In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Andrew Solt (adaptation by Edmund H. North; based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes)
Stars: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Capt. Lochner), Art Smith (Agent Mel Lippman), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicolai), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman), Morris Ankrum (Lloyd Barnes), William Ching (Ted Barton), Steven Geray (Paul, Headwaiter), Hadda Brooks (Singer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1950
Country: U.S.
In a Lonely Place Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
In a Lonely PlaceBy the time he starred in Nicholas Ray’s fascinatingly perverse noir In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart had long since achieved the status of cultural icon. He had starred in dozens of films since the early 1930s, most of which were bit parts as gangsters and background heavies prior to his breakthrough into leading man status with The Petrified Forest (1936), which was thoroughly cemented in the early 1940s with The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and The Big Sleep (1946). His screen persona quickly solidified as the tough, cynical individual (his signature line could be Casablanca’s “I stick my neck out for nobody”) whose hardened exterior hides a secret romantic with noble desires that eventually find their way out. He was the tough guy you could admire, the loner you could love.

Ray turned that all on its ear in casting Bogart as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter with a vicious mean streak and fading career. In the film’s very first scene Dixon trades words with a man at the stoplight next to him and almost ends up in a fistfight, and in the very next scene he winds up pummeling another man at the bar he frequents with his long-suffering agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) and other Hollywood heavies. Because we are so used to seeing Bogart as a tough guy, these scenes don’t immediately register as pathological, although in hindsight they become deeply troubling. The story takes an early turn when Dixon invites Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), the sweet-faced coat-check girl at the bar, back to his apartment to relate to him the plot of a novel he is supposed to adapt but doesn’t want to read. Mildred rightly suspects that Dixon has other things on his mind, and if he does, he doesn’t act on them, instead sending Mildred home at the end of the night, an event that is witnessed by his new neighbor, a seemingly icy blonde aspiring actress named Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame).

The next morning Dixon is summoned to the office of Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) by Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an old Army buddy he hasn’t seen since the war. Turns out that Mildred was murdered some time after she left Dixon’s apartment, and since he was the last one to see her alive, he naturally becomes the police’s chief suspect. When questioned about it, Dixon replies with an air of calm collectedness laced with dark humor, which in another film would simply register as Bogart-style cool, but here starts edging toward the sinister. His complete lack of empathy for this poor girl who was strangled to death and left on the roadside suggests a fundamental hole at his core—something much deeper and worse than just being hard. Laurel is brought in to provide her witness that Dixon sent the girl home and them went back into his apartment, which establishes a connection between them that soon blossoms into an increasingly passionate romance. Laurel is at first resistant to Dixon’s advances, but he is relentless in his pursuit, and soon she is all but living with him and tending to all his needs as he works furiously on a new screenplay, the first time he has been so creatively productive in ages.

Yet, questions remain about Dixon’s culpability in Mildred’s murder, and his behaviors alternately suggest innocence and guilt. The film’s dramatic centerpiece, and probably the most unsettling moment in Bogart’s entire career, takes place at Brub Nicholai’s house when he and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) invite Dixon over for dinner. They begin discussing the case, and Dixon describes what he imagines probably happened to Mildred, which he asks Brub and Sylvia to act out. As he describes how the assailant might have slipped his arm around Mildred’s neck while driving and then slowly but surely caught her neck in the vice-grip of his elbow and squeezed the life out of her, Dixon’s eyes flash with unsettling excitement and he leans further and further forward, commanding the increasingly uncomfortable couple to enact the violence with more and more intensity. Ray and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (who would go on to win Oscars from 1953’s From Here to Eternity and 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde) dramatically light Bogart’s face in such a way that he becomes literally monstrous, as if he escaped from a Universal creature feature from the previous decade, and Bogart plays the moment with an almost drooling sense of exhilaration. Is this just the intensity of a writer in the grip of a passionate description, or is it a psychotic allowing his murderous glee to slip into the light for others to witness?

That question hangs heavy over the second half of the film, as the romance between Dixon and Laurel is poisoned by her increasing suspicion that he is, in fact, a psychotic killer. Her fear of him and his violence forces her to play a role from which she increasingly wants to escape; meanwhile, Dixon becomes more and more possessive, which makes him seem that much more terrifying. The fact that he is a violent man with a hair-trigger temper is given incontrovertible proof when he nearly beats a man to death after he cuts him off on the road, an event that Laurel witnesses and starts her journey down the spiral of doubt. Because Dixon is played by Bogart—the iconic Bogie—our tendency is to read his apparent psychosis and violence as the lashing out of a misunderstood artist, the remnants of a darker man who is on the road to redemption. But, the further the film goes, the more unlikely that seems. In a Lonely Place achieves an absolutely unrelenting grip because Ray plays so expertly on our associations, turning them inside out and against us, forcing us to identify with Laurel because, like her, we can’t believe that the man we love might be a remorseless killer.

In a Lonely Place Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Dana Polan
  • I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1975) documentary about director Nicholas Ray
  • Video interview with biographer Vincent Curcio about actor Gloria Grahame
  • In a Lonely Place Revisited” 2002 featurette featuring filmmaker Curtis Hanson
  • Radio adaptation from 1948, broadcast on the program Suspense
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 10, 2016

    Criterion’s 2K transfer of In a Lonely Place was made from a new 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original negative. It looks absolutely fantastic, making it a no-brainer replacement for Sony’s 2003 DVD. The noir-ish lighting is beautifully rendered with strong shadow detail, inky blacks, and sharp contrast. Detail is excellent throughout, and there is little in the way of dirt or damage after extensive digital restoration. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm soundtrack negative and digitally restored, giving us a solid, clear track.
    The supplements on Criterion’s edition of In a Lonely Place offers a mix of supplements new and old. New is an excellent audio commentary by prolific film scholar Dana Polan, who wrote the BFI Film Classics study of In a Lonely Place back in 1994. He knows the film inside and out, and he offers an edifying analysis of the film along with its historical and institutional context. Also new is a 17-minute interview with biographer Vincent Curcio about Gloria Grahame, whose marriage to director Nicholas Ray was coming apart during the film’s production. From an earlier DVD release of the film we get a 20-minute featurette in which director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) takes us on a tour of the locations that inspired the film (especially the courtyard apartment complex where Ray once lived that served as the model for the studio set) while describing his own appreciation of it. From the archives we have I’m a Stranger Here Myself, a 1975 documentary by David Helpern about director Nicholas Ray (running 40 minutes, it has been trimmed from its original 60-minute runtime for this release). It features interviews with Ray, French New Wave icon François Truffaut, and actors John Houseman and Natalie Wood. Also from the archive is a 1948 radio adaptation of the original Dorothy B. Hughes novel that was broadcast on the program Suspense and an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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