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Deadline: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

1.

In a Lonely Place (1950) is regularly celebrated as one of cinema’s most deeply felt—if bittersweet—love stories. The electricity of immediate attraction between two people, the period of ecstatic romance, the sadness of eventual parting: Nicholas Ray indeed depicts these immortal peaks and valleys of love with a remarkably concise intensity, and at a telling distance from Hollywood convention—just as he did in They Live by Night (1948) or Party Girl (1958). And he amply displayed the skill to bring forth atypical performances from his pre-coded stars: Humphrey Bogart as Dix Steele and Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray.

Yet, in a very real sense, love is not the core subject of In a Lonely Place. In the highly particular interpersonal world of this film, love seems dependent on—or serves as a conduit to—what is construed by Ray and principal screenwriter Andrew Solt as an even more profound form of attachment: trust. This theme is quietly evident from the initial encounters of Dix and Laurel, first in their apartment complex, and then at the police station. Dix’s comments are telling: “When you first walked into the police station, I said to myself: there she is, the one that’s different. She’s not coy or cute or corny. She’s a good guy – I’m glad she’s on my side.”

Laurel is more succinct, but the message is the same: “I noticed him because he looked interesting. I like his face.” Erotic attraction is certainly part of the equation here, but so is a comradely trust typical of, say, men in war (which Dix has experienced). Why is Laurel such a “good guy”, a trusting and trustworthy comrade, to Dix? In part, because she understands his register: his sometimes outrageous sarcasm in public, his wry twisting of all available clichés and ersatz wisdoms, his willingness to let people imagine the worst of his behaviour and intentions. She “gets” him as nobody else does. And that’s worthy, it would seem, of his trust.

But, but, but … Logically, trust is precious precisely because of its ever-looming shadow: growing distrust, leading to outright betrayal. On this plane, In a Lonely Place has more in common with Elaine May’s openly anguished tale of friendship and betrayal between two men, Mikey and Nicky (1976), than virtually any other romantic melodrama of the 1940s or ‘50s.See Cristina Álvarez López (2015), ‘Let the Right One In: Mikey and Nicky’, Laugh Motel, 21 September 2018. These questions of trust and distrust go deeper than the typical movie plot terrain of mere suspicion. (This would also be a decent key, by the way, to appreciating some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, such as Notorious [1946].) Suspicion can be resolved with a proven answer to an empirical question: did Dix kill Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart)? As we eventually learn, he didn’t.

The dance of trust and distrust, however, hinges on a different question that is raised, almost accidentally, by the first: could he kill, is he capable of that?For in-depth discussion of this important distinction in the film, see Chapter 4 of Hoi Lun Law, Ambiguity and Film Criticism: Reasonable Doubt (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). And, on this plane, Dix shows, repeatedly, that he is capable—even if (and here the film reveals its complexity) what above all triggers his outbursts toward Laurel is the evidence that she has acted behind his back on the basis of suspicion-turning-to-distrust. When Laurel, in the final scene, observes “Yesterday this would have meant so much to us. Now it doesn’t matter,” the truth of her statement is at least as much in the fact that her distrust has been entirely bared, as in the demonstration of his trigger-edge murderous tendency. The two states are tightly bound together and interdependent here.

Ray shows mutual, reciprocal trust as an extremely precarious state: the slightest tremor of distrust in one—and/or the intuition of that distrust in the other—can lead to panicked behaviours. An intriguing subtlety of the script and its realisation by Ray: a passing detail that would appear to be a crucial “inciting incident” (to use contemporary screenwriting parlance) in Dix’s mind is his inadvertent discovery that Laurel has started taking sleeping pills. This implants the worry: what is she so nervous about that she can’t sleep? His reaction to that—perhaps largely unconscious—is to joke about not “rushing into anything” while nervously indicating that he’s ready to run right out to buy an engagement ring! It’s one of the most unusual, even perverse marriage proposal scenes in the canon of Hollywood cinema—and its mise-en-scène is freighted with menace, underlining once more the overbearing or coercing postures that Dix sometimes assumes, particularly at moments when his integrity as a trustworthy human creature is being questioned.

It’s too easy, today, to approach In a Lonely Place as the account of a grandly psychopathic or routinely “toxic” male, prone to neurotic complexes that combust in acts of violence toward women and men alike. Doubtless, Ray knew a few intimate things about troubled masculinity and its vicissitudes, including in his marital relation with Grahame; and (as Dana Polan has documented in his 1993 BFI Classic book on the film) its male star had his own publicised reputation as a hot-headed loose cannon. On that level, the film seems to offer a strange sort of open, unresolved, group therapy for Ray, Bogart and Grahame—a sign of things to come, far more extravagantly, 21 years later when the director embarked on the psychodramatic experiment of We Can’t Go Home Again (premiered 1973, reworked 1976, restored 2009) with his students.See Adrian Martin (2014), ‘We Can’t Go Home Again: Let It Become Clear’, Film Critic.

Continuing in this “socially symptomatic” vein, In a Lonely Place has been described as a film that alludes, in a coded way, to the specific social climate of the Hollywood Blacklist. More broadly, it’s another common critical move to link any shade of psychological suspense-thriller from this period with prevailing post-World War II conditions of malaise. The trauma (“combat shock”) experienced by returning soldiers tends to be the key element fixed upon by critics—and rightly so in the case of Samuel Fuller, or Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947). Yet there is something no less prevalent but somewhat more mundane lodged inside the premise of In a Lonely Place.

Dix (as we are informed—he never speaks of it himself) has spent three years as a Commanding Officer during wartime. War, as we know, sanctions, channels and in a sense cultivates the drive of violent aggression (in men predominantly if not exclusively) for a “socially good and righteous” purpose. But where does that drive go once la guerre est finie?

Ray’s film poses two subsequent, starkly comparative paths: for Brub (Frank Lovejoy), formerly a soldier under Dix’s command, recalibration to civilian life involves the choice of law enforcement; for Dix himself, it is the dicier immersion in not so much the social milieu of Hollywood as its allotted vocation for “creatives” to fantasise: as he cheekily remarks, “I’ve killed dozens of people—in pictures.” Brub’s wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), elaborates the terms of this comparison after her first dinner-time encounter with Dix: where the screenwriter is a “genius”, arguably “exciting” (Brub’s term of endearment) but clearly “abnormal”, her husband is “attractive and average”, and thus proper marriage material—duly stabilised post-war.

The implication is clear: the entertainment industry, as a collective vehicle of expression, offers a more perverse form of “working through” post-war tensions, on the level of the fictions and fantasies it pedals. Dix is up to his neck in that precarious psychic process, juiced by the unpredictable working conditions we observe in the margins of the main action (another kind of precarity—of labour—exacerbated by fluctuating track record in Dix’s case, or by ageing as in the case of “thespian” Charlie [Robert Warwick]). A compacted soliloquy by Dix is as chilling in its associative sequence as the cold Romanticism of Nick Cave’s 1997 song “(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?”: “I’ve been looking for someone for a long time. I didn’t know her name or where she lived. I’d never seen her before. But a girl was killed, and because of that I found what I was looking for.”

This psychic regime is determined, as well, by the respective behaviour of the genders. Between men—men who have variously fought in war, worked together, or been friends over the long haul—“difficult”, irascible, unpredictable or hothead behaviour is something to be “tolerated”; the masculine code advises all who enter Dix’s circle to just “take him as he is”, warts and all. This is exactly the strained but dependable tolerance we see exhibited by Brub and by Dix’s manager, Mel (Art Smith). For the women—particularly Laurel and Sylvia (but not Dix’s ex, Frances [Alix Talton, uncredited], who appears to adopt the prevailing male viewpoint at the cost of a certain masochism)—this kind of tolerance is, from the outset, just not an option: if they are involved with him, attracted or repulsed, something more urgent is at stake. (Note the doubling in this arrangement—two men and two women—which is already enough to confirm that the film indeed observes the comportment of gender, and not just “free”, atomised individuals.)

These women cannot (and do not) take up the typical male pretence of “admiring” Dix as some troubled but brilliant artist—Brub remarks that, even with regards to detective work, he “learned more about this case in five minutes” from Dix than all his training, thanks to his “brand of abnormality”. While the men can bask in Dix’s somewhat faded aura as a gifted celebrity of the film industry, the women more naturally and immediately fear the consequences of his deranged behaviour, and its potential impact upon them (hence the superb contrivance of Dix as metteur en scène placing Sylvia in the position of the killer’s strangled victim).

Where the male and female reactions to Dix’s behaviour merge in In a Lonely Place is on the practical ground of what to do about it, what everyday therapeutic action could be taken to help, save or redeem him. (Redemption is always an incredibly difficult thing to achieve in Ray’s cinema—look at Bigger Than Life!—and here it is left, tearingly, as a sheer impossibility.) The men tolerate and the women sympathise, agonise and investigate—but behind Dix’s back. It’s a form of indirectness, even cowardice, that generates no good effects for anybody, finally. Neither Dix nor Laurel can directly raise and openly discuss their thoughts, feelings and doubts about each other with each other (and no one else dare intervene, either). Laurel can only talk to others, while Dix confides in no one. To confront their relationship—they assume—would immediately detonate their intimate bond, in all its fragility. “Then why don’t you talk to him?”, urges Laurel’s interlocutor Sylvia. “Tell him how you feel.” If only it were that easy! Laurel’s answer is precise: “What can I say to him? I love you, but I’m afraid of you. I want to marry you, but first convince me … that you didn’t kill Mildred Atkinson.” Yikes!

Speaking of the film’s “social text”, there is another, decisive factor at play. One of the things that renders Dix prime suspect in the murder of Mildred is his lack of evident, ostentatious emotion upon learning of her death. This is pure Existentialism as funnelled through to American post-War pop culture: the figure of Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger (aka The Outsider), published in 1942 and translated into English in 1946, only three years before production of Ray’s film. When Camus in 1955 recalled his own summary statement about the novel—“In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death”—he added a rider even more applicable to the situation of Dix in Hollywood: “I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”Albert Camus, ‘Preface to The Stranger’, in his Lyrical and Critical Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), pp. 335-337.

And, in a mix of vaguely Nietzschean pop-philosophy and an incipient manual of sociopathological symptoms, Dix behaves (especially in early scenes) as an übermensch in a specifically cultural manner: he disdains (and even literally gets a headache from) “vulgar” indices like Mildred’s flagrant mispronunciations and received wisdom on the “epic” narrative form, or an anonymous ordinary person (female) asking for matches as a restaurant souvenir.

Add it up: apparent lack of empathy, exaggerated sense of superiority … one sees how the 21st century toxic-male interpretation can so easily slide into place, especially at a time (i.e., now) when depictions of daily male brutishness or insensitivity and serial-killer psychopathy readily blur in anti-patriarchal tales like the movie Promising Young Woman (2020) or the TV series I May Destroy You (2020). Indeed, the Dix of Dorothy B. Hughes’ source novel (also titled In a Lonely Place) was literally a serial killer. But Ray’s film, ultimately probes a deeper question than mere brand-gender-label male toxicity. Where does any single act of violence come from? What prompts it? The complicated web—of trust and distrust, tolerance and evasion, thrills and shame, intimate versus assumed knowledge—enmeshes all the characters, and refuses a simplistic ideological answer.

2.

In a Lonely Place is a film that determinedly lacks some of the usual, ostentatious “prompts” for critical analysis, appreciation, or celebration. It has no remarkable camera movements, and little complex choreography of figures in an ensemble. Its expressionistic effects—beyond two unmissable shots of light focused on Bogart’s mad, obsessed eyes—are few. So it is not a film—from the same decade or just beyond it, more or less in the same mode—by Max Ophüls (Caught, 1949) or Otto Preminger (Fallen Angel, 1945): mystery films probing bonds of love and knots of power in an evidently stylistically impressive, virtuosic way.

Although routinely classed as film noir, there are virtually no accoutrements of that genre present in In a Lonely Place—it is the least noir of all the great, classic noirs. There is an off-screen murder, a mostly off-screen investigation of the prime suspect (Dix), and the ultimate announcement of the real killer’s confession (also off-screen). Above all else, the film shows an intimate relationship, that of Dix and Laurel, and a network of various satellite friendships, either personal or professional in nature (and usually both things combined: a cop who is a buddy, a masseuse [Ruth Gillette, uncredited, as Martha] who is an implied-lesbian confidante).

The potential claustrophobia of that tightly networked social arrangement cues us to something else in the film’s form: it is virtually a chamber drama. There are relatively few locations. Apart from some nondescript streets flashing by during scenes of driving (the images begin, under the credits, with this form of indistinction or abstraction: nothing particularly or recognisably “L.A.” here), a fragment of a beach and a few spots outside bars and restaurants, the main narrative actions take place in interiors: interviews inside police rooms, work meetings over drinks. Even more remarkably (as Victor Perkins noted), for a tale that is, at one level, ostensibly about Hollywood, there is not a single camera, sound stage or studio entrance to be glimpsed anywhere—the antipodes to, say, Sunset Boulevard (1950). It is, above all, a film centred on domestic spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms. Perkins describes it as “holding […] to a scale that avoids narrative and thematic inflation so as to pursue intimacy and detail.”Douglas Pye (ed.), V.F Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism (Wayne State University Press, 2020), p. 335.

The central setting is the single most impressive piece of production design (by three-time Ray collaborator Robert Peterson, credited as Art Director): the Beverly Patio apartment block where both Dix and Laurel live, and the space of the garden courtyard between them. (Ray, negotiating the demise of his own relationship with Grahame, surreptitiously lived on the set, which was based on the 1920s Arthur & Nina Zwebell-designed Villa Primavera that he once inhabited, described as “cloistered and dreamlike”.)Chris Eggertsen, ‘These 1920s Apartments Inspired One of the Best Film Noirs Ever Made’, Curbed Los Angeles, 18 December 2019. The set-up, at once private (front doorways are sheltered from the street) and public, allows both for spying—she can see into his apartment, while he can’t see into hers—and for scenes of transit, passageways, negotiations of intimacy. Who will be invited into the other’s space, and when? As frequently in Ray, upstairs and downstairs positions are thoroughly exploited as dramatic points in the gradually unfolded narrative space. In the final, grave shots, Dix’s slow walk back across this courtyard spells the end of their relationship.

Starting by being “on side” with Dix—surrounded by friends and foes, and by those banal, ordinary folk who talk trivia—the film gradually moves across to highlighting Laurel’s subjectivity, and especially her doubts and apprehensions. A switch from male to female POV occurs via an initial textual relay: the emphatic reaction shots of Sylvia during the dinner-table conversation and subsequent strangulation simulation. There’s even a hint of this turn very early on, during the police interrogation of Laurel: the moment she spins around in shock to look at Dix, once the fact of Mildred’s murder has been announced. (Perkins notes, as well, the “strange” POV insert of Laurel peeking into an empty coffee cup during this scene as signalling “the definitive entry into the narrative of a new subjectivity.”)V.F. Perkins on Movies, p. 342. But that sudden, twisty look of Laurel’s almost instantly softens, leading to a silent complicity that is beautifully caught in Ray’s staging of an electric interval (to use Alain Bergala’s term)See Alain Bergala, La Création Cinéma (Crisnée: Éditions Yellow Now, 2015). between her and Dix: as he sits behind and looks at her, she tilts her head in his direction—still without looking at him—as if to seal a pact, and an as yet unspoken mutual attraction …

By engineering this move in identification (or, at least, alignment), the film establishes a deft transition between, or superimposition of, the loose genre templates of noir murder mystery and woman’s melodrama. In Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment (1948), “time marks the compass of a thriller, while space gives architecture to a melodrama. But time and space, thriller and melodrama, do not advance independently, or in parallel: rather, it is the perfect imbrication of both these dimensions and genres that constitutes the film’s nucleus.”Cristina Álvarez López, ‘The Moves 3: The Reckless Moment’, Transit, 27 June 2017, in English & Spanish versions.

In a Lonely Place achieves something comparable. In its chamber-like spaces, everything hinges on access (Dix assumes Laurel is hiding somebody in her closed bedroom), and on lines of visibility (Mildred wonders why Dix is changing into his nightwear in the adjacent room). Time, too, receives a fine-grain, complex treatment. Markers of the hours across successive days are rigorously clocked, whether directly or indirectly, at the moment or later: midnight arrival at Dix’s, Mildred’s departure, “murder between 1am and 2am”, police interview at 5am, first news bulletin of the murder at 7am; later, Dix’s dinner with Brub and Sylvia, his 10pm rendezvous with Laurel, her admission she had decided in his favour at 3pm that day … and on it goes. For a movie without flashbacks, the microscopic, back-and-forth inspection of these limited days and hours is acutely agonising.

Ellipses (as in the noir films by Robert Siodmak and Jacques Tourneur) assume an awesome, mysterious power—and not only at the crucial narrative point of fade-out at the 15-minute mark as Mildred walks away from Dix’s apartment. Many other things are alluded to and not seen directly (and certain things—like Dix’s compensatory acts of post-crisis kindness—are witnessed by nobody in his social circle but himself). There are voids in the recent past—what has Dix been doing in those (specified) three days before the story begins, when no one could get through to him?—and in the more distant past: Dix’s war record; Laurel’s previous relationship with real estate mogul Baker, who she “escaped” from (just as she will endeavour to escape, unsuccessfully, from Dix); and the various police incidents that (according to Mel) “always happen” to Dix.

And there are things skipped in the present-tense narrational unfolding—a perfectly ordinary, routine procedure, until the ellipse catches our breath with the poignant realisation that a situation has deepened without our seeing it, as occurs when we suddenly “look in” (at the 40-minute mark) on the already happy progress of the Dix/Laurel love affair.

Time—the experience of time—is elastic, depending on how each major character lives, experiments with, or embodies it. Minor functionaries, like Mel, are chained to its daily demands; poor Mildred, by cancelling her prior appointment and stretching out the adventure of her evening, invites murder. By contrast, Dix likes, in his solitary “off “ times, to avoid time’s relentless routine and order: he locks himself away, sleeps in, won’t let the cleaner do her assigned work. When a work deadline looms—writing a script for the producer Brody (never glimpsed in the film)—he rushes through it intensively, in an obsessive, trance-like state (he blocks out small talk and literally does not see Mel standing there in the room) that again defies normal clock protocols of day and night. Rushing of another, psychological and emotional kind—anxious, panicked, over-compensatory—will later determine the insistent delivery of his marriage proposal to Laurel.

The telephone is the central motif of this chamber drama: a perfectly banal fixture of daily life, ingeniously transformed into expressive cinema. Ringing phones figure frequently in the action; there are also verbal references to the unanswered calls to home that Dix leaves sounding and that the neighbours doubtless suffer. Time and space conjoin in complicated, fatal, pathetic and tragic ways around these noisy phones. Calls come too early (for Laurel) and too late (for Dix). Phones are brought to restaurant tables triggering embarrassing public displays of private emotion. And an especially subtle detail: the first off-screen call in this long chain, Mildred breaking a date with her boyfriend Henry, is what presumably leads to her death.

In a Lonely Place proposes an intriguing reduction of the coordinates of mise-en-scène, curious even in the strongly character-relationship-based cinema of Nicholas Ray. The specific details of interior settings (beyond their overall architectural-spatial plan) matter less here than in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), On Dangerous Ground (1952), The Lusty Men (1952), Bigger Than Life (1956) or Flying Leathernecks (1951); and there are (naturally enough, given the plot premise) no highly specific natural or epically-scaled landscapes as in The Savage Innocents (1960), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) or King of Kings (1961). In the less distinct, more abstract procession of chambers and containers here, what matters, above all, is bodily contact, figure to figure. Interacting, embracing, kissing, sitting together in the front seat of a car, on a beach blanket or in a crowded public restaurant. Touch—in both its joyful affections and fraught tensions, rapprochements and withdrawals—determines every interaction.This intricate aspect of the film has been explored in detail by Perkins and Law, as well as Andrew Klevan in Aesthetic Evaluation and Film (Manchester University Press, 2018). Several of these writers refer to work by Robert Pippin in a 2012 article, ‘Passive and Active Skepticism in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place’, and his book Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

The variable distances, gaps or intervals between characters (whose function in many types of cinema Bergala has illuminated so well) are telling even in their relative closeness: the way Dix sizes up Laurel while sitting just behind her in the police station; the couple’s postures in the kitchen or bedroom (study, for instance, the proposal scene cited earlier). Any “wiggle room” is small and cramped in In a Lonely Place, because the contact zones characteristic of Ray’s cinema have, this time around, been intensely concentrated into an exploration of what Perkins called the “ambiguity of gesture itself.”V.F. Perkins on Movies, p. 215.