October is Nicholas Ray Month!

In a Lonely Place (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1950)

“The rest shouldn’t worry you – that is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of emotion,” says the characteristically dry and self-sabotaging Dixon Steele, in an attempt to persuade the police he didn’t murder a young woman.  Dixon, played by Humphrey Bogart in an unnervingly natural performance, is a  screenwriter with a hard shell of apathy and a stubborn sense of artistic idealism – a bad combination for someone trying to clear himself of criminal suspicion, or, for that matter, trying to survive in Hollywood.

Indeed, Andrew Solt’s magnificent and almost unparalleled noir screenplay perfectly captures the nasty, soul-sucking pitfalls of an industry founded largely on nepotism and “personality.”  (An early scene with a brashly pompous young director, supposedly based on Carl Laemmle Jr., features morbidly spot-on dialogue.)  It is of no surprise then that such an industry has little tolerance for Dixon, an emotionally isolated antihero more akin to an Albert Camus character than to the Laemmle family.  When Laurel Gray (a terrific Gloria Grahame) enters the picture – gorgeous, passionate and willing to take Dixon’s side during a police interrogation – her affections for the doomed outsider seem too good to be true and too lucky to last.  One of the more exquisite tragedies of In a Lonely Place is that Dixon knows his moments of intense happiness with Laurel will be fleeting, and that when the cherished romance comes to an irreparable end, it will be his fault.

As in other films by Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place has a striking, completely raw emotional tone.  Dixon and Laurel’s relationship, underscored with paranoia and more than a trace of masochism, undergoes hyperbolic highs and lows as the two attract each other, quickly become inseparable and then veer onto a crash course ominously signposted by Dixon’s toxic temper and Laurel’s festering doubt.  It’s not an accident that, in a later scene, an enraged Dixon drives Laurel at break-neck speed down a perilously twisty road.

In a film with such a heavy, increasingly mournful heart, Ray is wise to bring to light the other fragile relationships that orbit tentatively around Dixon Steele.  An ex-flame steals an early scene as she hurls playfully jaded one-liners at the misanthrope.  (“Do you look down on all women or just the ones you know?”)  Detective Brub Nicolai, who once served with Dixon in the army, investigates the murder allegations against his friend with a hesitant, if morbidly curious, conscience.  And Mel, Dixon’s long-suffering agent and only real companion, emerges as the one resigned, battered glimmer of hope in the film, the one indication that a true love story may be at work amidst all the heartbreak.  These characters form an intricate and deeply human constellation of players around the wary screenwriter, and remind us that it is both the presence and absence of people that makes the world a lonely, if occasionally lovely, place.

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