To suggest IN A LONELY PLACE is a film about a murder is akin to calling PYSCHO a story about a shower. Sure, both feature prominently, but that’s hardly the point. There’s far more going on in this murky exploration of a paranoid, pandering Hollywood, and two damaged people struggling to find something to cling to before they’re both swept away.
Made in 1950 from Dorothy B. Hughes’ even darker 1947 novel of the same name, the film finds director Nicholas Ray at the start of his career, Humphrey Bogart near the end of his, and Gloria Grahame somewhere in the middle.
Bogart plays cynical and violent screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele. He hasn’t had a hit since before the war, and drinking seems to be his real pastime. That and trying to knock seven hells out of anyone foolish enough to provoke quick to rile sensibilities.
When we first meet Dix he’s threatening to fight a fellow driver on the road. In the next scene, he somehow contrives to insult his agent and a director, and almost batter a tactless young studio chieftain. No one seems much surprised. As one onlooker retorts, “there goes Dix again”. Clearly he has some talent, otherwise they wouldn’t be so keen to get him to adapt a trashy bestseller, but even desperate for work, Dix struggles to accept his position. He believes himself to be an artist, not just a popcorn salesman as he cruelly dubs others. But he is, and no amount of drunken threats change that.
Trying to shirk responsibilities, he takes Mildred the hat-check girl home to get her to read the novel to him. Whether he intended more from her is a moot point. He finds the melodramatic plot so depressing he sends her off to the cab stand at half past midnight. When she turns up dead, Dix spends the rest of the film alternating between proclamations of innocence and general disinterest in the whole affair. Not that anyone beyond the police care all that much about Mildred’s untimely demise.
Dix has other things to contend with anyway. On his way home with Mildred he walks past alluring new neighbor Laurel, played by Grahame. When she provides an alibi for him, the two fall in love and spend their time struggling to make an impossible relationship work. She stops him drinking and starts him working but he can never drop that violent streak, enough so that he scares many around him into believing he might have killed the girl. Finding out whether he actually did is less important than knowing he could have. Try living with a partner capable of seeing red mist to that degree.
Beautifully shot in black and white by Burnett Guffey, there’s an airy feel to the Spanish style apartments Dix and Laurel live in, and an understated use of lighting throughout. It builds a sticky, suspicious atmosphere that certainly benefits from off-screen tension as well. Bogart puts in one of his finest performances as the conflicted Dix and you don’t have to look hard to find parallels with his own life. Both Bogart and Dix are heavy drinkers, both with moments of rage. The bar in the early scene is even modelled on his favorite drinking spot.
He’s not the only one channelling personal experience into this bleak tale. Nicholas Ray, a much admired figure amongst cinephiles who is best known for directing James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, chose to cast his then wife Grahame as Laurel. She’s perfect in the role, first as the sultry failed actress some suspect of tagging onto a successful screenwriter for professional reasons, and then as the lover stuck somewhere between fleeing her violent partner and saving him. Her relationship with Ray was hardly in a better place. A complicated contract had to be struck to allow them to work together, and during filming they separated, Ray living on set. A couple of years later, after a brief reconciliation, they split again when he found her in bed with his 13-year-old son.
As if that isn’t enough, there’s another layer built into a running time barely above 90 minutes. When not tearing Dix and Laurel to pieces, or poking fun at a Hollywood system geared towards mindless entertainment, the paranoid terror of the House Un-American Activities Committee purges seep in. Filmed only a couple of years after the tineseltown witch hunts, feelings of persecution and the terror of constant surveillance ring out clearly. Dix believes himself unfairly victimised by the police, eager to hang him for past indiscretions. He can’t shake the feeling that he’s being watched at all times, and he’s not entirely wrong. It makes for a bleak, cynical noir far deeper than other gun and run equivalents of the time.
When the ending does arrive, it brings with it ambiguity. A far starker finale had been filmed, but Ray felt compelled to change it to something less clear-cut. He was right to do so. This is no place for clear answers. IN A LONELY PLACE will take you into the depths, but it’s one lonely place worth visiting.