It is the unfortunate burden of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place that it is almost never treated separately from two other films released in the same year with similar subject matters: Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. Both films, of course, are Hollywood royalty. This is perhaps ironic considering they both deal with Hollywood royalty, although one is nominally about Broadway to create, perhaps, thinly-guised distance from the hand that feeds. Like those films, In a Lonely Place deals almost entirely in brittle cynicisms and barely contained self-deprecating snark, aimed squarely at mommy dearest: Hollywood. It’s astounding that three of Hollywood’s most disturbing and grandly disparaging self-mutilations came out within 12 months of each other. Perhaps something was in the water (more on this later). Strangely, while those two films now bump shoulders with the likes of Citizen Kane of Casablanca, In a Lonely Place has been somewhat demoted to “lesser classic” status. That’s a shame, as it’s a true dark horse masterpiece of self-hating, jaundiced malaise that expends its dying breath clinging to any tatters of hope it can find illuminated amidst the dense chiaroscuro of Ray’s irrepressible visuals .
Perhaps it had less affect than those other two films because it’s less openly vitriolic; it’s more subdued in its anger, letting it mill around and slowly stew as it builds unnerving atmosphere, where-as its sisters go straight for the throat with witty, snappy arsenic-laced dialogue. Maybe this was fate. If those other two films emphasize the star who thinks s/he’s all-that and demands to be treated as such, they follow suit as films, demanding with customary aplomb and immediate fire-breathing passion to gain similar attention. In a Lonely Place, in contrast, centers not the film hero, but that all-encompassing enigma who occupies, and defines, the shadows of the form, the writer, who must know their place and remain forever doomed to occupy the same galaxy as Hollywood greats, but never be the star. It’s perhaps an eternally tragic poetry that the film became one and the same as its protagonist: never the famed classic, but always there, sometimes forgotten, just peeking out of its sarcophagus but ready to slowly creep up on unsuspecting viewers, invade the subterranean realm under their skin, and control them when they don’t see it coming.
That center is Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter tasked with a sending a cheap knock-off of a book to celluloid via his hollow pen. Torn between writing the trashy screenplay, if for no other reason than to keep him busy, and his own personal brand of self-destruction, alcohol, he’s also dealing with a newly-minted romance (of his own pick-em-up and scare-em-off variety) with a girl he just met and probably knows won’t stand his personal demons for long. It occupies an eternal precipice even before it begins: something he needs to fuel his anger and passion even as it funnels it into something that won’t destroy him. Or at least something which will destroy him more slowly. After she leaves, and new neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham) sees her leave, Steele is woken up to the boys-in-blue-in-black (as all things must be in this black-and-white hell-scape) and the news that the girl he picked up was found dead later that night. We are unsure of whether he committed the act, and, as we quickly learn, he probably is too.
Steele is a lot more than just a man though. He’s the daily dialectic of an industry, the movie industry, on the edge of itself. He’s torn between two things: writing a cheap screenplay for a lame adaptation of a book for easy money, and proving his innocence in a murder. We’re scared that he seems far more interested in the former question than the latter. He’s far too beaten up to care, far too emotionally distant to occupy any state of mind over the murder except “I told you so” malaise. The existential crisis over the screenplay allows him to assume superiority to the masses who consume the films Hollywood puts out. He’s not unlike William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., an agent of the machine whose only freedom is a self-imposed existential crisis about whether to remain its agent, mostly to hide the ever-present fact that he knows he will. We’re never really in doubt that he’ll write the screenplay here, but allowing himself to think he won’t allows him to have his cake and eat it to.
Like Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve, whose leading ladies duked it out for Oscar glory that year to no avail, In a Lonely Place captures with its self-reflexive poison-pen the eternal self-prescribed decay of Hollywood at the time. It sees the film industry not as a glamorous calling but an existential crisis masquerading as a job people put themselves through to bide their time, hoping perhaps that fame would provide a new public persona to seep down into their hollow private core. Like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., the film shares unmistakable noir trappings – we’re never sure if Steele committed the murder, the dialogue cuts through the celluloid like a knife through butter, and the film is awash with romantic burnt ends threatening to both hide and cast new light upon the eternally hollow core of the world its characters occupy. And, also like Billy Wilder in his magisterial classic, director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Edmund H. North understand the alluring romance of the genre, and of Hollywood, and place it front and center. They aren’t afraid, in other words, to be what they are exposing, perhaps because they know they don’t have a choice.
This understanding is likely why the filmmakers cast Humphrey Bogart, who excelled at three things: seeming eternally lost and consumed by himself, somehow still making us want to be him, and exposing the tensions and contradictions between the first two. Here he deals out these tensions like in no other film, perhaps because he was himself facing the cruel underbelly of Hollywood finally pushed to the public center for once: HUAC. The House Un-American Activities Committee was in full force attempting to expose supposed Communists and ruin careers directly before this film was made in the late ’40s. Steele’s testiness and difficulty toward Hollywood itself likely mirrors the Hollywood’s exposure of Bogart’s past as a potential Communist sympathizer – they, like the police with Dixon, were down his throat blaming him for something they considered a crime and which they had no real proof of.
Bogart likely saw something of himself in Dixon, a man torn between an uncertain future and spending his days coming up with one more reason to let the industry live and his nights trying to forget how he spent his days. Like Dixon, Bogart was a rampaging alcoholic, and like Dixon, Bogart was now too-tried and too-tired to defend himself against attacks that bridged the process of Hollywood filmmaking and more consequential outside concerns, political or criminal, which always poke at the seams of the otherworldly glamour Hollywood puts up. Politics, in other words, threaten to expose that, after all, Hollywood was a product of a conflicted world and mirrored those internal conflicts itself. Those troubles didn’t go away just because someone spent their life creating or embodying “false” people as if to hide their true self from the world and from themselves. Doing so only lets these tensions seethe and boil underneath, forgotten, and ready to blow at any moment.
Which brings us to the central tension of the film, which sees Dixon hating himself and Hollywood for what it’s done to him while using Hollywood screenwriting as a means to forget that he is a Hollywood screenwriter and his complicity with whatever Hollywood puts out. He distracts himself with the thing he needs distracting from. Likewise, Bogart often saw acting as a love-hate relationship, something which pushed him further into the belly of the beast now trying him for his friendship with Communists, while also allowing him to forget he was being tried and tested. It gave him other people to “play”, other identities to adopt to forget how difficult his own life was becoming. Perhaps the dreaded unease and sheer tiredness of Bogart’s performance (he appears extremely weathered here, both physically and vocally) was less a performance than a bit of method-casting: hiring a man who was living the life of the main character and drawing out this personal tension on the screen.
In Bogart, the ultimate noir protagonist, the film found its anchor as a noir that hated itself for being a noir, a Hollywood product that was trying to come to terms with being a Hollywood product while desperately searching for a moral out in film land. But the noir trappings of the film are also primarily thanks to director Nicholas Ray, a maelstrom in Hollywood’s underground through the ’50s. On the eve of the ’60s, he largely disappeared from the industry, like a match blown out right on the eve of making good on its threat to set something ablaze to the world and expose something no one wanted to know. But Ray had begun his career exposing things about American life and morality, most famously in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, about a young man angry at the world and ready to lash out in directions he didn’t know at something he didn’t understand. Ray’s films were all about conflicted, embittered men who were more frightening and more sympathetic because they didn’t have a target for their anger. He usually dealt in the uncanny and dangerous need to occupy a precipice in life, and the existential fear of plummeting to either side. And he was always interested in self-destruction and the potential for added fallout onto society. Ray’s view of the chaos this could cause is mixed: on one hand it would throw a barely functioning society over the edge, but on the other, it would expose the tentativeness of that society and the lies we tell ourselves to keep it going. It could prove a catalyst to force us to address our problems, lay them out in the open, and to deal with them. He was, in all, a man who found humanism in nihilism, which is perhaps why In a Lonely Place eschews pure malcontent for a more soulful, braised take on lost love and mournfulness hoping to find any kind of meaning in the existential void of early Hollywood. Like Dixon, Ray never gave up hope, until, of course, Hollywood stopped waiting for him to find his needle in a haystack.
This all likely meant something personal to Ray, a lapsed Communist likely caught in between hiding his past and wondering why he was never blacklisted, and finding ways to renew his anger at American society and do something more dangerous to it. He like Steele is torn between the two, between exposing something about the soul-sucking gasp of Hollywood and the society that produced it, and keeping quiet. For this reason, perhaps like no other, Ray centers his lens on this tension and keeps Steele on the suspenseful precipice of self-destruction throughout the film, and for this reason too he creates an alluring romance to involve us and make us think, for a second, maybe these personal troubles are acceptable losses for a career in Hollywood. He knows his audience and knows what they want, and he keeps us dangling between our desire to achieve Hollywood glamour and our eternal fear of its dangers and its dehumanization. He knows the power of the camera to implicate, to expose, and to reveal what we’re afraid to know. Thus, he has Bogart look almost- but not quite – at the camera at times in the film, crystallizing unease and almost revealing that these events are fantasy rather than reality. Indeed, he uses lighting largely to this effect too, often enhancing the lighting artificially near Bogart’s eyes and face when all else is a more ambiguous shade of grey – explicitly marking him as the protagonist and drawing the filmmaking toward him. Often this lighting and Bogart’s off-center eyes pointed just away from the camera’s gaze creates a mystifying illusion, as well as a self-conscious staginess, that directly forces us to confront this film’s artifice and Dixon’s obvious ennui as a result of this artifice head-on.
Ray doesn’t merely know that this is a noir though; he knows that he is implicated in the Hollywood films he produces: after all, if he saw filmmaking as an outlet for exposing Hollywood or society more generally, he was also subsuming himself into Hollywood and that society. This may have catalyzed an implacable, undying tension for him, an inability to reconcile how he was using Hollywood to expose Hollywood and whether it signaled his selling out. Of course, what matters for this film is that this tension reveals itself on the screen like no other – this is a film that constantly threatens to explode from pure existential choice, perhaps a mimic of the people who were making it.
This is likely because Ray was also one of the few directors in the 1950s who poked and prodded around with the noir genre, as his sometimes-mentor through the ’40s, Elia Kazan, went on to do with A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. But while those two films melded, and tempered, noir to a Hollywood brand of neo-realism and created an eternal melodrama out of it, Ray went on to do something more cynical. Like Kazan, he knew the power of the self-destructive apocalyptic allure of film noir and wanted to take it from the land of Hollywood dreams and nightmares into reality. He did that but he did something more here – he turned it back on its very self, revealing the genre as the festering product of Hollywood nightmare it always was. He sees it in the gorgeous propped-up decay of the black-and-white cinematography, and he sees it in the petrified confession of Bogart’s expressive face. Both are noir stereotypes, as is everything about this film, making this ultimately a Hollywood noir obsessed with itself for being a Hollywood noir, a film which creates in itself the very thing it peels off the layers of, setting up the pins to knock them down while also trying to continually set them up again.
Perhaps Ray, like Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz, who made this film’s two like-minded 1950 siblings, realized Hollywood’s time was up (if Hollywood creatively dominated the ’40s, European cinema took center stage in the ’50s and ’60s) and decided to destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools, to quote Audre Lorde. They used the noir to explore the amorality of Hollywood noirs, to interrogate the implications of a group of “entertainers” putting so much money and talent into films that were so angsty, nightmarish, and cavernously drawn to emptiness and decay. Self-reflexively, they posited that the reason was found somewhere in the fiber of Hollywood itself. Ray, himself, was perhaps the most adept at locating deep within the noir the struggling-to-beat heart of a film with a conscious battered down and stamped out by Hollywood.
This is also perhaps a grisly after-effect of Hollywood getting savvy and re-supplanting itself by taking control of those mad-dog directors like Ray who would attack Hollywood – it wrangled them into submission by letting them have a little fun subverting the master, so long as they stayed under their control. After all, these films are not only Hollywood critiques, but glorious reflections of the power of movie-making and Hollywood’s potential to deconstruct the world around it, as well as itself. It says a lot that these three films, for as anti-Hollywood as they are, are Hollywood masterpieces. These guys did love film after all – despite their issues with Hollywood, they saw what they could use it for and weren’t afraid to do so.
Thus, Ray is transforming and critiquing the noir genre as he upholds its raw expressive power. Why else would he provide us an everywoman in Gloria Graham who approaches the material like a moth drawn to a light threatening to burn out – she’s interested in Dixon for his self-destructive allure and the dark fantasy he represents, as we are for Dixon and for Hollywood. She like us must come to terms with the crippling reality that she, like us as viewers in a movie theater, are rendered passive and can do nothing. Ray and his screenwriter Edmund H. North treats her fascination seriously, as he does for the love of an audience for the tales Hollywood weaves and passes off as reality. Only she, unlike us, knows when to say when and start defining her identity outside of Dixon, something Hollywood film-goers arguably haven’t yet figured out, and maybe never will.
It is perhaps because of Ray’s internal anger being wrangled in by Hollywood that the film feels so gloriously, unapologetically tired – very much the point – before Ray went on to truly knock some heads as the decade went on by deconstructing the Western, 1950s moral conservatism, and fame and fortune even more harshly, as the decade went on. His films grew in ecstatic anger and passion over time – his protagonists would move from Dixonian tiredness to a raw fury. Perhaps Ray grew to feel more comfortable as a provocateur and refused to be squashed. This is also, perhaps, how Hollywood, at the end of the decade, either through formally denying him films or more likely through years of having kindled Ray’s internal decay, did get the best of him after only one major decade of film work. But as early as 1950, we find Ray the angry young man director of his time, exposing Hollywood even as he’s engaging in myth-making and reminding us that, after all, this is a Hollywood film too. If it has something to say, so does Hollywood, but we should heed both of them carefully, and with a grain of salt.