Filmsite Movie Review
In a Lonely Place (1950)
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Background

In a Lonely Place (1950) is maverick director Nicholas Ray's and Columbia Pictures' well-respected, bleak, mature, and dramatic film noir, although it was not a box-office hit and received no Academy Award nominations. The dark melodrama, Ray's fourth feature film (and his second collaboration with Humphrey Bogart after Knock on Any Door (1949)), is a poignant story of an isolated, alcoholic, hot-tempered and embittered 'lonely' Hollywood screenwriter with great talent who also had a dual nature - a hidden, inner existential black side to his outer facade. [Note: The film's working title was Behind This Mask.]

The weighty melocrama had all the prequisites of basic film noir: fatalism, and a doomed and eroding love affair and attraction between an unstable, flawed hero with a haunted past, and a femme fatale - an aspiring actress hiding from an ex-lover. It also examined the roots and nature of violence within an atmosphere of extreme paranoia.

In the same year, two other more highly-regarded films were also self-reflexive and sardonic about the dark and damning side of Hollywood and its illusory lure of celebrity, including Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) (about another cynical Hollywood screenwriter), and Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950). All the films followed the critical attacks of the US government's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on actors and screenwriters in 1947, which had left Hollywood paranoid and rife with rumors, mistrust and surveillance.

The hard-drinking, liberal Democrat Bogart had himself been questioned and the subject of negative press after the Congressional hearings for allegedly defending the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. In Photoplay magazine (March 1948 edition), he published an article titled: "I'm No Communist" - admitting only that he had been in Washington DC solely to speak out for First Amendment rights, and not to defend the Hollywood Ten, or to "defend Communism in Hollywood":

So long as we are opposed completely to Communism and do not permit ourselves to be used as dupes by Commie organizations, we can still function as thoughtful American citizens. In the final analysis, this House Committee probe has had one salutary effect. It cleared the air by indicating what a minute number of Commies there really are in the film industry. Though headlines may have screamed of the Red menace in movies, all the wind and fury actually proved that there's been no Communism injected on America's movie screens. As I said, I'm no Communist. If you thought so, you were dead wrong. But, brother, in this democracy, no one's going to shoot you for having thought so!

[Note: Other films critical of Hollwood appeared in the next few years: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (featuring an Oscar-winning performance from Gloria Grahame), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and A Star is Born (1954). Latter-day critiques include Robert Altman's The Player (1992), and David Lynch's dream noir Mulholland Drive (2001).]

In the film's story, the main character was a world-weary, acerbic, alienated, struggling depression-plagued Hollywood screenwriter and laconic anti-hero named Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart). Unofficially, he had been 'blacklisted' by Hollywood for his belligerency, personal attitude, and violent streaks. He was planning to adapt a trashy best-selling romance novel when he became the prime suspect in a murder case of a simple-minded, night-club hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart). Symbolic of Hollywood's pulp-fiction audience, she had been invited to his apartment to provide a synopsis of the lightweight, second-rate book he hadn't read himself and was about to reluctantly adapt into a script, when she was found brutally murdered the next morning. His romantic relationship with a lovely neighbor/would-be starlet Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) in his housing complex grew stronger when she confirmed his alibi, but ultimately was put to the test as she became increasingly suspicious of his disintegrating and violent self. His rage at the growing cloud of suspicion over him eventually caused him to drive her love away. The film's motif was expressed in one of the film's most unforgettable lines, recited by Dix from his script to Laurel: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

The main roles in the compelling and taut noir with marvelously intelligent dialogue were played by (1) the esteemed Humphrey Bogart (or "Bogey") in one of his last great film roles as a volatile, hard-drinking, self-destructive and highly paranoid individual with suppressed rage, who shared some of the characteristics of the character he played; and (2) 27 year-old Gloria Grahame, a frequent sultry and irresistible femme fatale in film noirs, who was married to director Nicholas Ray. During filming, the couple was in the midst of a bitter and stormy marital dispute, which soon led to their separation in 1951 and their divorce in 1952. [Eventually in 1960, Grahame married Ray's own son Anthony, her former stepson from Ray's first marriage!] It is very probable that the problems of Grahame and Ray were transferred to the on-screen troubled relationship and doomed romance between the two main players. Bogey's wife Lauren Bacall had been considered for the female part, but she was under contract to Warner Bros (who refused to release her) - and the studio was disgruntled that Bogart had produced the film with his own independent company, Santana Productions.

Its complex script by Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt was an adaptation of mystery writer Dorothy B. Hughes' 1947 novel of the same name. In the original book version (told from the killer's viewpoint), the main protagonist was a charlatan only posing as a novelist. He was also a violent, misogynistic serial killer, psychopath and rapist. In the film version (with an ending revamped and reshot by director Ray himself), the off-beat, temperamental, sometimes belligerent screenwriter was suspected of a brutal murder (off-screen), but was judged to be innocent. The book's cover headlined: "The Classic Noir Tale of American Machismo Gone Mad," while the film's tagline hinted that there was a different, non-violent surprise ending: "The Bogart Suspense Picture With the Surprise Finish."

Issues and Themes: The Two Main Protagonists
Dixon Steele and Laurel Gray
Dix's Nature:

WWII veteran Dix (possibly suffering shell-shock or PTSD) was mostly friendless and living a lonely, stressed-out life. He was emotionally distant, except for contact with his long-time nurturing, aging agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith), old army pal and Beverly Hills detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), Brub's wife Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell), and restaurant headwaiter-owner Paul (Steven Geray).

Brub recalled how difficult it was to know Dix: "It's hard to tell how Dix feels about anything. None of us could ever figure him out." Brub's wife Sylvia thought: "He's a sick man...There's something wrong with him...He's exciting because he isn't quite normal." Deputy Barton (William Ching) thought: "I could see why that guy gets into a lot of trouble."

Laurel also observed: "Dix doesn't act like a normal person...I'm scared of him. I don't trust him. I'm not even sure he didn't kill Mildred Atkinson...Why can't he be like other people? Why?"

However, Dix sometimes exhibited a sympathetic, humanist, generous side, especially with outcasts and losers (like himself) and those less fortunate, and was often tender, kind and sweet to Laurel, bringing her packages. He also bought two dozen white roses for Mildred's funeral, and purchased a postal money order for $300 to pay for a new paint-job after side-swiping a UCLA student's car.

Dix was intransigent, bitter and disturbed with a dual personality, rapid mood swings, and simmering-below-the-surface anger issues that erupted with ferocious speed and intensity. His major problem was his misogynistic, abusive possessiveness of women, and his demanding need to be in charge - if thwarted, he lashed out with anger.

In the opening scene, Dix revealed his anger at an intersection. At Paul's restaurant, he punched out Junior (Lewis Howard, uncredited), the cruel son-in-law of a studio head for insulting, taunting and bad-mouthing his sad, alcoholic, washed-up "thesbian" friend, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warrick), who was from the classic "old school" of Shakespearean acting.

Everyone wanted to believe that Dix was not guilty of Mildred's murder, but he continually alienated his admirers, actually hinted that he had committed the crime during a dinner re-enactment scene, was violent tempered, and difficult to know.

Doubts about him grew as the film progressed. Captain Lochner sensed: "Killing has a fascination for him."

Long-suffering agent Mel admitted: "Always violent. Well, it's as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head. He's Dix Steele, and if you want him, you've got to take it all, the bad with the good!"

Dix's Wasted Talent:

Dix was a talented, intelligent, down-on-his-luck mercurial screenwriter, but artistically depleted and without a bankable screenplay or hit in years (since the war).

He cultivated and maintained a pretense of eliteness and greatness, professed that he had an "artistic temperament" that set him apart, and claimed that his dry spell was, allegedly, due to his integrity and his disdainful refusal to produce the "popcorn" schlock that an exploitative Hollywood required. Vulgar, low-class Mildred's retelling of the best-selling trashy novel's story was representative of the world that he had contempt for.

He was frustrated that his superior gifts were too often treated as a commodity by the profit-motivated, materialistic, philistine film-industry that had mostly shut him out and been disdainful of his artistic talents. He felt entrapped that he had to betray his talents for money by writing a script for a cheap romance novel.

He disdainfully insulted Hollywood director Lloyd Barnes (Morris Ankrum) as an exploitative "popcorn salesman," and disrespectfully assaulted another producer/director, the son-in-law of a studio head, after the hotshot insulted his alcoholic friend Charlie.

He was upset by the false, social hierarchies of a hostile Hollywood that rewarded only the rich and famous.

He sometimes deliberately upset and provoked his loyal agent Mel, who was eager to support and cover for him (for 20 years). Mel knew him best: "Dix has a tremendous ego. He can't take defeat...If Dix has success, he doesn't need anything else."

He often refused to work on projects, didn't answer the phone when it rang, slept late, and frequently engaged in arguments and fights.

Dix's and Laurel's Hidden Secrets and Personal Histories:

Laurel provided an alibi for Dix, claiming that he had an amiable facade ("I like his face"). When he saw her face in a casting directory, he also exclaimed: "Wonderful face." He later told her: "It's a good thing you like my face. I'd have been in a lot of trouble without you."

She believed he could save her, and that she could fix or heal Dix's own brooding and deep issues (including uncontrollable, volatile rage), although stated right at first that she was a "get out before you get hurt" type that didn't like to be rushed: "I think twice before I get into something." He commended her: "I suppose you save yourself a lot of trouble that way."

Both were unreliable and had hidden secrets and calloused personal histories that they kept from each other - they were their own worst enemies. Her search for a movie career, marriage and love had already proved elusive. For both of them, their love seemed their 'last chance' to find happiness.

She told him she was "not hiding, just avoiding" things from her emotionally-scarred past. She could look down into his apartment better than he could see into her upper-floor apartment. He expressed his curiosity in her: "I'd try to find out who you're hiding from."

Later, Laurel expressed her confusion and worry: "There is something strange about Dix, isn't there? I keep worrying about it. I stay awake nights trying to find out what it is."

Dix had a suspected psychopathic layer hidden beneath. He had a long history and record of violent outbursts ("He plays rough"), and frequent arrests or detainments for assault and domestic abuse (he broke his ex-girlfriend Fran Randolph's (Alix or Alice Talton, uncredited) nose, but she denied and dropped the charges).

Acting like a "madman," he was murderously aggressive and about to smash in the face of young UCLA college star John Mason (Don Hamin, uncredited) with a rock during an incident of road rage, following a minor car accident that he himself caused. He almost killed the young student for a silly insult when he was called "a blind, knuckle-headed squirrel." Dix claimed he'd been in over a hundred similar fights - "I'm usually in the right. I was this time."

Laurel’s 'secret life' in the past that she was hiding and avoiding involved being with a wealthy real estate tycoon named "Baker" who bought her a pool for her rented house. (She was thinking of marrying him, but sensed: "It wouldn't have worked.") She had also been in a couple of low-budget pictures.

She was possibly in a 'coded' lesbian relationship with her sadistic, 50-ish, butch masseuse Martha (Ruth Gillette, uncredited) (who repeatedly called Laurel "angel"). Martha showed distaste for men and wanted to break up Laurel and Dix, by recalling Dix's past history of beating up a former client, Fran Randolph. When Martha was thrown out during a massage session with Laurel, the masseuse predicted: "You'll beg me to come back when you're in trouble. And you will, angel, because you don't have anybody else."

Their Self-Destructive Relationship:

Dix came out of his cynical malaise and withdrawal after meeting neighbor Laurel, who had provided him with a life-saving alibi. When asked about a possible relationship with Dix, she replied: "I'm interested."

He craved female companionship and an escape from his "lonely place." He told Laurel: "I've been looking for someone for a long time. I didn't know her name or where she lived. I'd never seen her before... I found what I was looking for. Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look."

With peace of mind, he was now able to get back to writing with renewed self-respect, since he had been inspired to return to his creative work with which he was fully identified - and he was able to feel redeemed and truly alive (with Laurel as his script typist). Sylvia suggested to the loving couple: "Dix needs you, Laurel. You ought to marry him."

But the more she (and others) distrusted him, his erratic behavior, isolation and simmering anger grew and endangered their star-crossed, fatalistic pairing.

Once the couple had fallen in love, the two teased each other. They traded caustic barbs with each other, joking and revealing the issues that divided them:

Laurel: "You're a horrible, conceited good-for-nothing, and I don't love you."
Dix: "If you don't let me alone, I'm gonna kick you right outta here...You go when I tell you to go, and not before. Remember that."

Her distrust grew about his sanity, however, especially after the vicious beating of the young UCLA driver John Mason.

Laurel told Sylvia what she couldn't bear to say to Dix: "'I love you but I'm afraid of you. I want to marry you but first convince me that Lochner's wrong, that you didn't kill Mildred Atkinson.'"

 

Their Uncertain Futures:

Dix's new script was a "raving" success, and he had found professional recognition. He was on the verge of coming out of his depression and cynicism after meeting Laurel. He was also exonerated and cleared of the crime when Mildred's boyfriend Henry Kesler confessed.

The final ambiguous view of Dix exiting his apartment complex illustrated his desolation and uncertain future. Mel's prophetic words were proven wrong: "If Dix has success, he doesn't need anything else."

Dix's personal life was in shambles after revealing his dark side (from his past) to Laurel. He found her about to leave him on the day of their engagement party, and he interpreted it as distrust and betrayal. But she was entirely justified - she was fearful that he was a "maniac" unable to control his volatile impulses.

He flew into a blind and murderous, abusive rage and started strangling her, destroying any hope of their relationship. Without Laurel's inspiration to be with him - he now had no motivation to write any further and he was facing a bleak future.

And Laurel herself, after briefly sharing in the glitzy and privileged world of Hollywood film-making with scripter Dix, was now left love-less and facing uncertainty herself.


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