There weren’t many directors working in golden years of the Hollywood system like Nicholas Ray. He was, by many definitions, something of a maverick. Few would arrive at such a conclusion, for example, by looking at the casts he collaborated with. Gloria Graham, Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Farley Granger, Joan Crawford, these and many, many more were heavy hitters in the industry. Nay, it was the director’s penchant for devastating exposés on human, more often male, frailty that made him such a unique voice in the film business. On Dangerous Ground, They Live by Night, Bigger than Life, these are films that live on, not only because of the quality acting, music and cinematography, but because through extraordinary storytelling they challenged the conception of what men are, in some cases completely turning the notion of a ‘Man’s man’ upside down in the process.
The debate of what consists of Nicholas Ray’s best film is pointless. His output was as eclectic as it was fascinating. That said, one movie that would undoubtedly garner strong support to rank number 1 would be 1950’s In a Lonely Place. Starring icons Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham, the film centers around the doomed romance between screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and the woman that lives in the apartment across from his, small time actor Laurel Gray (Graham). Dixon is working on his latest project, the adaptation of a popular novel that everybody in the industry is raving about. Rather than read the book, he invites a hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart. No, not that one), to his house one night to recant the tale. After sending her off home in a taxi, her body is discovered later that night, mangled and beaten up. Old army buddy, now Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) is on the case, and while he’d rather believe in Dixon’s innocence, police Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) is more suspicious. Through it all, the initially mysterious and steely Laurel falls in love with Dixon, although begins to discover his true nature, one rife with violent outbursts and a short temperament. Did he kill that poor girl after all?
Director’s Ray flair for dramatic unpredictable interpretations of what seem, on paper, as simple stories is on full display in In a Lonely Place. The above plot synopsis is adequate in relating what the film is generally about, the abc’s of the actual plot. In reality, Ray has much more on his mind than a tale involving a “didn’t he/didn’t he?’ mystery, although that serves as a very strong backbone for the movie as a whole. About two-thirds through the film’s running length, it becomes abundantly clear that it is much, much more than meets the eye. While an entire book could probably be written on the picture, the present review will concentrate primarily on two reasons why the project is ripe with genius.
For starters, there is an important focal shift at about the halfway mark. Whereas the opening sequences emphasize the character of Dixon, presenting the viewer who he is, what his background is, how he goes about his daily business, Ray eventually turns the spotlight over to Laurel once the stress of her ties to Dixon begin to mount. On paper the process sounds simple enough, yet rather than actually edit the movie to make it feel like the story is told from the perspectives of two different people, the change occurs unobtrusively. By the time In A Lonely Place spends more time with Laurel than Dixon, the viewer knows a lot about the latter anyways. He is a charmer, extraordinarily witty and clever (a persona Bogart played regularly, but feels all the more appropriate in this movie since his Dixon is, after all, a crafter of dialogue), even occasionally demonstrating small acts of kindness, such as paying for Mildred’s cab ride.
The problem is his unshakable, violent tantrums. Worse still, very little is required for his fuse to blow. Is it because he’s in the movie business, where violence sells? Is it a by-product of his time in the war? Is this simply who he is? The movie never delves too deeply into those questions, inviting viewers to make up their own minds. Bogart gives one his more disturbing performances, even more so than his villainous role in Treasure of Sierra Madre, mostly because the flawed Dixon feels painfully, uncomfortably real. People like him actually exist and hurt the very people they profess to love.
As previously stated, the brilliance is in making Laurel the central focus of the movie’s second half. When she first graces the screen, her demeanor is cool and collected. Frankly, she comes across as a prime candidate to become the story’s femme fatale. The irony therefore is that she ends up being the more normal of the two central figures. Once the passions of love set in, Laurel is a kind and caring personality, with some playful wit to boot, making her an extremely attractive individual, physically (it’s Gloria Graham. Let’s get real), emotionally, and intellectually. When it becomes apparent that she is getting more than she originally bargained for by shacking up with Dixon, In a Lonely Place morphs into a petrifying thriller of domestic abuse, with the mystery of whether Dixon is a murderer hanging over proceedings like Damocles’ sword. She was able to get out of her previously doomed affair (a fact brought more than once throughout the picture), but this time the risks are much higher.
Graham is so convincing playing a decent person completely losing her nerve and sense of safety that the film actually becomes hard to watch at times. Nothing about the performance or the writing is stylized. She genuinely fears for her life, completely caught off guard by the skin crawling revelations pertaining to her sweetheart’s true nature. Not knowing what might happen next, or if she can even make out of her relationship alive, the tale that began as a romance turns into a nightmare. From a visceral standpoint, the film is unnerving in its brilliance.
The second overarching quality that makes Ray’s picture so mesmerizing has to do with the fact that the story becomes one of domestic violence more so than about who committed the murder. The raw, brutal tension that mounts between Dixon and Laurel (with Laurel feeling the brunt of it. Dixon continues to believe he is in the right and that their romance is a match made in heaven) eventually supersedes the mystery of whether or not Dixon even killed the young Mildred at all. Yes, detective Nicolai and Captain Lochner make recurring appearances, thus reminding the audience that the investigation is ongoing, yet the danger in which Laurel lives is far more immediate, leaving a far greater impact in the process. The movie makes it abundantly clear that Dixon is a dangerous person, prone to physically harming people, even those he loves, in terrifying ways. He even comes within a hair of murdering a stranger, and were it not for Laurel’s cry for mercy, he would have.
Director Ray and the screenwriters save the absolutely best for last, eventually revealing that the murder victim’s boyfriend was the culprit. Ah, a humungous sigh of relief!
No, absolutely not. By the time the filmmakers make clear that Dixon is innocent of the crime many suspected him of, the viewer has learned that he is guilty of violent crimes, just not the one under police investigation. He is dangerous. He can kill. People should stay clear of him. As the film closes, the fact that he didn’t murder Mildred is inconsequential. It’s a 101 lesson in how to make a completely brutal, intelligent, honest ending that not only hits hard on its own, but informs the entire movie.
A fascinating nugget of information shared in the essay included in Criterion Collection’s recent blu-ray is that Nicholas Ray and leading lady Gloria Graham were married at the time, although their union was dissolving. How vividly à propos was it, therefore, that he made a movie about a relationship breaking at the seams, one that was obviously never meant to be. Perhaps, in some ways, what Ray and Graham were experiencing at the time aided their task in making the events all the more painful to watch. Maybe it was some that old movie magic, only in this case it was very, very, black magic, the sort of stuff that sends romantic escapades into the depths of hell.