In a Lonely Place is almost certainly Nicholas Ray's darkest feature, using the melancholy that particularly flecks his black and white films as the most positive emotional frequency as he dives deeper into pure misery and uncontrollable, bourbon-soaked loathing. Seen today, the film hints uncomfortably at Ray's own alcoholic self-immolation, but the film is not merely a hazy self-portrait but an outpouring of social and personal anger that makes for one of the most troubling, most tragic films noirs ever made.
Though much of his technique and impact stems from his Expressionistic use of color in such classics as Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause, his monochrome noir In a Lonely Place contains almost everything you need to know about the director. The first shots, of screenwriter Dix Steele driving to meet his agent, contain striking uses of shadow that immediately establish a mysterious and sinister mood. Steele's first interactions with another character are explosive: he chats up a woman in the car next to him at a red light, then threatens to beat her husband when the man takes offense.
Through Steele, Ray projects a hopelessly bleak portrait of Los Angeles in a time when Hollywood was still seen as a beacon of glitz and glamour. They'd weathered the first of the HUAC blacklists, yes, but In a Lonely Place came out a month before things really hit the fan when the publication Red Channels condemned 151 Hollywood workers and tainted the view of the town. The darkness of In a Lonely Place flirts vaguely with witch hunt fears, but certainly not to the extent of Ray's future work. Instead, the film's dark commentary speaks more to a broader revulsion with the studio system and the seedy truth of the city in which Ray earned his keep.
Ray, working with a nominal adaptation of Dorothy Hughes' novel written by Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt, wastes no time establishing Steele's character: in the first scene, he starts that altercation with the driver, insults his manager upon reaching the bar, decks a young director for insulting a has-been movie star, then gets into a fight with the son of a studio chief. His agent (Art Smith) wants him to adapt a book, so Dix picks up the hat-check girl Mildred, who is conveniently engrossed in the novel in question, and takes her back to his place for her to describe the story to him. Her enthusiastic reading only reveals the book's shoddy writing, and Dix sends her home with cab fare. The next morning, cops wake him and inform him that he's the prime suspect in her murder.
Ray barrels through this setup with nary a stolen moment to linger on the juicy dialogue or the immediately arresting performances of the actors. But he also does a fantastic job of establishing moods and then subverting them even in the first 15 minutes. At the police station, Dix's neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who shared an unspoken connection earlier in the film, testifies that Mildred left his apartment alone; when the police captain presses her, an actress who might just be standing up for Dix to get a part, for why she took such an interest in Steele to monitor him, she responds simply, "I like his face."
That one line catalyzes the film's plot, turning it from a whodunit picture into a mad, doomed romance. Dix returns to his apartment and goes straight to see Laurel. Instead of the usual noir wooing, the two understand they have chemistry and act upon it. In structuring the film this way, Ray begins to undermine established genre tropes even as he uncovers the sad truth behind Hollywood's mores and the tragic arc of celebrity. Laurel is not the scheming, ruinous femme fatale but the catalyst for Steele's artistic rebirth. Under his alcoholic self-loathing he needs a woman to stabilize him and he knows it, and Laurel is one of those people who thinks she can be the one to nurse the wounded creature back to health.
Yes, for all Ray's dark probings around Hollywood, In a Lonely Place is a love story but, as the visual tone and even the title suggest, a happy ending isn't in the cards for this couple. That of course is standard fare for film noir, but even in the genre's murky ambiguity, In a Lonely Place stands out for its twists and turns, as they come not from the plot but from the characters and backdrops. Heck, for all of Ray's unforgiving looks at Hollywood, his greatest and most damning subversion of the Hollywood image stems simply from his casting of Humphrey Bogart.
Bogart gives his finest performance as Steele. The quintessential tough guy, Bogey has always had a tender, vulnerable side to him which made him so perfect for film noir in the first place. Take Casablanca: that is not the story of a tough guy rationing that his love must leave in order to survive, it's the story of a man so heartbroken he can't even bear to hear "their song," an can only just manage to keep himself together on that tarmac at the end. Dixon Steele combines that side of Bogey with the sinister, borderline demonic antihero of The Maltese Falcon: Steele is a wounded soul who needs rehabilitation, but his temper is truly frightening.
Consider Larurel's line, "I like his face." Everyone likes Humphrey Bogart's face. It's too wretched and morose not to make you love it. Just look at that inherently sympathetic face, the put-upon droop of the gravity of fate, a visage that is just trying to stay strong despite a lifetime of heartbreak. Bogey was idolized for that face, but sometimes I feel that its ubiquity has overshadowed its true emotional impact; it's telling that the protagonist of Breathless sees only the toughness of that face, when it is the existential ironies of his unmaking that tie him most closely to Bogey. But that face can quickly becomes unlikable, repulsive even, and it never looked more terrifying here as his temper flares and he comes out of his lonely place to behave strangely, to say the least. While chatting with friends about Mildred's murder, Dix hypothesizes how she might have died. The look of primal hunger on his face as he describes, with increasing passion and lust, his vision of her death is more disturbing even than the devilish sneer on Bogey's face at the end of The Maltese Falcon. The film ends with a scene of horrific violence, one that underlines the tragedy and terror of Bogey's character even as a final tag compounds the heartbreak of the doomed relationship.
At the start of In a Lonely Place, Dix bickers with a rival, responding to insults that he hasn't produced a hit since before the war that the director cares only for commercial success. "You know what you are?" he spits, "A popcorn salesman." Nicholas Ray highlights the truth of the Hollywood machine in plain terms with lines like these and the agent's push for Steele to adapt that trashy thriller, scuffing the sheen of the golden age's image and reminding modern viewers that dispensable, money-grubbing cinema is hardly an outgrowth of the '80s. But In a Lonely Place is not simply an indictment of Hollywood à la The Player but one of the most devastating love stories ever made. Ray is so confident of his technique and the material's complexity and emotional involvement that he telegraphs the end of the film before the third act even begins: as they drive through the city, Dix tells Laurel about a line he thought up for his new screenplay though he doesn't know where to put it: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." One could argue Ray doesn't know where to place it either, as he uses it so early, but in a film this ominous, he can conjure the movie's most tragic utterance without losing an ounce of pain in the climax.