Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place

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IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)

This is one of many postwar films where Hollywood takes an introspective, and in the case of the film noirs like this, a darker view of itself. Not unlike private dicks such as Sam Spade, here it’s a Hollywood screenwriter who is showcased as the loner, cynical figure. Going deeper, darker, and more complex than Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is as hardened as his name projects.

 

In addition to placing Hollywood as an industry under the microscope, Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE studies the concept of perspective into main focus. How does Dix view himself, how do others who interact with him view him, and how do we as an audience view him? Look closely at the camera angles from the very beginning. There are times when it seems the characters are looking and speaking directly to us in the audience. Note when the characters are perceived in deep close up shots.

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As Hard As Dix Steele…

What can we tell about Dixon Steele’s character from the early scenes? What do others around him tell us about his talent, his temperament, his aggression, his empathy/compassion towards others? Does he possess a sense of entitlement? How much do we view this storytelling from Dixon’s point of view?

Dix is a man who has a past of violence, where his past appears to be catching up to him. Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) has mastered the art of portraying the tortured soul, who is both very masculine with moments of vulnerability under the surface. When we initially observe his exchanges with Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), it becomes apparent that their relationship is complex. Both served in the war, both experienced violence, but are they truly pals? This concept of the postwar vet who internally battles the violent ghosts of his past is a frequent theme in Film Noir. It is revealed that Dix has a police file, indicating more than one incidence of potential violence. There is an obvious tension. Dix is under constant study and interrogation.

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With Captain Lochner- there is sarcasm, quips exchanged, while being screened. Dix does not take any of this seriously. Does he not take it seriously because he’s innocent or because he projects lack of empathy? Meanwhile, Detective Brub is forced to play the dual role of pal and cop. The friendship side of their relationship is frequently tested along the way as Dix’s violent nature bubbles up. This tension forces Brub to question his own nature.

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Art Smith as agent Mel Lippman– he portrays the nervous character who embodies the typical Hollywood agent archetype. While he worries about how this situation can result in a true scandal, the parallels to real-life Hollywood paranoia of jobs being easily yanked away to the undercurrent of Communist paranoia of the 2nd Red Scare. Ironically, Art Smith was himself a victim of the witch hunts and subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood.

Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray

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Gloria Grahame is Laurel, Dix’s neighbor and knows very little of him initially other than the casual glance across a courtyard. That is until the overzealous coat check gal, “Mildred” that Dix brings home one night who lands up murdered.

Martha Stewart in In a Lonely Place (1950)

Laurel is very different than Mildred. Mildred (actress Martha Stewart, b. in October of 1922 is still with us at age 97 as of this article’s publication) is presented as lively, decidedly naïve, and a bit of a sychophant. In contrast, Laurel is a woman who knows what she wants, is more ambitious, and less naïve about the Hollywood game. There appears to be more of a kindred spirit between Laurel and Dix. Is this why she offers an alibi when it does not appear she actually saw Dix leave with Mildred? Laurel studies Dix deeply in the interrogation, sizes him up. She seems to be flirting throughout the interrogation.

Backstory:

In the mid fifties, Grahame career was skyrocketing. From the heart-warming small role in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, to appearing in 4 major releases in 1952, Grahame was much more than a familiar face of film noir. She was nominated for an Oscar in a Supporting Role for her performance in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. But it was her personal life and loves that made her more ‘femme fatale’ than her many iconic film noir roles. She was incredibly shy and insecure in real life and her scandalous relationships with the men her life didn’t help her charm the Tinsel Town tabloids. Her first marriage to Stanley Clements left her black and blue. Her second marriage was to director Nicholas Ray. He was an addictive gambler and equally addicted to sleeping with a lot of actresses who were not his wife. One day, the director came home to find his wife in bed with his son (from his first marriage, her stepson) who was home from military school. He was a mere 13 years old.

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And yet, this scandal seemed to actually boost her career as the offers continued to pour in. Her 3rd doomed marriage was to scriptwriter Cy Howard. But soon the fighting erupted and she replaced him with a fresher take on her trademark pouty mouth and sleepy eyes via plastic surgery. When it came time for her 4th marriage, Tony Ray, her former stepson of source of scandal, was now legally able to marry and she was single again. He was 23 and she was 37.  They initially kept their marriage a secret but when tabloids exposed them, the public was less forgiving this time. The stress resulted in mental breakdowns and shock therapy for Grahame and the two divorced in 1974. Her final relationship, and many say her true love of her life, was with Peter Turner, who was 3 decades younger. She remained with him until her battle with cancer took her life at age 57. Tony Ray died relatively recently- June 29, 2018, at age 80.

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According to imdb, Producer Robert Lord was worried about having Nicholas Ray and Gloria Grahame, then husband and wife whose marriage was on the rocks, working together. He made Grahame sign a contract stipulating that “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct, and even command my actions during the hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day except Sunday. I acknowledge that in every conceivable situations his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine, and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease, or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”

Nicholas Ray and Humphrey Bogart were friends (drinking buddies) so one can only imagine how Bogie worked to help keep the peace on set. It was Ray’s idea to cast Grahame and the closeness of their work only forced the demise of their marriage. As such, it was Ray who rewrote an ending from the novel of a violent serial killer to a screenplay that was more palatable but still reflected the darkness of his own relationship. It wasn’t a box office success but it affirmed Ray’s respect by his peers in the industry.

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Questions to ponder…

~What does this film convey about secrecy, privacy, trust, suspicion?

~How many times do we see a character sizing up another character? What does this reflect about psychosis of Dix, and about psychology as a theme within noir?

~Is this equally a woman’s film as much as it is a man’s film?

~What does this film explore about postwar domestic lives/marriage dynamics?

~Is this a voyeur film?

Bottom line, IN A LONELY PLACE is a film that intentionally, and uncomfortably, places the audience in a position to ask more questions than assert firm answers. By questioning the morality of Dixon Steele, we ponder the shades of morality in all of us.

Credits:

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Writing credits: Andrew Solt (screenplay), Edmund H North (adaption), and Dorothy B. Hughes (story)

Produced by Robert Lord/ Henry S Kesler (assoc producer)

Music by George Anthell (score)

Dir of Photography: Burnett Guffey

Film editing by Viola Lawrence

Art direction by Robert Peterson

Gowns by Jean Louis

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart, Robert Warwick, Morris Ankrum

*look for James Arness as an uncredited young detective

 

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