he seems. Early on, as she tidies his apartment and he productively resumes his writing, the threat of lurking fierceness is still ever-present. Shot from a low angle, Dix stands above Laurel with his hands on her face and neck — even his embrace appears violent. Or maybe that perception simply expresses our own mounting doubts?

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Nevertheless, though these are strange grounds for romance to bloom, and bloom it does. Dix finds a redemption of sorts in Laurel, a sense of stability. Yet the two of them are not above the same issues many Ray couples face, even if they are more mature. As Geoff Andrew states, they are still “prone to the same romantic impulses and dreams and to many of the same confusions as their younger counterparts.” Their flirtation is instant and effusive, and there is a mutual acceptance of past transgressions (Laurel has her own secrets, specifically her avoidance of a real estate mogul ex), but when Dix gets upset with her one evening, he storms off and drives erratically into the car of a UCLA football player, as a shocked Laurel bears witness to him nearly beating the student to death. She, like the viewer, starts to earnestly question Dix’s capacity for murder after all. From this point on, as if in a Hitchcock thriller, just the way Dix holds a grapefruit knife connotes a deadly potential. Everything reaches a thrilling crescendo when Laurel reticently plans to break their engagement. Dix lashes out at a pathetically shaken Mel and viewers are left to sincerely worry for Laurel’s safety. Though all conventional signs may point to a fatal finale, Ray chose not to follow the initial ending of the film, opting for a more ambiguous conclusion that was apparently improvised on set. Arguing that, “Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way, they don’t have to end in violence,” Ray leaves the state of Dix and Laurel — separately and together — up to interpretation. “Let the audience make up its own mind what’s going to happen to Bogie when he goes outside the apartment.” Ray never lets us off the hook throughout In a Lonely Place. Why should he at the end?

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY

Vulnerable, sensitive, aggressive, assertive: these are the words Ray acquaintance John Houseman uses to describe his filmmaker friend, and these are all traits that define Dixon Steele, a quintessential Ray protagonist through whom the director explores a troubled personality motivated by unceasing insolence. In a Lonely Place also allows for Ray to examine the paranoia of one who lives at a purposeful distance. Like Ray himself during times of difficulty, Dix adheres to a reticent detachment, implicitly recognizing the danger of placing trust in someone. In this case, that danger is in the relationship between he and Laurel, which reflects Ray’s own tumultuous marriage to Grahame at the time. In a Lonely Place was a turning point in Grahame’s career, and for good reason. Her performance, especially as the film nears its anxious end, runs the gamut of emotions, from vulnerability, to horror, to compassion. Ray first directed Grahame in A Woman’s Secret (1949), his second film, and their life afterward would be marred by considerable strain, including his penchant for drink, his reckless behavior and his negligent parenting. Though there was a fictitious indication of comparable tumult on the screen, their actual separation during production of In a Lonely Place was kept a secret (Ray was for a time basically living on set, telling everyone he was working late and didn’t want to drive to their Malibu home every night).

As his fifth feature film in three years, In a Lonely Place finds Nicholas Ray still the relative newcomer to the Hollywood studio scene, yet he is already displaying subversive evidence of instilling in his work representative preoccupations. These issues are not explicitly present in every Ray film — like many a renegade director of his generation, he had to pay his dues with less personal fare — but such was the generally consistent nature of his vision that most every movie he ever made could have taken the title of Helpern’s career-encompassing documentary, which was itself derived from the words uttered by Sterling Hayden’s titular character in Ray’s masterful Johnny Guitar (1954). It should come as no surprise, then, that within the already morally murky territory of noir, Ray is right at home in a milieu of doubt, deceit, and internal, self-induced damnation. The result, In a Lonely Place, a “very personal film” as Ray himself puts it, is also one of his very best.

Jeremy Carr (@Jeremyrcarr) is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, PopOptiq, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image. Current projects include Senses of Cinema Great Director profiles on John Cassavetes and Elia Kazan, and a book on Stanley Kubrick.

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