Where is the “Lonely Place”?
Exploring how loneliness is defined in Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place”
Film noirs are known for their dark explorations of human nature. Some of that darkness is overblown for dramatic effect; some of it feels as real as life itself. 1950’s In a Lonely Place (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel) is prime example of a dark noir. The film digs deep and explores situations of abuse and loneliness unlike most other Hollywood noirs at the time. Culturally, In a Lonely Place is crucial to Hollywood history. The film features three film icons, all in different spots in their careers. Each of the three give In a Lonely Place a unique and personal twist to its story and execution.
In a Lonely Place is director Nicholas Ray’s fifth film and helped cement him as a serious director in Hollywood. He was five years removed from his most well known film: Rebel Without a Cause. 1950 was his second year as a director, making four films in 1949. His work ethic was strong; his talent at telling stories growing with each completed film.
For the film’s stars — Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame — In a Lonely Place came at different stages of their respective career. One was a true celebrity, while the other was an up-and-comer in an ever-changing Hollywood landscape.
By 1950, Bogart was Hollywood royalty. His film catalog already included The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Casablanca. Bogart was one year shy of his Academy Award performance in The African Queen, and he was married to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Lauren Bacall. Bogart had gone through his fair share of ups and downs through his career, but, when In a Lonely Place began filming, he had found a steady, positive life. His image of being a leading man was as strong as ever.
For Gloria Grahame, by 1950, she had made a name for herself by starring in 1946's It’s A Wonderful Life (cherished now, but not a public favorite when it was released) and Crossfire (an Academy Award-nominated performance in 1947). Despite these credits to contemporary eyes, in 1950, Grahame had not yet reached her height of stardom. She was two years shy of winning an Academy Award in for 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful. Her wheels of fate were turning, however, and more producers were recognizing her talent as the new decade emerged.
In a Lonely Place is a genius film because of the ambiguity portrayed and questions asked — chiefly due to Ray’s direction and the performances by Bogart and Grahame. The film is a quintessential noir film, brilliantly and truthfully illuminating a seedier side of human nature. For viewers of the time, the film threw off expectations. Bogart (normally a heroic character) is unredeemable; Grahame (a bright-eyed newcomer to fame) is mysterious. Ray combines expectations with the adapted material to masterfully shift the narrative between perspectives and throw the viewer for a loop.
The film works on many levels, but its most important aspect — the interplay between “the Big 3” — successfully asks (and perhaps answers) the question: where is the lonely place?
The inception of the film came from the book of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes. Adapting the story took on a life of its own. Throughout the early days of production, producers had multiple hands in the adaptation of the screenplay — including Ray himself. Ultimately, Ray chose to deviate from the book at key points and make the film as much of his own as he could.
Santana Productions provided the money for the film and its leading star: Humphrey Bogart, who founded Santana in 1948. Ray and Bogart worked previously on 1949’s Knock on Any Door, the company’s first film. A bond between Ray and Bogart formed. Working with each other again for the filming of In a Lonely Place helped sharpen the dark themes of the film. (Side note: 1948 proved to be a big year for these three in general, as Grahame and Ray were married in 1948, but more on that later.)
With Ray in control of his vision for the film, his characterization and visual storytelling strengths began to focus. Though the film raises many questions and dissects situations on loneliness, love and friendship (a fact that makes In a Lonely Place re-watchable and interesting), the two important questions asked are: what is true loneliness and what happens when two lonely people try to aid that loneliness. In a Lonely Place depicts two types of loneliness (physical and mental) and, when the two meet, only disaster follows.
Ray shows the physical act of being lonely by having scenes where characters are physically by themselves (forced or chosen). The film takes place chiefly at an apartment complex in which characters are isolated in bedrooms or courtyards. In cars, at a police station or in clubs, Ray always to place our stars out of focus or isolated from others. In a scene at a dinner table, later on in the film, Ray frames Bogart at the edge of the screen and out of focus, signaling our main character is removed from the table conversation.
The audience’s introduction to Laurel (played by Gloria Grahame) is of her walking alone through the hotel courtyard, then standing in her room — alone. Her backstory is not explained, but her character arc is aptly shown by Ray’s keen direction and Grahame’s performance. Laurel is independent, here to make a living. However, whatever living she does have, Laurel wanders through life very much alone.
Wandering through life alone also is Dix Steele (played by Humphrey Bogart) but in a different context. Steele is rarely physically by himself. The opening scenes have him signing autographs for children and attending dinners at popular restaurants. Steele’s loneliness in psychological. He is a writer, a lonely profession where, to succeed, one must work by themselves. Or, so the thinking goes. Despite physically attending parties and being a celebrity, Steele sees himself as an outsider of the Hollywood lifestyle.
Early on in the film, Steele asks a woman named Mildred (played by Martha Stewart, not the one you are thinking of) to help him work on a script. Why? Is he feeling lustful or does Steele just want some company? Ray leaves the answer ambiguous. These opening scenes successfully showcase Ray establishing the ways in which these characters are lonely people and how they deal with such a fact.
The story, for about the first half of the film, is centered around Steele. When the woman Steele invited over to his apartment is murdered, naturally, he becomes a suspect. Police believe he is the last one to see her alive. Investigators question him about the gruesome details, but the audience never believes Steele as the suspect. Ray never truly shows the audience anything to suggest he is a murderer; Bogart does not play Steele as a murderer.
His savior is Laurel, who comes in to squash all doubts. The police question her, and she provides an alibi for Steele: the young woman left his apartment alone while he slept inside. She knows because she watched from her apartment (set-up by Ray earlier).
Ray sets up this questioning scene perfectly. Laurel sits in front of Steele and to his right. This provides a shot where the audience sees both their faces and reactions to the police questioning. The audience senses some intrigue between the two, perhaps an answer to their lonesome prayers. Do we actually see or know what Laurel saw? No, Ray never shows us. What is gathered in this scene — through the direction and performances — is Laurel and Steele want to personally know more about each other.
The story for the second half of the film shifts to Laurel’s perspective. The subtle shift in story is all Ray and his interest in relationship’s effect on loneliness. Laurel is over-joyed to have someone like Steele in her life. She informs Steele of her goal to become an actress; the two strike up a romance. Laurel is a witty, smooth talking woman — who can dish it just as much as Steele. This back-and-forth flirting starts to show Laurel in a new light. The audience sees her open up around others. The budding romance is great for Steele, too. Falling in love with Laurel conquers his dry spell as a writer. He begins work on a new screenplay. She has inspired him and the shift has begun.
Laurel finds herself surrounded by more and more people, thanks to Steele’s celebrity. She finds the company pleasing and welcoming. But, Steele begins isolating himself (to write) and becoming more erratic with others. Laurel’s loneliness becomes reversed from the start of the movie, as she begins experiencing psychological loneliness. As Steele’s anger becomes more prevalent, she feels angry at herself for believing Steele was the right match. As doubts and her internal loneliness grow, she becomes a firsthand witness of Steele’s wrath and abuse. In one scene, Steele almost kills a man after a spurt of road rage. Seeing this, Laurel starts to believe Steele actually may have killed the woman from the start of the film.
This switch from a mysterious, slick woman to a scared and lonely woman has a lot to do with Ray’s direction. But, more so, it is Grahame’s performance that lifts the film to its highest level. Grahame is a natural in the role — someone who understands this psychological shift happening to her character. This makes sense: the similarities between Laurel and Grahame’s person life are eerily similar. Her performance is a case of life imitating art.
Nicholas Ray and Gloria Grahame’s marriage was pretty much over by the time filming began. Ray believed in Grahame’s ability to act (though she was the third choice to play Laurel, behind Ginger Rogers and Lauren Bacall), and Grahame was the professional who saw this role as just another acting job. Throughout the shooting of the film, Ray slept at the studio, telling Grahame he needed to work on script adjustments. Ultimately, he was ensuring there would be no confrontations between the two. Because of their crumbling marriage, the pain and distrust Grahame felt toward Ray (though still incredibly attracted to the man) bled into her performance as Laurel. The character also expresses a physical attraction to Steele throughout the movie, but, as the paranoia and distrust creep into her mind, the relationship breaks down.
Grahame is wonderful at making Laurel seem ambiguous toward her true feelings, something Ray saw and focused on. Motives in In a Lonely Place are usually unclear. How much characters know and when they know are never fully realized by the viewer. Audiences can interpret Grahame’s facial expression and body language in several different ways. As the film moves along, Laurel’s feelings become more defined — as loneliness (and her disappointment of a failing relationship) is too great to ignore. To show the weight of her lonely state-of-mind (where she has nightmares), Grahame is more expressive in her performance. Her pain is felt and seen. No more is her loneliness physical where she can hide her feelings behind wit and beauty. Loneliness has taken over her psychological state.
For Steele, his loneliness evolves, too. Bogart’s performance in In a Lonely Place rivals his best work to date (though, I would not call this my favorite). As the story unwinds, Steele beings to drive people away. His aggression and anger scare Laurel and the ones who sees him attack others. Steele’s dedication to his craft (however noble) creates icy tension between lovers. A scene midway through shows Steele hard at work writing, while Laurel entertains a guest. She tries to get Steele to have a conversation, but he only half listens. The lonely craft of writing cuts out normal social behavior, while Laurel is left with the guest.
Steele continues to act as if an outsider with most of the world, but Steele’s relationship with Laurel (and the new determination to write a screenplay) bring out a lonely social side unseen in the first half. Bogart’s talent of turning on a dime and physically expressing this new loneliness (a link to becoming abusive) is scary. This side of Steele isolates him from his friends, agent and, ultimately, Laurel. (Though happily married to Bacall and usually known as great company, some would attest to Bogart’s nature of getting heated quickly, perhaps bringing that side to this performance).
Steele’s violent behavior stops any hope at a sustained relationship with Laurel — or, by the end, with anyone. The culprit to the murder from the start of the film is revealed, clearing Steele’s name once and for all. But, Steele is too far down a lonely, psychological mindset to save himself with Laurel. Steele’s violent streak is climaxed with attacking Laurel and almost killing her, as he learns she is on the verge of leaving him.
The final scenes of the film mirror the beginning, as Ray showcases their loneliness, but reflect the change in each’s lonely setting. Ray’s final shot is Steele walking away from Laurel, leaving her room and the complex alone and defeated. His options for future companionships or friendships are bleak. For Laurel, despite sad at the loss of a relationship (even with the abuse by Steele), she has options. She made friends throughout the film and has a plane ticket for New York. Unlike the beginning of the film, Laurel finds herself psychologically isolated due to her experiences with Steele. However, her options for a sustained relationship are not as bleak as Steele’s.
In a Lonely Place helped Gloria Grahame achieve stardom, rooted Nicholas Ray as a bonafide Hollywood director and gave Humphrey Bogart an opportunity to widen his appeal as a Hollywood legend. The film is a noir classic. It explores the painful experience of different types of loneliness, while juxtaposing that with the euphoria of companionship. The brilliant aspect of the film is the changing perspectives of Steele to Laurel, and depicting the varied states of true loneliness. There is that lonely feeling one experiences psychologically because of their personality or job; then there is the physical loneliness of having no one. Steele and Laurel go through these emotions and different levels throughout the film, but the total effect on each is up for debate.
In a Lonely Place asks the viewer: where is the lonely place? We get clues to answers and see that it changes throughout the film. However, what the audience knows for sure: the film takes place in Hollywood.