Nicholas Ray: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place
d. Nicholas Ray (1950)
Spine: #810
Blu-ray Release Date: May 10, 2016

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

In a Lonely Place, which is a rare case where I like a film adaptation of a magnificent book more than the magnificent book itself, is out today in a lovely edition from The Criterion Collection.

In a Lonely Place Cover

The book, by Dorothy Hughes, is a wonderful crime novel from 1947 that explores misogyny by looking at a serial killer and rapist named Dix Steele, a crime writer who really has little to recommend him. The film adaptation perhaps doesn’t portray outright misogyny as well, since Steele’s wrath seems to cross gender lines easily. However, it forces its viewers to contend with the violence, sometimes directed at women, erupting from a respected, loved, “classy” Dix Steele, played by an actor who has made a career of making us see the inherent goodness of his gritty characters, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart has perhaps never been better than here. Under Ray’s direction, he upends the formula and shows the ugliness that lies under the “manly” exterior.

Here, Dix is a fairly well respected screen writer who is trying to avoid has-been status by writing one great screenplay based on the trashy books he’s always asked to adapt. We meet Dix when he’s feeling some pressure to perform, but he’s still filled with what we might consider swagger but that shows itself to be bubbling fury at anyone who crosses him. Nevertheless, this is tempered slightly when he invites Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) to his home. She tells him no, but he promises that it’s only so she can summarize a book she’s just read that he is supposed to adapt. He’d like her help, that’s all. And we are all disarmed when he honors this pledge. He isn’t trying to take advantage of her. How bad can he be? Well, not quite chivalrous to get her a cab when its time for her to go.

In a Lonely Place 1
Humphrey Bogart and Martha Stewart

The next morning, Dix is called into the police for questioning. Tragically, Mildred Atkinson was found murdered, and Dix was seen taking her to his home. Filled with confidence, Steele has the police call his neighbor, Laurel Gray (played wonderfully by Gloria Graham), who saw Mildred leaving Dix’s house. Just look at how cocky Dix is in this shot, at the police station, suspected of murder, framed behind Laurel as she tries to work through what to say to the police.

In a Lonely Place 2

Laurel is confident, too. She knows she saw Mildred leaving Dix’s home, and she is charmed by Dix himself. They didn’t really know each other until this incident brought them together, Laurel having moved in only recently, but they soon find themselves in a romance that feels perfect, but for the issue of this murder investigation.

Their love seems to inspire Dix, who really didn’t see himself as particularly loveable, and he gets to work on that screenplay. Laurel, for her part, is happy to help and is really not worried that her new love is a murder suspect — she’s positive that he’s innocent.

Dix’s violence, however, is always secured by the weakest of latches. The more often Laurel sees him blow up over something relatively small, the more she begins to question his innocence . . . and the more she fears him. The mores she fears him, the more she pushes away, the more Dix responds with jealousy, possessiveness, and rage. Laurel finds herself trapped in a tragedy.

In a Lonely Place 3

The brilliance of the film, as opposed to that of the book, is that in the end it doesn’t really matter if Dix is the murderer or not. He’s an irredeemable, insecure thug who is capable of anything, regardless of that night.

In a Lonely Place is psychologically complex, and Grahame and Bogart are perfection as they portray these characters’ shadows. Some of this is perhaps because of Ray’s own shadows. He was married to Grahame at the time, but they were separated during the filming. While able to work together with remarkable professionalism given the circumstances, each seemed to recognize their own relationship troubles in this film. Consequently, it feels personal and all the more tragic.


The Criterion Collection edition:

  • In a nice treat, the disc comes with a full-length audio commentary from film scholar Dana Polan, who wrote the BFI Film Classics book on In a Lonely Place. While covering many of the aspects that are touched on in the other supplements, this supplement also talks about the story of the film’s reputation. It came out in 1950, a strong year for film, but it wasn’t initially well received, its reputation only growing in the ensuing years. I also enjoyed Polan’s insights on Ray’s direction choices.
  • I’m a Stranger Here Myself: This is a 40:33-minute documentary about Nicholas Ray from 1975, which looks at the directors work, primarily In a Lonely Place and, naturally, Rebel Without a Cause, featuring interviews with Natalie Wood and François Truffaut, among others.
  • Gloria Grahame: My favorite supplement is this 16:40-minute interview with biographer Vincent Curcio on Gloria Grahame. Grahame had what to me appears to be a rather tragic life, though Curcio presents it as the life she chose and never seemed to regret. In this piece, we look at Grahame’s career as a whole, while focusing on In a Lonely Place and her relationship to her husband, the director, Nicholas Ray. There were issues, up to when Ray found Gloria in bed with his thirteen-year-old son, Anthony, who would himself marry Grahame in 1960. This feature skims a lot of these bits of Grahame’s life, without outrightly skipping them, focusing, perhaps appropriately, on the work she was doing around 1950.
  • “In a Lonely Place” Revisited: This is a 2002, 20:23-minute piece in which filmmaker Curtis Hanson takes us to one of Ray’s first apartments in Los Angeles and talks about the film’s inception and evolution from the novel, to the script, to the screen.
  • Suspense, Episode 287: This is a radio adaptation of the original novel from 1948 for the radio program “Suspense,” with Montgomery Clift and Lurene Tuttle. I’m always a fan of these supplements, and this one is perhaps even better than most as it allows us to catch the differences between the book and the film.
  • The disc also comes with a trailer and a fold-out insert featuring an essay, “In a Lonely Place: An Epitaph for Love,” by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

One thought on “Nicholas Ray: In a Lonely Place

  1. Thank you for your thoughts on my commentary. I enjoyed doing this dvd commentary very much and it pleases me to have your response to it. I see the scholarly dvd commentary as a genre as an attempt to add critical insight to a film and I am glad you generally thought this one worked.

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