Nicholas Ray’s films were filled with anti-heroes. Characters who were disillusioned with life. Outsiders in a system they could not or would not fit into or accept. Protagonist Dix Steele fits the mole perfectly. For Humphrey Bogart, playing Dix, was a stretch. This was not the typical Bogart character we were used to seeing. Whether on the right or wrong side of the law, Bogart’s characters were generally calm, cool and in control (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca). As Dix, we are watching the flip side. A man who is always on edge: cynical, moody and ready to explode at the slightest moment. As a screenwriter, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., he knew where on the Hollywood pecking order he stood…way down at the bottom. He despised the Hollywood machine, considering most in the industry hacks or as he says, “popcorn salesmen.”
In a Lonely Place was based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. It was one of three of her novels that made it to the screen (the others were The Fallen Sparrow and Ride the Pink Horse). Bogart purchased the property for his Santana Productions. Much of the story changed in the transfer to the screen, most obviously, Bogart’s character. In the book, Dix is a wannabe crime writer, and more importantly, a psychotic woman-hating murderer. In the film, Dix is innocent of the murder he is accused. The book was adapted by Edward H. North, but was heavily revised by screenwriter Andrew Solt. Nicholas Ray then greatly revised Solt’s script, as he was inclined to do with all his films, turning them more into his own personal vision, closer in this case, some say, toward his real life troubled relationship with wife, Gloria Grahame.
Ray and Bogart previously worked together on Knock on Any Door (1949), Santana Productions first film. Bogart was happy with the results. He wanted Ray for his new film. According to Vincent Curcio in his 1989 biography of Gloria Grahame, Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame, Ginger Rogers was the first choice for the role of Laurel Grey, however, a deal could not be worked out. Lauren Bacall was considered, but Warner Brothers, who she was under contract to, refused to lend her out to her husband’s company. Ray began to push Grahame for the role. They were still married at the time, but it was a marriage on a slippery slope. Whatever the status of the relationship, Ray always respected Grahame’s talent and when the shooting began she was in the role. It was a good move because, like Bogart, Grahame gives one of her most touching and moving performances. Their scenes together are hauntingly dark and soulful.
Dixon Steele is a screenwriter who hasn’t had much of a career since the war. His last film was flop. That and a potentially violent personality have not endeared him to the studios. On the plus side, he’s loyal to friends like the alcoholic over the hill actor, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick). He also has a great wit, dark at times, that make him good company. Some biographers have suggested Dix is a lot like the real Bogart and that is part of the reason he gave one of his finest performances. Like Bogart, Dix is callous, vicious and rude. He can also be charming, and is intelligent. Dix’s agent, Mel Lippmann (Art Smith), has been pushing him to adapt a novel he’s recommending, but the writer, even though he has not even read the book, considers it a piece of junk. One night, at a Hollywood restaurant, Mel manages to convince Dix to go home and read the book. However, Dix comes up with another idea. The hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), has been raving about the book all evening. Dix invites Mildred to his place to verbally tell him the story. Upon their arrival at Dix’s apartment complex they run into Laurel Grey, a two bit B-actress, who just moved in next door. Dix eventually hears enough of the book’s story from Mildred, more than he wants to hear, and sends the girl on her way giving her cab fare.
The next day, Mildred’s dead body is found, and as it turns out, Dix is the last known person to have seen her alive. Laurel gives Dix the alibi he needs with the police. She saw him send the girl on her way…alone. A relationship between the writer and actress begins which sparks Dix creativity, and for the first time in a long time, he’s writing.
Everyone considers Dix a genius, but his pent up violence always has him on edge as well as those around him. Laurel becomes his lover, his typist and homemaker. She stabilizes him. At least, she tries. Dix’s penchant for outburst of anger continues though and starts to frighten her. There are two scenes that particularly stand out. In one, he attacks his ever dedicated agent after he discovers the screenplay he was working on was submitted to the studio. It was Laurel who pushed Mel to take it, but the dedicated agent takes the blame. Even though the studio likes the screenplay and wants to produce it, Mel’s reward is Dix hitting him, breaking his glasses in the process. A second incident happens when Dix and Laurel are riding down a highway. Dix is speeding wildly almost causing an accident with another driver. When both cars pull to a stop, the young driver in the other car yells at Dix who in a rage uncontrollably beats the guy to a pulp. Only Laurel’s cries for him to stop shake him out of his violent trance.
Laurel’s doubts about her relationship increase and so does her thoughts about his innocence in the murder of Mildred. Dix wants to marry her, but she needs to get away from him for a while. She secretly makes arrangements to go to New York. When Dix finds out about her plans, he tosses her on the bed and begins to choke her, only releasing his grip when the phone suddenly rings.
It’s the police.
They caught the real killer. “Yesterday, this would have meant so much to us,” she tells the police. “Now, it doesn’t matter.” The damage to their relationship is done. As Dix walks dejectedly away. Laurel tearfully says, “I lived a few weeks while you loved me. Goodbye, Dix.”
In a memorable twist of an ending, In a Lonely Place delivers a dark story on multiple levels; on the surface a crime story set in the background of Hollywood. At a deeper level, it’s a film that negotiates a path into dangerous places about self-destruction, obsession and a doomed, gut wrenching, tragic yet poignant romance.
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