|Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950)|
This article is featured in the Nov./Dec. 2016 issue of THE DARK PAGES film noir newsletter edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. For information on the bi-monthly publication, Click here.
Several big-budget, not-exactly-noir Hollywood movies were showcased at San Francisco’s Noir City XIV last January, but among the genre gems on the program was Nicholas Ray’s great classic from 1950, In a Lonely Place. What popped for me on this, my first big screen viewing of the film, was Gloria Grahame in the female lead. The emotional reality of her performance, along with the dizzying brew of sexuality and fragility of her onscreen presence, seemed to stand out for its modernity in contrast to the more traditional acting styles of much of the rest of the cast. In addition to her dazzling turn, co-star Humphrey Bogart offered one of his best career performances as a brooding, disaffected Hollywood screenwriter, and the finished film, a shattering love story as much as it is film noir, emerges as one of the most powerful in Nick Ray’s filmography.
As I watched In a Lonely Place from my theater seat, I remembered that the last time I’d seen it, at home on a smaller screen, a minor point in the narrative had made me curious enough to dig into the film’s roots.
Within the first few scenes of the film, Dix Steele (Bogart) is established as a contentious man with an explosive temper, quick to his fists. From beginning to end, Steele’s uneven temper is often simmering or boiling over. Bogart plays him mostly arrogant and surly with accents of sarcasm and jaded wit.
And yet the script has Steele repeatedly being praised as a “great guy” by just about everyone who knows him. Even a former girlfriend whose nose he once broke in a fit of temper is still a friend. His friends remain steadfast even after he is named prime suspect in the killing of a young hat-check girl who was last seen with him. And his harsh treatment of his new girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Grahame), is largely excused because, as a murder suspect, he's under great stress. Dix alludes to his own “artistic” temperament and one long-time associate believes “…he has a right to explode sometimes, it’s as much a part of him as his eyes…” This is film noir directed by Nick Ray, so naturally Dix Steele is a deeply alienated and conflicted character with a tendency toward violence. But the character is also supposed to not only be a basically good guy, but also immensely likeable. Since this likeability didn’t seem all that evident, I wondered about the novel from which the film was adapted, interested in what changes might've occurred as the story made its way from page to screen.
In a Lonely Place was first published in 1947, penned by prominent mystery/crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes. It was her eleventh novel and two of her previous books had already been made into films – The Fallen Sparrow (1943) and Ride the Pink Horse (1947). Interestingly, the author’s first published work was a book of poetry. She was also a literary critic.
While some of the book's elements were retained, both its plot and themes are significantly different from the film adaptation.
In the Hughes novel, Dix Steele, recently returned from World War II, is staying in Los Angeles in the swank but borrowed garden court apartment of an old Princeton pal. He contacts war buddy Brub Nicolai of the locally prominent Nicolai family, now a detective with the LAPD. Both men had dropped out of elite colleges to enlist in the war and flew together in Europe where they became close friends.
Dix has no profession, he’s been drifting since the war, but says he’s writing a mystery novel. He originally devised this story so the wealthy uncle who raised him would subsidize him for a year or so while he supposedly wrote. Dix has zero interest in working at all but developed a taste for the good life at Princeton and as a high-living ace flyer during the war.
His friend, Brub, along with the rest of the LAPD, is focused on a sensational case involving the rape/strangulations of young women in West Los Angeles. Brub is afraid for his own lovely wife, Sylvia; the couple lives in Santa Monica near the beach.
Dix, who is handsome, charming and polished, is attractive to women and knows it. When he catches sight of one of his garden court neighbors, a fledgling actress named Laurel Gray, he is smitten and pursues her on the spot. She and Dix soon become involved.
In Nick Ray’s film, Dix is a well-respected screenwriter who “hasn’t had a hit in ten years” known for his intransigence about the writing assignments he will accept - as well as his violent temper. He comes under police scrutiny when a young hat-check girl is murdered after a visit to his apartment. Dix’s old Army buddy, strictly middle-class Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an LAPD detective, takes Dix in for questioning the morning after the girl’s murder.
Laurel Gray, Dix’s new neighbor, steps in and provides him with an alibi, but he remains the LAPD’s #1 suspect. Eventually, Laurel and Dix become romantically involved. In the meantime, Dix’s peculiar behavior one evening at the Nicolai home is especially disturbing to Brub’s wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) who begins to consider him “sick.” As the murder investigation wears on and Dix’s behavior becomes ever more erratic, some of his closest friends become suspicious of his connection to the killing.
The novel takes a less circuitous route in identifying the murderer, in this case a serial killer. Written as a third person narrative, the book presents the story entirely from the viewpoint of Dix Steele. And from its early pages there is no doubt that Dix is a killer. By the end of the book it develops that he has not only raped and strangled women in Los Angeles but also on the East Coast and in Europe...and that he has also killed a wealthy college pal and appropriated his home, his belongings and his credit accounts.
These facts emerge slowly as the story unfolds and Dix, a stealthy character (though not nearly as clever as he thinks) but lacking an overtly nasty temperament, does not become a suspect until toward the end of the book. It is Brub’s wife, Sylvia, quiet and observant, who notices that something is awry in the man. Dix eventually begins to unravel.
As with the movie, the book does not depict murder, though Dix’s stalking of his victims is detailed. In a Lonely Place is an extremely well-written and well-plotted page-turner. Hughes’ description of Dix through his internal dialogue is credible and absorbing. The writer provides no explanation for Dix’s deeper motives, though, through his agitated thoughts, it comes out that he profoundly resented being raised by his wealthy but stingy uncle. We know from his behavior that Dix may have no desire to work but he has a strong sense of entitlement. From Dix’s reactions to certain sounds we understand that though he enjoyed the excitement of flying in combat, something of the experience rattled him. And, finally, it surfaces that he is fixated on a woman he loved during the war.
While the story of a rapist/murderer told from the killer's point of view may have appealed to Humphrey Bogart, whose production company owned the rights to Hughes’ book, and to Nick Ray, it would not have had very much chance of getting past the Hollywood censors of 1950. So it's understandable that changes were made to the plot. And it seems Ray re-shaped the character of Dix Steele to adapt to Bogart’s age and range – the actor is able to bring some of his trademark world-weary charm and vulnerability to the refurbished character. The script’s emphasis on the devotion of Dix’s friends and cronies is doubtless intended to cue and ensure audience acceptance of Bogart’s not explicitly sympathetic protagonist.
By the last act of Ray’s film, Laurel has become convinced of Dix’s guilt and is terrified of him. At this point Dix has grown jumpy and paranoid and when he discovers that Laurel is planning to skip town, he snaps. In the end, Dix Steele is destroyed by his own furious temper.
Nicholas Ray’s rendering of In a Lonely Place has been deservedly acclaimed for its sustained and edgy intensity, its mature portrayal of a doomed love affair and for its insightful study of Dix Steele’s complex character. With They Live by Night (1949), Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), it stands as one of Ray’s signature films.
Author Dorothy B. Hughes gained renewed interest with the reissue of some of her best work , including In a Lonely Place, during the early part of this century. She is now compared to the great icons of American mystery/crime fiction and one contemporary writer of the genre has proclaimed that Hughes "puts Chandler to shame."