In a Lonely Place is a coincident film within the careers of Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful), and director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause). Despite being an adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, it is the most personal film for each of the trio. For Bogart, the character of alcoholic screenwriter Dixon Steele reveals the real-life vulnerability and mercurial temper that afflicted the actor. In Graham's case, the film highlights some of her insecurities vis-a-vis her marriage to Ray. And as regards Ray, it parallels the slow disintegration of his relationship with Grahame while giving us a glimpse into his early days in Hollywood.
This may explain the atypical unspooling of what is classified by many as a film noir. And it is one, in the sense that its protagonist, lonely screenwriter Dixon Steele, is an antihero with a self-defeating flaw, an uncontrollable temper; Burnett Guffey's expressionistic cinematography denotes the shadowy, claustrophobic world Steele finds himself in as the police circle about him, questioning whether he murdered a hatcheck girl last seen leaving his apartment; a blunt-speaking platinum blonde, struggling actress Laurel Gray, dwells in the same complex as Steele and provides him his alibi, informing the cops of the timing of the murdered girl's early exit from Steele's abode and his decision to remain. The crucial point at which this typical-sounding noir turns is about forty minutes in.
Up until then, we have been seeing the events unfold from the point-of-view of Bogart's Dix Steele. We've sat in the front seat of his vehicle as he drives through Beverly Hills while the opening credits roll. We have been present at one near-altercation between Steele and the husband of a woman he flirts with at a stoplight, as well as one flat-out bar fight at his favorite restaurant, Paul's, after Dix defends Charlie Waterman, a drunk, washed up actor friend of his. We are close enough to Dix to hear his conversation with an ex-flame about his misogynistic streak:
Frances: Do you look down on all women or just the ones you know?Ray is even canny enough to place us squarely in Dix's head for a few p.o.v. shots in his apartment, as Mildred, the girl to be found dead later, synopsizes a story the writer plans to adapt for his next movie looking straight into the camera, the viewer as Dix. His initial plan to seduce the naive, starry-eyed girl in his flat literally dissolves in our own mind as we become privy to the way he now views her: shrill, grating, and unworldly. We've met Grahame's Laurel already as Dix walked into their shared courtyard with young Mildred, and now we see her again, through his window, standing on the balcony overlooking his apartment as he escorts Mildred out. Cut to morning when Dix is woken up by his old friend, Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and taken downtown for questioning. The point is we see what Dix sees, with rare exception. When he sleeps, the film just skips forward. But that move forward elides past the crucial moment in question when Steele may have murdered poor Mildred.
Dix: I was pretty nice to you.
Frances: No, not to me. But you were pretty nice.
Luckily, Steele remembers Laurel on her balcony, and the cops bring her downtown to backup his alibi. This meeting sparks a mutual romantic interest between the two, and after some trepidation on the part of Laurel, a full-blown relationship. It is here that, as Danny Peary states in his Guide for the Film Fanatic, "an interesting thing happens: Grahame becomes the main character." Now, we are with Laurel when she is called back to the police station for a follow-up interview. We are with her when a masseuse warns her that Steele used to beat up another woman she used to work on, the one we saw earlier at Paul's, Frances. We are with her at a beach party with Nicolai and his wife, when Steele flies into a rage after discovering the cops called Laurel down to the station again and he takes off in his car, almost leaving her behind. It is from her point-of-view in the car that we see Steele beat a young man nearly to death after he cuts Steele off in traffic and calls him a "blind, knuckleheaded squirrel." As Laurel becomes more and more confused whether Steele is capable of having murdered Mildred, Ray spends less and less time with Dix.
But he never abandons him. There are many indications that for Ray this was a personal story, and that he sympathized with the volatile Dix Steele. Ray always follows Dix's bouts of rage with private moments in which the remorseful writer performs an act of contrition, from sending flowers to the dead girl's funeral to wiring monetary compensation to the bruised road rage survivor, courtesy of "Joe Squirrel." As Roger Ebert points out in his own review of the film,
Life on the set was obviously fraught with emotional hazards. Ray had modeled the movie's apartment complex on an apartment he once occupied at Villa Primavera in West Hollywood. When he moved out on Grahame, I learn from critic J. Hoberman, Ray actually moved onto the set and started sleeping there.For both of its leads, the film resonated strongly. Ebert points out that the restaurant Paul's is "inspired by Bogart's own hangout, Romanoff's," and he requested the part of Waterman be played by old friend Robert Warwick. Meanwhile, Grahame's alienation with Steele in the film translated to a distancing from husband Ray during the production. As Kim Morgan describes in her lovely video essay (edited by Matt Zoller Seitz),
Love or lust often motivates action in noir, particularly via a femme fatale (as in Double Indemnity or Out of the Past). But it also holds up a mirror to myriad themes, largely existential, that hang over characters with profound malaise. Ray approaches the torments of Camus and Sartre with In a Lonely Place (1950) showing, not only the delicacy of true love, but the delicacy of creativity, violence, trust, and a person's own position in an often ugly, alienating world and the inner nausea it creates.Perhaps the depth of resentment stirred up by the film's depiction of a love gone wrong had some influence on the demise of Ray and Grahame's marriage, which ended on a rather lurid note. Dix and Laurel are finally undone by a near fatal flare-up of his rage just as he's found innocent of the murder. But make no mistake, despite the tragedy of doomed romance that looms over much of the movie, especially in Laurel's half of the film, In a Lonely Place's twisted web of mistrust, violence, and sexuality place it firmly within the noir tradition.