With the Writer's Strike marching on, I'm revisiting one of my favorite pictures about a Hollywood screenwriter -- Nicholas Ray's masterpiece, In a Lonely Place.
Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place is one of the most heartbreaking love stories ever committed to film. It's certainly one of the most poignant pictures (violently poignant at times) within the canon of film noir, a genre haunted by doomed love.
Noir love -- the kind that causes characters to throw that "Baby I don't care" caution to the wind -- is frequently a cynical fancy that won't survive the angst and ugliness inside the man or outside the world. Its happiness is typically intense, but brief. Love or lust often motivates action in noir, particularly via a femme fatale (as in Double Indemnity or Out of the Past). But it also holds up a mirror to myriad themes, largely existential, that hang over characters with profound malaise.
Ray approaches the torments of Camus and Sartre with In a Lonely Place (1950) showing, not only the delicacy of true love, but the delicacy of creativity, violence, trust, and a person's own position in an often ugly, alienating world and the inner nausea it creates. Here, that shabby world is Hollywood, where screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) lives a lonely, stressed-out life while struggling to create a bankable screenplay. He's talented, but troubled and disdainful. As he eats at his haunt, Paul's Restaurant, Dixon sneers at a colleague working for the "popcorn business," but in turn punches a hotshot for cruelly taunting a sad, alcoholic, washed-up screen actor. Immediately, we recognize Dixon as a humanist -- sympathetic, but deeply cynical. Given the job to adapt a novel, he invites a hatcheck girl (Martha Stewart) who's read the popular book to his Spanish-style apartment for help (an apartment modeled on Ray's own past residence). She's attractive, and he's probably interested in something more than mere adaptation, but she rattles on insufferably and Dixon sends her away in a taxi.
That same night she's found on the side of a road, murdered. With Dixon's reputation for abuse, he becomes a prime suspect. But struggling actress Laurel Gray (the perfectly cast Gloria Grahame), a new neighbor in his complex, witnessed the young woman leaving Dixon's place. She becomes his alibi, and soon his lover. Dixon and Laurel's chemistry in the police station is subtly thrilling and sexy, but distinct from the usual noir fireworks -- it almost looks healthy. When police ask Laurel why she noticed her neighbor's actions, she answers bluntly "Because he looked interesting. I liked his face." And when Dixon catches up to her at the complex, he admits that when meeting her "I said to myself, there she is. The one who's different. She's not coy or cute or corny." Its easy to see these two are perfect for each other, the sharp, world-weary but sunny actress, and the brooding intellect who's probably surprised he actually likes a woman in this town. Wounded, but nourishing each other with their very adult, no-nonsense love, Dixon begins writing again with Laurel feeding him, fluffing his pillows, and typing — "for love," as she says.
But their bliss can't last, even with this seemingly sturdy pair of survivors. Dixon can't control his inherent rage, which becomes so bad that Laurel (understandably, especially considering the film's original ending, which Ray didn't like and removed) begins to suspect her lover. And the more she distrusts him, the worse his anger fumes. No one, not even a detective who defends Dixon as "superior" and "an exciting guy," wants to believe the writer is a sociopath.
But is he a sociopath? Certainly his rage and frequently selfish behavour are troublesome but Dixon's flashes of tenderness betray a clear definition. And yet Ray's film leads everyone (including the viewer) to wonder if he really did kill that hatcheck girl. We don't want him to be guilty, we want the romance to work out, and we believe (perhaps, delusionally) there's hope for Dixon -- hence, the tragedy that concludes the film. Ray, whose pictures like Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life, and On Dangerous Ground all contemplate a man's lonely, often horrifying position in his world, is in archetypal mode with In a Lonely Place. Much like the protagonists in Ray's other films, Dixon is not a loser (like so many characters in noir), but rather a talent who would be productive if not for the obstacles in his way, including his own neurotic, repressed, enraged self.
Ray wisely cast Bogart, who plays Dixon with a genuine rawness, mixing toughness and vulnerability, self-loathing and romanticism, contempt and warmth in one compelling stew of a man. When he recites a line from his script to Laurel ("I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.") we recognize it as not only the film's motif, but also exactly what we find attractive about Bogart. And yet the line, though true, is as laden with irony as the iconic image of Bogart himself, who exposes a rabid underbelly that's both frightening and unbearably sad. One of Ray's finest pictures, In a Lonely Place is also Bogart's greatest performance on film.