In a Lonely Place

The ending is dark, absolute. The image is filled with a heavy, pounding score keyed to a low, sombre tone; it is, above all, thick and dramatic. A brilliantly swift and economic succession of shots bring the film to closure: she is on the phone, speaking to the police department, indirectly informing him, who stands at the apartment door, that their relationship is over; he disappears beyond the door; she hangs up the phone; in wide-shot, he is walking through the apartment complex; she is leaning against the door, watching him leave through her tears; in wide-shot, he is walking through the archway into the night of eternal solitude (from whence he emerged).

Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950) can be measured on a scale of intensity, with the final sequence – the violent end of innocence and the fully-blown re-established regime of irrationality, hurt and loneliness – registering as pure abstract. Although the film meets Hollywood prerequisites of narrative drama and suspense, it also goes above and beyond Hollywood codes and values – just one instance of Ray fitting neatly the original definition of the politique de auteurs. In A Lonely Place is a film with not only a cynical view of Hollywood but also one with a central character that is figured with ambiguity and complexity, from which the film draws incredibly poignant and intense tension, that is unusual for Hollywood. Ray’s film is one of the finest noir melodramas Hollywood ever produced; it is a film in which all elements – performance, story, score, lighting and editing – work in complete concert to realise the emotional weight of its drama.

The film takes place in Hollywood – everyone you meet on the street, driving beside you, in the restaurant you’re at, in your adjacent apartment, is in the movie business, somehow. The main character Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter who refuses to work on a project he doesn’t like (which normally translates into that which is formulaic); he is a jaded and cynical type played as only Bogart could who withdraws from the Hollywood world of big lights, premieres, egos, and artificiality. Perhaps Dix can be viewed as a visage of Ray himself. Being an artist in Tinseltown is being In A Lonely Place. But here is a man not only at odds with the world around him but also a truly creative artist, and so “dynamic”, “superior”, “exciting”, “different”, “abnormal”. Being an artist means living in a world of intensities – your mind and body gripped by forces and instincts that transcend all systems of rationality. From the same source that springs imagination, springs paranoia, anxiety, and fear – only a step away from paroxysms of destructive, violent behaviour. At times, all aspects of the film (the score, the lighting, the performances) unite powerfully to reach a point of heightened abstraction that expresses this intensity: for example, the film’s 10-minute finale or the scene where Dix re-enacts the murder of Mildred Atkinson and a band of light overlays his boggling eyes (the film’s plastics here gripped and abstracted by the intensity of Dix’s emotional state).

Ray’s own vision – his views on commercial cinema and the difficulty of being an artist in Hollywood – is so intricately and cleverly translated into, and effectively cloaked by, Hollywood codes of narrative and fiction (a murder, a love story, drama and suspense). But not merely does Ray ingenuously criticise Hollywood from within, he also constructs the story in honest and truly bleak terms, rare in Hollywood cinema. That is, the love story is ‘real’: it’s about people who really and deeply need each other and a love that is burnt and frazzled because of anxiety, irrationality, hysteria – those mad, intense forces that grip and overwhelm, that turn white into black, day into night. As articulated many times throughout the film, Dix is “strange”, he’s not like other people. His old army pal, and now investigator, Brub, tells his superior: “you never know what he’s thinking”. Ultimately there is a price for imagination, artistry and vision. The eclipse of love and the tragic loss of innocence is the final gesture which In A Lonely Place makes and the one that registers fully this price of artistic genius: loneliness.

In A Lonely Place is often discussed as an example of American film noir, but the film really suggests more than this. It is such a rich and multi-levelled drama with themes and sub-themes touching many areas: art vs. commerce, fame and immortality, illusion vs. reality, artistic temperament, adult love, human weakness and psychosis. It is perhaps one example of Hollywood at its bleakest in its inclination to suggest and reveal the dark forces and instincts dancing around in the unconscious that so easily tip the individual into paroxysms of uncontrolled violence and irrational anxiety. Of course this theme of irrepressible desire, the dark edge of the unconscious is so associated with film noir, the ‘night’ of Hollywood. But the beauty of In a Lonely Place is its ‘honesty’: it’s not told through stereotypes (the femme fatale, the gullible male) nor does it rely on visceral or suspenseful techniques belonging to the action, crime or thriller genres. In a Lonely Place is fixed on human frailties and vulnerabilities, the consuming force of irrational desire and, the melodrama of relationships within this context.

The love affair at the centre of the film, between Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), begins rapidly. Though neighbours, they are unknown to each other. This is not to say that a few slight, curious glances and smiles have not been exchanged. However, it is not until the investigation into the murder of Mildred Atkinson – who was at Dixon’s apartment earlier that night – that their paths cross. Things move swiftly: she is honest and upfront (“I liked his face”, she states to the police captain); Dix, provoked by the charming and smooth Laurel, is curious and gets his agent to perform some preliminary research on her. Back at their apartment complex, Laurel visits Dix under the pretext of a general inquiry, which leads quickly to a flirtatious and wonderfully rhythmic wise-cracking routine. But when he tries to kiss and lure her, she steps away, with perfect grace, confirming her independence in thought and action.

Laurel and Dix don’t make a couple instantaneously: there is a period of waiting and thinking. These fools don’t rush in; they need to be sure. A couple of scenes after their first exchange – when Dix’s forwardness is met by Laurel’s cool aloofness and signalled hesitance – Dix visits Laurel at her apartment to learn her feelings anew. This man, who is governed by his emotions, his feelings, enters the apartment quivering uncontrollably. In the scene before this one, he was at his old friend Brub’s home, perfectly at ease, confident and charming. But before the utterly graceful, possibly unattainable, Laurel, he is helpless. Clutching the door, his gaze – angled at her – is marked by fear and intimidation. He nervously reaches for the chair and doesn’t let go till he’s seated. Small talk and precious jokes veneer the sea of anxiety and anticipation that grips Dix – just one example of his ‘nervous’ energy. Then suddenly this desperate and longing soul interrupts Laurel with the burning question of whether she is interested in him. She answers yes, declares her love and the two embrace tenderly.

The ‘honesty’ of In A Lonely Place is that both Dix and Laurel are ‘searching’ individuals. The smoothness and directness of Laurel (played superbly and flawlessly by the radiant Gloria Grahame) and whose confidence suggests a femme fatale, reflects the surety and maturity of an experienced woman. Both Dix and Laurel have emerged from a past of failed relationships and loneliness: Laurel has run away from a former lover and Dix is a lonely and disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter. And so they know what precious joy it is to be really in love. And when these disconnected, lost souls do finally join, it is with a knowing, heartfelt embrace. Dix, holding Laurel’s face, reflects poetically that he has finally found the woman he was been waiting for. And so begins this precious love affair.

The film’s characters belong to a space that could hardly be circumscribed as socially conventional. In fact, there is a certain romantic disillusionment that hovers over In A Lonely Place and is evident in various ways: in snippets of dialogue between characters (eg: Brub to Dix (proudly): “I got married”; Dix: “why?”; Brub (jokingly): “Oh, I don’t know, I guess she had a couple of bucks to spare”); the notion of ‘adult love’ between Dix and Laurel and their own personal situations; Dix’s hostile attitude toward Hollywood and ‘fame’; and the drunken poet, former actor Charlie sputtered out of the Hollywood system. There are also the strange ‘power’ relationships: Mal, the agent, and Dix; Martha, the masseur, and Laurel (whom she calls “Angel”). But this is part of the appeal of the film: that it takes place in a world that is post-Hollywood-idealism, that’s sharp and witty, honest and raw, slightly perverse yet also deeply romantic. It is no surprise then that the cynical, jaded Dix cares deeply for Charlie – who through his constant poetic murmuring, suggests an eloquence and richness that Hollywood (forever seeking the latest ‘fad’) could never embrace.

So genuinely close to the needs and desires of its lonely protagonists, In A Lonely Place is a melodrama of intensities, emotions. One aspect of this ‘intensity’ that Ray draws is the love between Dix and Laurel: it is shown to be the force from which springs all life. The scene immediately after their resolved ‘togetherness’ – a scene dominated by a taut, trembling tone – is light, open, free. Dix is working hard adapting a novel into a script (which only a few days earlier he vehemently rejected on the basis that it was ‘trash’) while Laurel is caring and nursing for him. We see this all from the perspective of Mal, standing outside the home peering through a window. Dix’s home is suddenly transformed into a light and magical place (wonderfully signalled by the playful turn in the score); above all, it is a place of balance, with all elements – work, care, love and respect – locked into a synergetic harmony. Of course, the flowering of Dix’s abundant energy and Laurel’s maternal instincts is rooted directly in their mutual love. Its profits can also be seen in the sense of community that they form, and in particular the way they financially help Charlie and, in turn, the way he fills the house with poetry and gaiety. Dix and Laurel are even pitched as the favourite couple in the film – not only do they shine separately but they radiate together: their rhythmic wise-cracking and absurd gayness puts them at complete odds with the totally straight and average, boring and forgettable, Brub and Sylvia. But a love that shines so brightly – that is so charged – must also burn just as rapidly.

Although there is no overlap between the script Dix is working on and the story of the film, at several points the two merge. At one point in the film, Dix goes over a piece of dialogue to Laurel that he’s thinking of inserting in the script:

“I was born when she kissed me

I died when she left me

I lived a few weeks while she loved me”

At the end of the film, this becomes a poignant epigram for their love. It is of course what Laurel murmurs painfully as she watches Dix walk through the archway. The life-stream of loneliness and despair that these characters inhabit is occasionally punctured with bursts of intensity, of love and life. This theme of the beat of life, a beat pumped by the intensity of love and a beat that animates and awakes a character, is at the very heart of the film’s formal world itself. We are only with these characters – they come alive for us – for the period of time in which they meet and fall in love. Before and beyond they are sleeping, somnambulists – and, in fact, the physical appearance of Dix both in the first and last scene suggests this state. We first see him, side-on glance, shrouded in darkness, his face sliced into shards of shadow, sunk into the seat of his car. When a woman’s voice from a car alongside him calls his name, his face is emotionless, blank, dead. An ensuing exchange with the woman’s male partner, and Dix quickly gets into a broil. The music escalates dramatically – Ray’s number one expressionistic device to signal Dix’s boiling rage – as Dix moves to get violent on the man. In the final shot, Dix is walking through the archway, his back to the camera, his body completely entranced, poised, somnambulist-like. Meanwhile, the gracious, suffering Laurel will continue to slide through and between crowds in her sleek, reserved manner.

But the intensity of love, that gives rise to the (heart)beat of life, is only one form of intensity. Another is the intensity of fear, insecurity, anxiety, and anger. And both Laurel and Dix are gripped to certain degrees by these intensities. Once Laurel begins to question Dix’s innocence – which is presented throughout the film with such ambiguity – she is increasingly overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. The event that triggers these feelings is of course Dix’s violent outburst on the young driver, whom he almost kills. At precisely this point, Laurel begins to suspect Dix. Ray builds a heightened and acute tension from here on as the very identity of Dix as a violent murderer and killer becomes incredibly ambiguous. But Ray’s artistry – and the film’s entire meditation on notions of self-reflexivity, Hollywood storytelling, imagination vs. official discourse – reaches a height when one realises that the essential structure of the plot is based on a complete and utter fiction (that Dix killed Mildred) placed on another fiction (Dix and Laurel’s relationship), and that what is ultimately revealed to be completely fictious (that Dix is discovered not to be the murderer) destroys that which produced love and life (1). However, the superb irony of Ray’s film is that despite this extra layer of fiction, Dix is a potential murderer.

Throughout the film, Ray plays incessantly with the question of Dix’s innocence. For example, in the scene in which he brings Mildred Atkinson home, Dix throws his shoes violently against the wall, the banging noise alerting Mildred. At the police interview, he evinces little shock at the news of Mildred’s murder (though countered by the following scene in which he buys her flowers); the way he directs Brub and Sylvia to dramatise the murder scene; his general frankness toward issues of murder and killing; his past criminal record; and his playing with the grapefruit knife. Dix becomes increasingly shrouded in ambiguity. Above all, he becomes increasingly dominated by those negative, life-destroying forces such as anxiety, paranoia and anger, which manifest in a roughness and impatience toward Laurel. During the scene in which Dix directs Brub and Sylvia to dramatise Mildred’s murder – there is a specific point at which the film’s style shifts to another register. This is the point at which Dix hones in on the killer’s perspective, the thoughts circling his mind, the score makes a sudden piercing noise and a band of light highlights his eyes. Meanwhile, Dix’s face is chilled, vengeful, intense. He grits the killer’s motivation: “.she deceived you, she’s impressed only with celebrities, she looks down on you.squeeze harder.squeeze harder.” In this essentially rhythmic respiration of sound and image, Ray expresses Dix’s intensity and roots it in a deep cynicism that is Hollywood related. In this scene, the ‘beat’ or the pulse, which marks life with an intensity, also marks the image, which becomes ‘gripped’ by this beat. This pulse that can animate the lifeless can derive from either a good-natured or an evil-natured intensity: ultimately Dix’s ability to see, to visualise – his imagination – which can create intensities means that Dix is himself ruled by such an economy. And so, he experiences everything in extremes: deep, passionate love; boiling rage; heightened anxiety; violent outbursts; utter solitude.

Ray is just as interested in dramatising the intensities which animate life that are keyed to a dark, destructive tenor as those which are life-giving and life-assertive. For those who live by intensities – whose damp, dank lives are animated by ‘pulses’, who are “dynamic” and “exciting” – ultimately die by intensities. And this is the rich and wild path that Ray beckons us to journey. The flowering and the fraying of love. But Ray’s accomplishment is that the film is never clinical or predictable. Rather, In A Lonely Place is – at every point – a richly layered, finely textured (even the texture and the range of the actors’ voices is remarkable), ingenuously crafted and poignantly realised drama that shocks and intensifies over and over.


  1. What’s even more ironical is that the real killer, Mildred’s boyfriend, bears the same name as the film’s Associate Producer: Henry Kelser. Go figure!

About The Author

Fiona Villella is an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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