Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: Robert Lord
Screenwriters: Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
Music: George Antheil
Studio: Columbia Pictures 1950
Main Acting: Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame
John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” I wonder what he would make of Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place, a profound and moving look at not just one person’s detachment from all those around him, but also the fallacy of male masculinity and the curse of an artist’s temperament. Ray’s film is equally about all three things. You get the sense that Donne’s quote may not be entirely absolute, at least in regards to this film—sometimes one can become an island through the actions he chooses.
Ray was always fascinated with exploring the outsiders of society, those who for whatever reason have either been pushed or gladly removed themselves from normal human interaction. Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is such a figure. A screenwriter who can’t seem to connect with other people, he is a stunning mass of contradictions. Equally intelligent and sensitive one moment, then he’s animalistic and tortured another. This is an exploration of how someone could possess both an acute discerning eye for the depths of human emotion, while succumbing to every base conceived injury or insult. A violent yin and yang split that constantly leads to his continual drift away from everyone in which he comes in contact.
While In A Lonely Place harbors similarities with Sunset Boulevard in terms of dissecting the movie business, it seems less like an expose on Hollywood overall. Boulevard has an external thrust that places the characters into a larger picture which affects their fate. The industry in Wilder’s feature is the main cause of the problems that the figures/inhabitants face. Ray’s film feels completely internal. Tinseltown is just a backdrop to explore the existential agony that Steele deals with on a day-to-day basis. In many ways, he is an uncompromising artist that has total contempt for the studios and is emotionally detached from their whims and desires. He does things his way and gives the sense that, unlike Norma Desmond, he would gladly walk away from the industry if his integrity is jeopardized. Steele is an island, not only with other men and women, but also with any element that would attempt to neuter or make docile his frenzied creativity. Ray frames Dix Steele as an untapped reservoir of talent that cannot be alleviated. His effectiveness at writing comes from the same internal spring that would see him nonchalantly toss aside concerns about a girl’s murder or smash someone’s skull with a rock. The grey area between narcissism, self loathing, acute self-awareness, and sympathetic remorse all take turns controlling his psyche. A true artist, according to Nicholas Ray, is someone who suffers the burden of his or her aptitude.
Humphrey Bogart starred in many great films throughout his career. For me, the two films that best challenged his persona were The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and In A Lonely Place. In both, he sort of plays against type, or at minimum, tweaks with his famed image. Madre allows his Dobbs to make the tough-guy thespian cross over into unsympathetic brute and greedy heavy. In A Lonely Place does something much more subversive. It questions his whole iconic representation of masculine strength. In The Big Sleep, his Marlowe is a desirable he-man that every woman wants to bed instantly. Sam Spade is the hardened alpha male that uses his brawn as well as his intellect to solve every dilemma. These characters conform to the Hollywood notion of rugged resilient male protagonists. Vulnerability be damned! Dix Steele turns this assumption on its head. For Nicholas Ray, the typical presentation of the strong male hero using violence and virile attributes to achieve his goals is a hollow victory. These archetypical characteristics are more of a hinderance than a positive facet.
Dix Steele is also a classic existential noir character who travels alone on the stretch of road he has paved through life. The distance he creates between himself and everyone else is a self-serving trait that he uses as a defense mechanism to keep from forming a true connection to others. I must admit to not reading the original novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes. In her book, Steele is guilty of the murder and a serial killer. The cinematic change of making Bogart innocent of the accused crimes seems like a richer and more rewarding alteration. The narrative is invested with increased pathos and investigates Steele’s transgressions through a less judgmental action. If he were just a serial murderer, then we could simply dismiss him as a psychopath. By being innocent of such criminal acts, we thus can focus more on his internal demons and what motivates him to lash out. His relationship with Laurel Gray (played magnificently by Gloria Grahame) is so intense in its depiction of mistrust, fear, and the victimization of star-crossed lovers to each other, that letting it be resolved by murder would be too easy of a cop out. In A Lonely Place resists such simplified answers. These are complex characters who truly rest in desolate areas created in their own subconscious.
Released by Columbia Pictures in 1950, In A Lonely Place was considered a box office disappointment. Reviews were mostly favorable, but the general feeling was that this latest Ray film would struggle to find an audience. With it’s downbeat ending and bleak subject matter, the critics guessed right. A cult following would ensue over the passing years, but it still is not as widely known as Sunset Boulevard or All About Eve (the two most decorated pictures of 1950). Maybe with even more time, this difference will be corrected.