#810 In a Lonely Place
1950 // USA // Nicholas Ray
Criterion Release Date: 10 May 2016 (LINK)
In a Lonely Place is the sort of film that I watched years ago without realising who, and how important, the director was. It didn’t leave a strong impression in my mind at that time, so it’s almost like a first-time watching with the recent Criterion Collection release. Thankfully, I appreciate the film much more this time.
Jean-Luc Godard famously stated “Nicholas Ray is the cinema” after watching Bitter Victory (1957). First and foremost, I think it is a overstatement, albeit I admire what Ray, like Howard Hawks, bought and personalised under the studio system in genre films, like film noir On Dangerous Ground (1951) or western Johnny Guitar (1954). There are elements of artistic vision hidden under the superficiality of Hollywood entertainment, boundaries were broken and expanded under Ray’s hand.
In a Lonely Place is more than a straightforward film noir, it’s also a critical satire on Hollywood industry, an insight into post-war domestic violence, a power struggle between muscularity and feminism, as well as the usual motif in Ray’s films and an reflection of Ray’s status: an outcast struggling to fit into a world that misunderstood and abandoned him.
Humphrey Bogart played the washed-up screenwriter Dixon Steele (Dix, a name that showed much “muscularity”) who despised other colleagues produced only popcorn films, his talent didn’t earn him much expect pride and bad temperament. Dix was arguably an outcast in the film industry, none except his loyal manger Mel Lippman (Art Smith) still supported and believed in him. The noir-ish elements began to surface when Dix became the prime suspect on a murder case in which the victim, the hat-check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart), was last seen reading a story of the novel Dix working on for adaption in Dix’s house.
But strictly defined In a Lonely Place as a film noir and film noir alone would be too rushed and limited in discussion. The cinematography by Burnett Guffey did not fill up the night space with much contrasted shadowing or canted camera angle. Even when Dix explaining his deduction of how Mildred’s murder scene took place to his ex-war buddy and current detective Brub (Frank Lovejoy), arguably the most noir-ish scene in the entire film, Dix’s face was almost laughably lit in contrast to the artificial dark space in Brub’s home. Bogart’s intense and eerie performance in this scene was as devilish as an “innocent” man could be, as a result, the over-focused Brub nearly unintentionally strangled his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) upon Dix’s insistence on demonstration.
Dix’s impulsive violence and past assault record gave a good reason for Capt. Lochner (Benton Reid) to took Dix as a prime suspect. Fortunately, Dix got his own unexpected witness, his newly met neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). It was not a question of who seduce who but a mutual attraction was apparent immediately during the interrogation scene, with Laurel turned her head and fixated her gauze on Dix’s “interesting” face.
Laurel was no femme fatale like in any other film noirs, she was the fallen angel from heaven in rescuing Dix. In the last half of the film, Laurel became the audience’s point of view as soon as we realized how intensive Dix’s violent acts were and how far he could go if left uncontrolled. The fantasy of “love conquer all” was soon destroyed when people around Laurel planting doubts of Dix’s behavior in her mind. At the end, we were as frightened as Laurel was, yet we still hope Dix and Laurel would come together peacefully.
The destined Sheakspearean tragic-like ending of male’s dominance with power and possessiveness over a unprotected lady could be the central theme, and if there was a parallel reality, it could very well be the marriage between director Nicholas Ray and Gloria Grahame which came to an end during the production of In a Lonely Place. The original ending was Dix strangled Laurel to death upon rage, Ray changed it into a “near death” strangling and Dix going back to his lonely place, signifying an unmendable relationship and a bleak future.
In a Lonely Place was Ray’s uncompromising work, a blend of dark comedy (the witty tongue in cheek dialogue, especially the ones from Bogart), a secondary detective story (in Hitchcock’s words, a McGuffin, the sole use was to create an ambiguity of Dix’s character, like in Suspicion (1941)) and a doom-fated love. Out of all Ray’s works, at least from the ones I had seen, In a Lonely Place has the bleakest ending for the protagonist (one could compare the much happier ending of the ill-tempered cop who find his salvation and love in On Dangerous Ground), and probably Ray’s best as well.