Director: Nicholas Ray
Production: A Santana Production for Columbia; black and white; running time: 93 minutes; length: 8,375 feet. Released May 1950.
Producer: Robert Lord; screenplay: Andrew Solt, from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes; photography: Burnett Guffey; editor: Viola Lawrence; art director: Robert Peterson; music: George Antheil.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart ( Dixon Steele ); Gloria Grahame ( Laurel Gray ); Frank Lovejoy ( Brub Nicolai ); Carl Benton Reid ( Captain Lochner ); Art Smith ( Mel Lippman ); Jeff Donnell ( Sylvia Nicolai ); Martha Stewart ( Mildred Atkinson ); Robert Warwick ( Charlie Waterman ); Ruth Gillette ( Martha ).
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* * *
According to Nicholas Ray, "Bogie had seen my first film, They Live by Night , and had admired it greatly. He approached me to make
Knock on Any Door , optioned me for a second film and exercised the option immediately in the form of In a Lonely Place ." This second actor/director collaboration—an examination of the underside of Hollywood—was made by Humphrey Bogart's production company, Santana, with Bogart also taking the lead role of the screenwriter, Dixon Steele. In preparing this, his fourth feature, Ray immediately dismissed the 1947 novel by the successful suspense writer Dorothy B. Hughes, which was to have formed the basis of the film. He did so, claiming he was interested "in doing a film about the violence in all of us, rather than a mass murder film or one about a psychotic."
As with many of Ray's early films, In a Lonely Place involves a thoughtful examination of the nature of violence, particularly how an individual can be forced to such behavior, either by circumstances beyond his control or by the desperate need to compensate for loneliness.
Ray effectively begins the film by illustrating both the issues of loneliness and violence. As Dixon drives alone late one night down Santa Monica Boulevard, his violent nature comes to the fore as he is provoked by the insensitive comments of a fellow driver. His tendency toward violent solution erupts again later, and more dramatically, when he brutally assaults and almost kills a young college student who taunts him on the road. While the former violent outburst was encouraged by others, the latter is a result of Dixon's mounting frustration at being wrongly suspected of the murder of a young coat check girl. This situation has also taken its toll on his current relationship with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), a neighbor who provided him with an alibi by telling the police that Dixon was at home when the murder was committed. While this relationship with Miss Gray has been of great importance to Dixon—personally, it has helped to heal the wounds of loneliness; professionally, it has been instrumental in his return to the typewriter—the ensuing murder investigation elicits several violent outbursts and brings about his downfall. With others encouraging her suspicions, Laurel begins to fear for her life; ultimately, in the moments before the real murderer confesses, Dixon, crazed with Laurel's doubts, attempts to strangle her.
Using this film also critically to examine Hollywood life, Ray positions Dixon Steele as a representative of what happens to many in Hollywood, as an individual whose loneliness and frustration are the direct result of a hostile artistic climate. And this is where Bogart's influence as producer (uncredited) is most felt. According to Ray, it was Bogart who insisted on the subplot of a has-been actor, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), as a way of further illustrating the violence that men inflict upon each other. Dixon is the only person who defends the aging alcoholic; to everyone else he is a subject for derision.
Throughout the film, Ray effectively translates his thematic concerns of loneliness and violence into key aspects of the film's design. As J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson note in their seminal essay "Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir," In a Lonely Place is characteristic of this cinematic style in its effective establishment of a mood of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism. Many of the film's key scenes occur at night, the lack of light accentuating both the loneliness of the protagonist and impending violence in the city. Early in the film, Dixon is regularly shown alone in his apartment: by day, the light harshly pierces the room through blinds which adorn the windows; by night, the light from Laurel's apartment accentuates the space that separates them. Perhaps most notably, Ray's tight compositional framings and stark lighting contrasts distinguish this as among the best of the film noir cycle.
Originally, the film was to have ended ambiguously, with the spectator never knowing whether Dixon had actually strangled Laurel or not. After shooting that ending, however, Ray cleared the set and spontaneously directed the ending which now exists, an ending in which, after almost killing Laurel, Dixon learns he has been exonerated in the murder case, only to realize that his violence has destroyed his relationship. He then exits Laurel's apartment and is seen against the criss-crossing patterns of the complex courtyard—a lonely figure in a harsh environment.