I always approach any Nicholas Ray film with a sense of dread – not because he is a bad filmmaker, but because his films are never pleasant and his storylines don’t follow convention. I don’t mean this in a bad way, though. I love the fact that his films present us with conflicted and challenging characters. He was good at rewarding few of the so-called Hollywood ‘heartthrobs’ with substantial roles like he did for James Dean in Rebel without a Cause and for Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place. I’m going to talk about the latter.
I’m a big Bogart fan. However, I’ve always preferred watching him play characters with few shades of gray than the decent, idealistic and morally upright ones he did in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. My favorite Bogart film still remains The Treasure of Sierra Madre, particularly because Bogart doesn’t look and behave like Bogart. This could be said of Ray’s film too except for the few portions where you see Bogart in Casablanca mode. The character, Dixon Steele, can be charming at times but he is mostly unpleasant. In it Ray deconstructs noir as well as the Bogart myth.
In the Lonely Place starts off like a noir but eventually turns into something else – a relationship drama – and you realize that the murder that occurs in the background is only there to serve as a litmus test for the main couple’s love affair (Gloria Grahame’s Laura character constituting the other half). We are quite sure that Steele never murdered the young woman who shows up at the beginning of the film, yet we begin to have some doubts about it because that’s how Ray sets everything up. A question pops up: Is Ray not showing us something that we are not supposed to see? Steele and Laura first meet at the most unlikely place to begin a relationship – a police station. Steele is indifferent about the whole thing. He doesn’t even have a semblance of concern for the victim’s plight.
Steele is a down on his luck screenwriter who used to write hit screenplays at one point and now he is desperate for a comeback (yes, kind of like William Holden’s character from Sunset Boulevard). He has a sordid past and a very bad temper (which is responsible for that past). He has been in one too many violent confrontations which resulted in a lot of complaints made by those who have been terribly beaten up by him, and this includes women too. However, he is sweet to Laura but it doesn’t take very long for her to get a little vision of the monster inside him and she begins to have second thoughts. This is Bogart at his most unappealing. (By the way, he is also the producer on the film.) In one notable scene, Bogart’s face illuminated in a manner that makes him look a bit terrifying.
The finale is one of the tensest sequences I’ve ever witnessed in cinema. Ray’s staging of this sufficiently melodramatic scene is almost identical to what Douglas Sirk did in his films. Ray and Sirk both have nearly the same sensibilities but the dose of melodrama in the former’s films is comparatively less. It’s about what happens when doubt and distrust get in the way of a seemingly easy-going relationship which, perhaps, shouldn’t have been initiated in the first place. I never understood Laura’s reasons for falling in love with him in the first place. Seemed like an impulsive decision to me. But maybe she hoped, despite being very aware of his violent tendencies, that she could turn him into a much nicer man.