Jim Hilton reviews Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’ in the wake of its re-release as part of the BFI’s Gloria Grahame retrospective
Over 60 years on, Nicholas Ray’s 1950 Hollywood-noir classic, In a Lonely Place, still packs a punch and indeed feels darkly prescient in this year of movie-industry scandal and revelation. Its story of guilt and of love torn apart by suspicion is compellingly brought home by Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, who are both on stellar form. Dix Steele (yes, really) is an ex-G.I. and screenwriter who, through a cocktail of bad luck and his own cynicism, finds himself the lead suspect in a murder case. His neighbour, Laurel Gray, likes his face and supplies his alibi; but as she becomes romantically involved with Dix and witnesses his increasingly violent outbursts, she comes more and more to doubt his innocence, and has to face up to the kind of man he might be. Hardboiled elements become a backdrop to what is really a psychological thriller—in the key of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Spellbound (1945)—with the spectre of domestic violence at its heart.
While the story is based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel, Andrew Solt’s screenplay takes some serious liberties, effectively remaking Dix and re-setting the action in Hollywood proper (not that we’re given a glimpse of the studios—Dix has little interest in production: “I never see pictures I write”). Dix works from home, and otherwise kicks back at his favourite nightclub, where on any given night he can expect to find a corner-installation of sad-act writers, directors, performers, old-flames, and of course his trusty agent, Mel. Stage and silent-era stalwart Robert Warwick plays Charlie Waterman, a Thespian in noble, brandy-soaked decline—a once-great has-been, now exposed to the cheap jibes of ten-minute players: “You call this an actor? He hasn’t remembered a line for ten years!” When Dix hears this and gives the speaker a good sock in the mouth, we really feel it was the right thing to do. He has that old-school honour-streak. He’s the cynic-sentimentalist par-excellence, with a rusted heart and a quicksilver tongue.
The film opens and Dix invites the hat-check girl, Mildred Atkinson (played by Martha Stewart), back to his apartment, supposedly so that she can pitch him the outline of a possible writing project. The two pass by Laurel, Dix’s new neighbour, in the courtyard on their way in – of the three of them, she is the only one who seems to understand what’s going on. We aren’t quite sure of Dix’s intentions, but then perhaps neither is he. It’s an unnerving power dynamic which in this instance serves his convenience, but nothing more; he finds the novel and Mildred hopelessly dull, and sends her home. When Mildred is found dead by the side of the road the next day, Dix’s general apathy under questioning from Captain Lochner and his old army buddy, now police Sgt. Brub (Frank Lovejoy), doesn’t do him any favours. This apathy is symptomatic of a brutal, hardwired misogyny, but at the same time his parrying responses (“Unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion…?”) interrogate the nature of the interview, and the implicit codes and ideologies beneath. Is he suspected of a crime, or of some spiritual-emotional deficiency—something unnatural and inhuman (or even un-American)?
Like Dix, Laurel is healthily sceptical of authority, and in the police station she requires nothing more than her own good discretion in deciding to protect her neighbour; it’s extreme solidarity-as-flirtation, and it’s wonderful. When Dix offers to take her home and she comes back with, “Thank you, but I always go home with the man who brought me”, you know he’s out-matched. Grahame affects the transformation from sultry femme-next-door to devoted lover without losing a grain of poise or effortless cool. It is only as Laurel witnesses more of Dix’s temperament, and a particularly awful fit of road-rage, that she begins to waver, and doubt whether Dix might not be involved in the murder after all. This slow descent into fear is told all in Grahame’s eyes, while her face carries on the task of composure and feigned contentment. Bogart’s Dix is also pitch-perfect: for once, we see that well-known mask of rugged charm come down and reveal a grimness—an eaten-out anger with no bottom—which is frankly haunting.
Albeit a thriller, In a Lonely Place has the stomach for seriousness. It makes no attempt to glamourize the dark places it takes us to, or to take its drama lightly. Nothing in Dix is explained away in the psychoanalytical trend of similar movies, nor is anything in his behaviour excused. We’re given a drama that is sensitive both to the reality of violence and to the ugliness of stigma, and its finale resists easy readings. It bears no easy application to the Hollywood of our own time, nor to the Hollywood of the 1950s—but perhaps has something to say to both.