Paul Duane is rewarded by a re-watch of In A Lonely Place, the latest Criterion Collection title to be re-released on blu-ray.
‘Film noir’ is to many people a half-understood term, a visual cliché – put some venetian blinds in front of a light, get a dame in heels to point a gun, shoot in high-contrast black & white, and everybody immediately gets it – noir. A term invented by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe something quite complex has been degraded into a fedora-wearing Frank Miller fantasy world where men are men and women are pin-ups.
But to Frank, noir was a complex artistic response to America’s post-war malaise. Films like Double Indemnity & Laura – on one level crime stories – invoked a dreamlike world where truth was impossible to pin down, where men and women were on some unspoken level engaged in a struggle to the death, and where the ‘hero’ was always self-doubting and often psychologically unbalanced.
In A Lonely Place is certainly noir, even though there isn’t a gun to be seen in the entire film, and only one set of venetian blinds. Expressionist lighting has its place here in one particularly unsettling scene but the bulk of the story is played out in the strangely atmosphereless, oversized sets of Hollywood, and in a California Spanish Revival-style apartment building centred on a sunny open courtyard. Nothing could be less like the iconic private eye’s office with the single bare lightbulb.
The protagonist, whose none-more-phallic name of Dix Steele can be taken ironically, is a failed screenwriter who’s had writer’s block since returning from WW2 Germany, where he commanded an army unit. Post-war psychological fallout is regularly invoked as an underlying tension in the creation of noir, but it’s rarely – as here – an actual part of the characters’ backstory. This is 1950 – America was already in the process of forgetting the horrors of war. Dix Steele’s PTSD is a rare example of a film that portrays the lifelong damage it can inflict.
When we meet Steele, he’s been handed an assignment that could save his career – a job adapting a trash best-seller for the screen. His ennui and contempt are such that can’t even be bothered to read the thing, instead paying a hat-check girl from his club to tell him the story. Then he gives her the cab fare and goes to bed. Next morning, he’s woken by the police and taken downtown. The hat-check girl has been found murdered on a lonely road outside LA. Steele doesn’t seem particularly bothered, and his lack of reaction marks him out to the police as a suspect.
However, he has an alibi – the failed actress who lives across the courtyard from him tells the police that she saw the girl leave, while Steele stayed home. Then she tells Steele, right there in the police interrogation, that she likes his face. And you begin to realise that a film where the the police allow a suspect to remain in the room while they interrogate a potential witness, whom she proceeds to flirt with, may not be aiming for realism. But it begins the film’s great love affair in the darkest of situations, pre-figuring how it’s going to end.
Time to discuss Nicholas Ray, director of In A Lonely Place and one of the most intriguing and enigmatic of the great classical Hollywood directors. After starting out as a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and a musicologist with Alan Lomax, he found his true calling in cinema and made some of the best and most successful films of the 50s, including Rebel Without A Cause.
He was also an emotionally fragile alcoholic, a compulsive gambler with a weakness for amphetamines, who thrived via his embrace of improvisation and the Method but was assigned big-budget schlock like King of Kings. Eventually it drove him to nervous breakdown and a massive coronary which ended his Hollywood career.
Then there’s the film’s female lead, Gloria Grahame. After a few years of hanging around waiting to be discovered, she began to suffer from deep insecurity about her appearance and started to undergo regular plastic surgery, but nothing ever seemed to be enough to reassure her. When she played the lead in Ray’s film A Woman’s Secret, these two deeply unhappy people became involved in a relationship that was never going to end well. “I was infatuated with her,” Ray later said, “but I didn’t like her very much.” They got married anyway.
Ray battled to cast her as Laurel Grey in In A Lonely Place but the producers were so worried about the pair’s reputation for fighting that Grahame was forced to sign a contract reading in part, “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct, and even command my actions during the hours from 9am to 6pm, every day except Sunday, during the filming of In a Lonely Place … in every conceivable situation his will and judgement shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.”
Is it surprising that they broke up during the shoot? Somehow., though, they kept it secret from everyone, so as not to jeopardise production. Ray moved into the set, living there and rewriting the script every night into a coded reworking of their marriage. There was an extraordinary level of personal pain involved in the making of In A Lonely Place, on which Ray somehow seemed to thrive.
And, astonishingly, he transcended his own bitterness, making a film that portrays the gut-wrenching pain of a failed love affair as the failure of both participants, not the fault of one.
He certainly channeled his own pain as an artist trapped inside the draining studio machine into Bogart’s character, but if Dix Steele is a portrait of the artist, he’s a lacerating, self-loathing one. This damaged man’s final desperate attempt to find love is one of the most extraordinary performances Bogart would ever give, largely because the actor’s personality was deeply inimical to sympathy. His Steele is dislikable, controlling, violent – a borderline psychotic. While you can clearly see why a woman might be drawn to him, you can also understand why, when she realises his problems run too deep to fix, she would run.
Steele is clearly innocent of the murder of the hat-check girl, but the film is filled with extraordinary scenes which place the viewer on the shifting psychological ground of real noir. One of the most memorable casts Steele as a sort of director, as, at dinner with one of the investigating cops, he proceeds to act out how he imagines the murder happened. The previously unremarkable lighting dims, leaving only a hot spot around his glaring eyes and his fixed grimace as, with hypnotic clarity, he describes how the murder happened.
Watching it, watching him, you just know that in the right circumstances he could quite easily have killed the girl. And when Lauren Grey begins to fear him, it isn’t because she’s an inconstant woman. The viewer understands exactly how she feels and realises she’s right.
The final scene in the script was to be Steele’s inevitable murder of Lauren Grey. The cops would come to take him away as he typed the final words of his script, which were also the words of love that he’d said to her during the film’s emotional centre. “I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.” Ray filmed the scene as written, but realised it was trite and sent most of the crew home so that he could improvise a new ending with Bogart & Grahame.
The scene they improvised starts out as a viscerally horrible portrayal of domestic violence before turning into one of the most tragic endings you’ll find in any film, anywhere. It’s deeply imbued with sadness, failure, grief and despair. Two people loved each other. You could charitably say that circumstances came between them and destroyed their love.
But the real reason is that Dix Steele has allowed fear, suspicion and paranoia to infect his soul. He acts with the wrong-headed certainty of any middle-aged man who feels threatened. He thinks he knows how the world is. He knows he’s right, and he acts on his certainty, and when he’s finished, he’s left his world in ruins.
When I first saw In A Lonely Place, I was in my early twenties and I was disappointed. I wanted something more like Detour or The Big Combo or Ray’s own On Dangerous Ground – a hard-bitten noir with hats and guns and heels and snarling goons. Returning to it in middle age, I realised I’d entirely missed the darkness at the heart of the story. I just couldn’t see it because at that time I hadn’t experienced it.
Ray and Grahame became reconciled around the time of the film’s release. Perhaps the acting-out of this primal fear temporarily exorcised something in their relationship. Not long afterwards, however, Ray came home to find his wife in bed with his thirteen-year-old son Tony. There was no going back after that.
Fifteen years later, not having seen each other in the intervening time, Tony & Gloria met again and married. It lasted two years. Later, dying of cancer, Grahame moved to the UK, where her final lover wrote a voyeuristically compelling memoir, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.
Ray’s career, after he suffered a coronary while making 55 Days in Peking, was checkered. He lived an itinerant life in Europe, spending years trying to get finance for projects like The Doctor And The Devils, before finally returning to the USA to teach film. His alcohol problem caught up with him and he became unemployable and borderline homeless (as recorded in this personal piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum) before entering AA. But it was too late, as the brain cancer that eventually killed him had already set in.
But it seems he was always indefatigable, whatever the circumstances. One of the extras on this beautiful Criterion blu-ray is a condensed version of a documentary, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, which depicts how he transformed a run-of-the-mill teaching assignment into We Can’t Go Home Again, a multi-screen mixed-media film-making project way ahead of its time. The film itself was finally released in 2012, to a very mixed reception.
In A Lonely Place occupies, in some ways, an equally odd place in cinema. With one foot in the world of the Hollywood studios, it also faces forward to a type of deeply personal film-making that hadn’t yet begun.
The Criterion blu is, as you’d expect from Criterion, immaculate in sound & image, and contains (as well as the documentary) a ton of terrific extras, including Curtis Hanson’s personal essay on the film and a short about the career of Gloria Grahame by her biographer.
In A Lonely Place is out on blu-ray today.