Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is the grayest, most morally ambiguous of film noirs—and arguably the most self-reflexive. Released in 1950, two and a half years after the House Un-American Activities Committee put Hollywood on the stand, and a few months ahead of Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place similarly represents the movie industry as a crime scene, with a troubled screenwriter as its conflicted protagonist.
Produced by its star, Humphrey Bogart, the film allows Hollywood’s then highest-paid actor ample opportunity to vent. Bogie’s Dix Steele is a supposedly brilliant, obviously embittered writer whose career has foundered not as a result of his left-wing politics, but because of his heavy drinking, bad attitude, and terrible temper. The opening scene—set in a fashionable Beverly Hills boîte modeled after Bogie’s lunchtime clubhouse, Romanoff’s—allows Dix to mock his agent, insult a successful director (“You’re a popcorn salesman”), and physically assault the son of a studio head (“You give nepotism a bad name”). Rather than read the inane bestseller he’s been given to adapt, he inveigles the simpleminded hatcheck girl—the embodiment of Hollywood’s imagined audience—to just tell him the story.
In the 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, Dix murders the woman, along with a few others; in the movie, which was adapted by Andrew Solt and revised during the shoot by Bogart and Ray, the tormented writer is not a psychopathic killer but an angst-ridden depressive who happens to have a history of violence, living under police surveillance in a paranoid Hollywood, where rumors rule and mistrust is endemic. In its evocation of the criminal mind, Hughes’s novel was compared by some critics to Crime and Punishment when it was first published; in its more free-floating anguish, Ray’s movie has intimations of another well-received book, published in the U.S. a year later: Camus’s The Stranger.
If Dix’s existential alienation is palpable, the film itself verges on psychodrama. Dix had traits in common with the volatile, hard-drinking Bogart, a proud man who’d been publicly humiliated after the Congressional hearings—attacked by the press for initially defending the Hollywood 10 and compelled to publish an admission that he had been a Communist dupe. For Ray, Bogart was “much more than an actor.” He was a symbol, “the very image of our condition [whose] face was a living reproach.” An ex-Communist who was never persecuted, and must have wondered why, Ray saw himself in Dix as well. He cast his soon-to-be-estranged wife, Gloria Grahame, in the role that might naturally have gone to (and even seems written for) Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall. Ray used his own first Hollywood apartment as the tormented writer’s lair and, after splitting with Grahame, began living on the set.
Although Bogart gives an indelible performance, Grahame steals the movie as the would-be starlet next door, who briefly pulls Dix together. Things pick up after a slow start—burdened by exposition as well as the novel Dix is supposedly adapting—the moment Grahame’s Laurel Gray sashays into the police station to provide Dix’s alibi. (It also takes a while for the action to catch up to George Antheil’s insistent score.) Acting with Bogart in To Have and Have Not and other movies, Bacall specialized in matching, if not topping, his trademark insolence—a stunt that inevitably came across as callow. Far more complex, Grahame gives the impression of having been wounded in ways Bogart cannot even begin to fathom—if he even cared to try. She’s a ladylike floozy, sultry yet diffident, emotionally calloused but acutely sensitive, at once incredibly cool and undeniably hot.
Building in intensity, In a Lonely Place is the story of a writer who tries to change his (if not the) world and is ultimately betrayed by his own nature. In one prophetic bit of business, Dix unfairly attacks his loyal agent, played by Art Smith, a former member of the Group Theater who would be professionally destroyed several years later when he was named as a Communist by his erstwhile comrade (and Ray’s sometime mentor) Elia Kazan.
Hollywood atmosphere, existential malaise, and political subtext combine to inform a sensational love story, played on the edge of the void and strong enough to sustain one of the most shamelessly romantic lines in any movie: “I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.” The line occurs twice, spoken at different points in the drama by each of the lovers, just to make sure that we never forget it.
In a Lonely Place is showing in an excellent new print for a week’s run at Film Forum. As the director’s most personal Hollywood movie, if only a moderate commercial hit, it makes an apt prelude to a two-week 14-film Ray retro.
Born in Galesville, Wisconsin, in 1911, Ray was one of the gifted genre directors who got their start during or just after World War II, once Citizen Kane had, as Andrew Sarris put it, “infected American cinema with the virus of artistic ambition.” Ray’s cohorts include Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Don Siegel, as well as the exiled Joseph Losey and blacklisted Abraham Polonsky. In a sense, these infected were an unrecognized Hollywood new wave. All were championed during the ’50s by the young critics (and future directors) at Cahiers du cinéma; none more so than Ray, whose position as a nouvelle vague hero derives from his stylistically bold, sometimes iconoclastic, approach to genre and, even more crucially, his heedless romanticism. The American cinephiles of the ’60s were fascinated by Ray’s evident interest in countercultures—variously exploring criminal, rodeo, Gypsy, Eskimo, and adolescent demimondes.
Nothing that Ray made during his relatively brief Hollywood career is without interest, but, in addition to In a Lonely Place, there are four I’d consider canonical: They Live by Night (shot in 1947 but not released until 1949) is a sensational debut—a technically accomplished, almost unbearably poignant version of the doomed outlaw couple story. Johnny Guitar (1954) more than justifies its cult reputation as an unclassifiably nutty Western. Ray’s greatest hit, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), has overshadowed his oeuvre as the movie that posthumously introduced James Dean’s über-teenager; its follow-up, Bigger Than Life (1956)—a title which, like In a Lonely Place, could fit any number of Ray films—is scarcely less operatic and equally anticipatory in its vision of druggy megalomania.