When Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950) was first released, despite some critical acclaim, it was not regarded as a commercial success. Subsequently, however, In A Lonely Place is now often to be seen in the various respective ‘Top 100 American Films’ lists in popular magazines, such as Time (2005), and from films critics, such as Roger Ebert (2009), and in the current American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 American Films. Made as a piece of American film noir it is unlike any other, which is typical of the films of Nicholas Ray (1911-1971), whose films often defy categorisation; and for me is a master in the Cinema of Confinement.
Based on Dorothy H. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place (1947), one of the most popular crime fiction novels of the late-1940s, the book and subsequent film are very much products of its time, and complements my on-going research into American Drama 1945-1955 – ‘I Know A Dark Secluded Place’ (see previous posts). The story stands alongside other popular contemporary crime fiction by female writers, notably Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951)), as well as Vesta Caspary’s Laura (1943), which were also successfully adapted to film.
What they share in common is the critique of how suspicion can poison, infect and destroy relationships and people. This matter of the negative power of suspicion became a major theme in popular crime fiction and film in post-WW2 America; the same period that saw the devastating effect of the anti-communist ‘witch-hunt’ trials led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Committee. If you were even suspected of being a Communist your whole life was placed under scrutiny, the suspicion surrounding and confining you, and at the same time isolating and ostracising you from society.
In A Lonely Place joins a select group of films in which the main tool of destruction is the insidious emotion of suspicion. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and The Wrong Man (1957), as well as Otto Preminger’s Laura (1044), are all concerned with the dramatic tension and subsequent actions that occur when the object of suspicion is a loved one. Some, like Rebecca and Suspicion have a relatively happy ending; others, like Shadow of a Doubt and In A Lonely Place do not.
In A Lonely Place features terrific performances from its two ‘stars’, Humphrey Bogart (1899-57) and Gloria Graham (1923-81), but perhaps the main reason why the film enjoys its current elevated status is due to its director Nicholas Ray, one of the most innovative, inventive and influential of the American directors in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Virtually every director from the French ‘New Wave’ cinema in the 1960s, particularly Jean Luc-Godard (1930- ) and Francois Truffaut (1932-84), acknowledged the vital influence of Nicholas Ray on their own work. Godard placed Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1955) in his Top Ten American Films, and went on to state – “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rosellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” The ‘cinema’ of Nicholas Ray, however, is relatively difficult to define as his films often defy categorization. It is quite a diverse canon of work, ranging from the film noir dramas of They Live By Night (1949), Knock on any Door (1949), which was the first film he did with Humphrey Bogart and Santana Productions, and In A Lonely Place (1950), to the Western with Johnny Guitar (1954), to the social realism of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), his most famous film, and to the historical epics of King of Kings (1961) and 55 Days in Peking (1963).
In the imaginative worlds created by Nicholas Ray, nothing is what it should or appear to be. Johnny Guitar (1954) may fall into the Western film genre, but is and remains unlike any other Western ever made. Roger Ebert draws attention to In A Lonely Place having all the trappings of a classic film noir, including a murder, as well as flawed and fated characters, and yet for Ebert In A Lonely Place is actually a romance, a tragic love story that “is really about the dark places in a man’s soul and a woman who thinks she can heal them”. His films invariably deal with an isolated individual who is falsely perceived as a kind of ‘enemy of the people’ within a confined community, whether they be a delinquent teenage, such as James Dean’s iconic performance in Rebel Without a Cause, or Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus of Nazareth in King of Kings (1961). The ensuing drama involves this individual battle’s against conformity; and on psychological level – a besieged mentality within a confined space. This is given epic proportions in 55 Days in Peking, whereas In A Lonely Place lies within the social realism of film noir and tragic romance.
I’m not going to give the plot away – too much – but rather encourage you to go and watch it without knowing exactly what happens. Suffice to say, that Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, an old and sardonic Hollywood screenwriter, who is accused of murdering a young girl, Mildred Atkinson, wonderfully played by Martha Stewart (1922- ), whom he had met at a nightclub and assisted him in the reading of a screenplay. His alibi comes from his neighbour, Laurel Grey, played by Gloria Graham. Is he guilty? It would seem he is not – but there is something wrong. Dixon Steele and Laurel Grey fall in love; but their genuine love for one another is not enough to avoid the tragic consequences of suspicion and paranoia.
Bogart and Graham are simply marvellous, their performances in this film rightly ranked amongst their finest. So too is the supporting cast, whose scenes with Bogart and/or Graham, sometimes very short, are amongst the highlights of the film. One memorable scene has Bogart as Dixon Steele passionately relating his version of how Mildred Atkinson was murdered to his newly married detective friend and his young wife, also excellently played by Frank Lovejoy and (Miss) Jeff Donnell. It is a truly creepy scene, enhanced, as Roger Ebert points out, by the way the scene is shot by master D.O.P., Burnett Guffey, with the light catching the pupils in Humphrey Bogart’s impassioned eyes.
Gloria Graham, whom Roger Ebert calls a ‘legend’, became involved in the film due to her then husband, Nicholas Ray. Unfortunately it was during the shooting of this film that Graham and Ray split up. Although the numerous behind the scenes photos suggest a happy set, nonetheless, there was also considerable tension. Gloria Graham was forced to sign a guarantee that she would obey Nicholas Ray in all matters in regard to the film with no argument or resistance. Despite the personal cost it took to make the film, nonetheless, there is no obvious sign of the backstage turmoil in the final print – a credit to all involved. What is obvious, however, are the changes that Ray made to the original story, including the ending.
[If you don’t want to know the ending of the film then jump the following paragraph and read it later after you have watched the film].
The screenplay adaption was written by Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt. It was, however, significantly altered by Nicholas Ray, with Humphrey Bogart’s approval, as the film was being made. In regard to the ending, as Nicholas Ray later commented, he did not like the way the original story climaxed and resolved – with another murder. He found it too convenient and argued that the end of a relationship, the end of this relationship between Dixon Steele and Laurel Grey, did not have to end violently. In order to get what he wanted, Ray ordered everyone off the set except for Bogart and Graham, and proceeded to improvise with the actors to create the end scenes that became part of the final print of the film. It is an extraordinary and brave ending, more emotionally raw and brutal than leaping to the convention of film noir with another death. The characters part, with Bogart’s Dixon Steele leaving the past sanctuary of the apartment complex to face an unknown and uncertain future. This is just one example of the innovative and determination of Nicholas Ray’s unique vision, artistry and skill.
Nicholas Ray’s film all deal with a sense of confinement. As previously mentioned, this is apparent to the extreme by the besieged ‘westerners’ in 55 Days in Peking, but it is also observable in the relative domestic settings of Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place. It is how Ray chooses to shoot a particular scene; either the shot is very tight with the respective actors taking up the bulk of the screen, as if the screen itself is too small for them, or the actors are enclosed within a particular environment, such as the police station and the apartment complex and apartments in In a Lonely Place.
Even in scenes set in the open air there is a sense of confinement, such as the pivotal scene on the beach at night that precipitates the wild car ride with Gloria Graham and an enraged and mad Humphrey Bogart at the wheel. On the beach the actors are confined in a small dimly lit space; there is no sense of expansion, but rather the opposite. This is further enhanced at how low Ray has the actors physically placed for most of the scene, as if the night environment is forcing them to lie low. Characters either yield to the conformity of the confined space or contend against it; in either case the confinement enhances as well as justifies the actions of the respective main characters.
The physical sense of confinement is matched by an equally psychological one, and In A Lonely Place given a stylistic twist that catches one unaware. For example, in the early scene between Dixon Steele (Bogart) and Mildred Atkinson (Stewart) at Steele’s apartment, the gushing enthusiasm of Mildred is also a little oppressive, enough for Steele to leave the living room, escaping to the relative privacy of his bedroom. What makes this unique is that Nicholas Ray has Martha Stewart’s Mildred directly address the camera.
This is initially a little disconcerting; as if we the viewer are Humphrey Bogart’s character. It is not so much the matter of the actual content of Mildred’s speech that is unsettling, but rather her ghoulish enthusiasm, driven by ambition and the desire to impress, which comes across also as form of madness.
Breaking the supposed imagined ‘4th Wall’ and directly addressing the camera/viewer is just one unconventional stylistic variation that Ray uses in telling this particular story. He briefly repeats this dramatic device later in the film when he has Gloria Graham’s Laurel Grey also look directly at the camera, concerned that Bogart’s Dixon Steele is actually a violent and brutal murderer from whom she must get away. This direct gaze is deliberate; it not only makes the viewer complicit in the character’s subsequent actions but also draws attention to the artifice of movie making. These are deliberate self-conscious creative choices in delivering the story of the film, a film that is set inside the confines of the ‘dream world’ of Hollywood.
The language of In a Lonely Place on the surface is atypical of American film noir. It is brash, full of double entredes, and loaded with numerous ‘wise-cracks’. The ‘wise-crack’ is the special domain of American humour, designed to puncture holes in the veneer of smug complacency and pretension of social respectability. The lines and the language are witty and smart, but also cynical and sardonic , revealing the hidden bitterness, anger and resentment, as well as stupidity and vanity in this dark world. Bogart and Graham are masters at delivering such lines, seemingly done effortlessly off-the-cuff, yet still a part of a combative form of dialogue, or love making.
There are so many great one-liners, too many to quote here. Go on-line and type ‘Movie Quotes In a Lonely Place’ and a plethora of lines from the film will pop up.
To give just a few that are wickedly funny – at the start of the film, when asked to define what an ‘epic’ film may be, Martha Stewart’s bubbly Mildred says, ‘Oh, you know – a picture that’s real long and has lots of things going on’. There are numerous sardonic wise-cracking lines about movie making and Hollywood, They are often very funny, with a touch of bitter satire, and deadly. Bogart’s Dixon Steele has the best lines; after all he is who is a seasoned Hollywood screenplay writer.
In one scene Bogart’s Steele turns on a merry younger producer celebrating his film’s successfully screening in Mexico, bluntly accusing him of being a ‘fake and a failure’ and a ‘thief’; the consequence being a brief physical skirmish with the young producer being thrown out of the club. The self-conscious referencing to movie-making is relatively constant, sometimes deliberately under-cutting more serious moments; such as after Dixon has alarmed his dinner hosts in presenting his version of Mildred’s murder, defending his position and description as ‘after all, I am a screenwriter’, and then making his exit with, ‘And having confused you, I must go’. Another somewhat rueful reflective line is one Dixon randomly throws at bemused waiter, ‘There’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at mortality’; to which the waiter rolls his eyes.
Subsequently, In a Lonely Place joins other films from this period that are also critiques of Hollywood, namely Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). The numerous self-conscious wise-cracks about movie-making, and in particular the problems of being a writer in this world, draws attention to the artifice of presentation. What we see and hear is not necessarily the truth – ‘all that glistens is not gold’; although in this particular world the opposite also holds – ‘all that is suspicious is not deadly’ – and yet, this is a deadly world, quite sterile in many ways, and full of ghosts from the past.
There are so many quips and wisecracks, particularly about movie-making, that is seems that language to is feeling a sense of confinement in this ‘dream factory’. This is encapsulated in the chilling line that references the title of the film, said by Bogart’s Dixon Steele as he dramatically imaginatively recreates Mildred’s murder by strangulation, ‘You get to a lonely place in the road, and then you squeeze….’.
The dramatic nature of Dixon’s means of expression is later discussed by his old friend and dinner host, Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and his new young wife, Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell). Yes – Jeff Donnell is the name of the young actress – Google it; too much for this already overlong article. This scene, which gets quite heated at times, is beautifully played by Lovejoy and Donnell as a newly-wed young couple having a dispute. Lovejoy’s Nicolai gets particularly defensive and assertive in attempting to silencing his wife’s considered opinion, shouting that they always quarrel when she brings forward an interpretation based on the knowledge she relatively recently acquired through a university degree in psychology. It is a great scene, and this moment just one of its many wonderful little details. Suddenly, in a nut-shell, the whole battle that some advocates of psychology and psychological analysis experienced, in getting such methods accepted as viable common practice, is thrown under a harsh light; 1950s pig-headed, stubborn, arrogant, vain and fearful conservative masculine hostility to this relatively new ways of thinking.
The idealised post-WW2 American Male was under threat in 1950 America. Many of these men had done active military service and fought in WW2; and subsequently carried those immovable scars, ghosts and demons left by the brutal experience that conflict. They were not Captain America; they were damaged goods, exemplified by Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Whilst not a justification for Stanley’s rape and destruction of Blanche, nonetheless, if one sees Stanley, along with his ‘mates’ Steve and Mitch, as relatively newly returned ex-US Army WW2 survivors it partly explains the animalistic nature of the masculine violence, drinking, and camaraderie displayed by the men in this play. What is notable here, as exemplified by Brando in Streetcar, as well as Bogart in In A Lonely Place, and characters in other contemporary dramatic works, such as William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), and Bus Stop (1955), and Richard Anderson’s Tea and Symphony (1953) and Michael V. camaraderie A Hatful of Rain (1955), two of the most controversial American dramatic works of the period, is the re-defining of the American male.
This was somewhat complemented by the influence of modern psychology evident in the original crime fiction novels by female writers such as Dorothy H. Hughes and Daphne du Maurier. Ironically, whilst the films are made via a ‘male gaze’ the ‘female gaze’, the interpretation of character, remains relatively intact. However, perhaps the biggest influence on this redefining the American male was the publication of The Kinsey Reports (1948 / 1953).
This was the first in-depth study of contemporary American adult sexual behaviour. The first volume, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) caused a shock, an influential shakedown exposing certain relatively controversial sexual habits of the American Male, notably although not extensively, homosexuality. That the respective data and its accompanying psychological analysis had been published in the first place and then publicly discussed was remarkable and marks a significant change in the US in regards to notions, perceptions, and understanding of adult sexuality. The second volume, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953) was equally revealing, shocking many members and levels of society. Nonetheless, whether or not one agreed or disagreed with Dr Kinsey and his team’s findings and conclusion, the door had been opened and a fresh approach to understanding human publicly through psychoanalysis had definitely begun.
This shift is evident in the drama of the period. Not just the issue of secrets and lies, and the opportunistic witch-hunt destruction of others through suspicion, moral indignation, lies, misrepresentation, gossip and publicly, but also in the manipulation of truth, bias, and gross injustice – all of which find the form and measure in contemporary American drama. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the idealism exemplified by President Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ had begun to turn sour, partly because it was seen as unachievable due to a number of socio-political factors, including the now perceived taint of Communism. The world had changed; the energetic inspirational, aspiration optimism of the dramatic works of the 1930s and WW2 years, exemplified by the films of Frank Capra , Preston Sturges and Busby Berkley, and the plays by Kaufman and Hart, and the theatre of Mae West, Fanny Brice, and Florenz Ziegfeld, had gone. In its place came stories in which the subject matter and cathartic release was more associated with guilt, regret, anger and resentment; exemplified by the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as well as in the films by Nicholas Ray such as In A Lonely Place.
Whilst suspicion plays a major role in the dramatic sense of confinement there is also the problem of being caught by a past life. Invariably something from the past is going to suddenly resurface and destroy current life. Every character in the film reacts to the present drama due to something in the past, which generally is alluded to but not seen. This is most apparent in Bogart’s Dixon Steele and Graham’s Laurel Grey, but it is also the case for the numerous cameo appearances that add vibrancy to the film, and in a couple of cases are pivotal to the unfolding drama.
This is best exemplified by the absolutely delicious and hilarious performances of Ruth Warren as Effie the Cleaning Lady, and Ruth Gillette as Martha the Masseur.
As their respective scenes unfold their current actions and attitudes are dominated by their past knowledge and experience of Laurel Grey. We never really find out the breadth and depth of their knowledge, nothing specific is ever stated, only an allusion to Laurel’s past behaviour and actions. As well as shot in a very particular way, the lesbian overtones in the scene between Laurel and Martha the Masseur, however, are unmistakable.
One vitally important scene involves a young man terrifically played by Don Hamin. It comes directly after the wild car ride, when the car carrying Bogart’s Dixon Steele and Graham’s Laurel Grey collides with a car driven by Howard’s Junior. A distraught Junior confronts Dixon Steele, crying out how much he has just spent on his car. In the subsequent action, Dixon nearly murders Junior with a rock. He is stopped in the nick-of-time by Laurel. It is a great scene and all three actors are fantastic.
As with most American film noir there is a sensual sexuality, encapsulated by Gloria Graham’s sultry Laurel Grey. Yet even here, Nicholas Ray makes subtle but important shifts in the conventional approach. There is a delicious playfulness in Graham’s Laurel; in one scene, after Graham’s Laurel has said she like his face, Bogart’s Dixon, leaning in for a kiss says, ‘You know, you’re out of your mind – how can anyone like a face like this…look at it’, Graham’s Laurel flattens him with, ‘I said I liked it – I didn’t say I want to kiss it’. In regard to becoming lover’s, however, Gloria Graham’s Laurel cuts through the meaningless chit-chat, sighing, ‘Isn’t there a simpler way?’ – very saucy and blunt; no surprise that a passionate kiss follows. Whilst their love is genuine there is also a flatness. This is best exemplified in a scene in the apartment’s kitchen between Bogart’s Dixon and Graham’s Laurel where they discuss their romance in terms of a Hollywood screenplay. The way Nicholas Ray has them placed on opposite sides of the kitchen, with Graham seated and Bogart standing, and the dry cynical analysis of their ‘romance’ is unsettling. This ‘romance’ is doomed.
The most often quoted line is Dixon’s reflection of lost love – ”I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me’. Laurel echoes the line in the final moments of the film, as Dixon leaves the apartment complex, tearfully reflecting and lamenting, ‘I lived a few weeks while you loved me. Goodbye, Dix’. This line, and its romantic sentiment, is one of the few that is not squashed by cynicism but rather is the reflection of the deep sorrow and tragic vulnerability that lies at the heart of In a Lonely Place.