Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place as Psychodrama (Web Exclusive)
by Graham Fuller

Director Nicholas Ray, Humphrey Bogart, and Gloria Grahame. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Numerous Hollywood movies celebrate the redemptive power of love. Few trace, step by step, the progress of a love affair that brings about a protagonist’s redemption only to disintegrate, canceling hope irrevocably. That is the fate of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Dix carves it out for himself after little more than three weeks of romantic bliss with his neighbor Laurel Gray. The cause is his inability to subdue his violent temper.

Cinema is peppered with personal psychodramas, films in which directors or stars participate, knowingly or not, in alternative versions of their own lives: Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, François Truffaut in the Antoine Doinel series, Jean-Luc Godard in Pierrot le fou, Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata, Jodie Foster in Nell, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. In a Lonely Place is one of the most bitter and disturbing examples.

When Ray directed his wife Gloria Grahame as Laurel opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Dix, he made art imitate life by fueling his atypical film noir with the atmosphere of his ailing marriage, which wasn’t seventeen months old when production began at the end of October 1949. They split up during the shoot, reunited, and eventually divorced in August 1952. Each would have a third and fourth spouse (Grahame’s last being her former stepson Tony Ray, Nick’s first-born), so they did continue to reach for the kind of happiness that Ray must have felt would elude Dix permanently. Yet for both Ray and Grahame, In a Lonely Place was an existential nodal point; given Grahame’s history of turbulent relationships with unstable men, it might even be argued that the circumspect Laurel was a restrained self-portrait.

Ray and Grahame. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Dix and Laurel’s idyll is marred by each partner’s gathering mistrust of the other. The police detectives Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who served under Dix during World War II, Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid), and Ted Barton (William Ching) play their parts in stoking Dix’s paranoia by harassing him as a plausible suspect in the murder of the cloakroom attendant Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart). His ungovernable rages—what would now be termed collectively as “intermittent explosive disorder”—give Laurel good reason to suspect Dix of Mildred’s murder. For his part, Dix suspects Laurel of colluding in the police’s surveillance of him and eventually questions her fidelity, too. His persecution complex kicks in during the nightclub scene where Dix and Laurel are at their most publicly intimate until Barton and his wife show up, and on the beach after Brub’s wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) lets slip that Lochner had interviewed Laurel a second time. Driving crazily from the shore into the hills with a terrified Laurel beside him, Dix cuts off and damages another car, then nearly batters the irate young driver to death. Dix draws not only on Ray’s inherited manic depressiveness but also on Bogart’s insecurities, alcoholism, and habit of brawling.

Ray, who was contracted to RKO, had directed Bogart in the courtroom noir Knock on Any Door (1949), the first film made by Bogart and Robert Lord’s Columbia-based Santana Productions. The collaboration was comfortable so Santana exercised their option to have Ray direct a second film, which was In a Lonely Place. Edmund H. North’s adaptation of Dorothy Hughes’s novel was set aside for a screenplay written by Andrew Solt that Bogart approved but which Ray tweaked constantly during the shoot. Bogart wanted Lauren Bacall, his wife, to play Laurel but Warner Bros. refused to release her. Columbia chief Harry Cohn suggested Ginger Rogers, but Ray persuaded him that Grahame, also at RKO, would be a better choice and Howard Hughes permitted her loan-out.

Before filming began, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Grahame signed a bizarre contract stipulating that “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” In Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame, author Vincent Curcio notes that it was Lord who insisted on the contract, based on his “twenty-five years of experience as a married man.” Grahame fought it, believing it indentured her to “slave labor,” but she was quoted as saying she signed it in the end. Curators of exhibitions devoted to the women’s movement might want to seek out this document, assuming it existed, and display it as an example of male supremacism.

Details about Laurel disclosed by Mel Lippmann (Art Smith), Dix’s motherly agent, and Martha (Ruth Gillette), Laurel’s over-opinionated masseuse, reveal that she is a struggling movie actress avoiding her former lover, an unseen real-estate investor called Baker, who had built a swimming pool at her last home because it raised the property’s value for him and who was implicitly as domineering as Dix. (Because Martha is butch, many commentators regard her as a lesbian attracted to Laurel, but since she is aggrieved that Laurel left Baker, her main value to the film is as Baker’s aggressive surrogate.) So far unsuccessful in movies, Laurel is in danger of becoming a chattel or, as Bernard Eisenschitz writes in Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, “a negotiable asset…passed from hand to hand and trying to take decisions which aren’t hers to make.” 

This was “strategically…not without its dangers,” Eisenschitz ventures, referring to the possibility that Grahame might have resented the worrying implications for her image and tried to liberate Laurel from such a demeaning position after shooting had begun. Thus Ray supposedly “took extreme precautions with the consent of the producers” by imposing the contract on his wife. Ray had married Grahame in 1948; later, he admitted, “I didn’t like her very much.” According to Patrick McGilligan’s Ray biography, she was unfaithful to him; Curcio’s theory is that Grahame sought to incite Ray to the kind of jealous passion she had experienced in her marriage to the actor Stanley Clements. Though the filming of In a Lonely Place went smoothly—candid photos from the set show Ray and Grahame working harmoniously and enjoying each other’s company—they reportedly feuded after hours. Ray believed Frank Lovejoy was covering up for Grahame’s nocturnal absences from their home and retaliated by limiting close-ups of him. Jeff Donnell recalled that when she and her husband, drama coach Bill Anderson, had dinner with Ray and Grahame during production, Ray grilled Grahame about where she had been the night before—Gloria used Jeff as an alibi—and the Rays ended up screaming at each other. 

Ray must have known that getting Grahame to sign a work contract that was antediluvian even for 1949 would have no effect on her after-hours activities. What, though, if he imposed it to instill in her the sense that she was being controlled for nine hours a day, to induce in her the caged-animal quality Laurel exudes in Dix’s presence after the beating incident in the hills? Grahame was too intuitive an actress to need manipulating in such a way, but even if the contract—which she may have signed because starring opposite Bogart would boost her Hollywood status—did not seep into her conception of the character, contributing to Laurel’s evident anxiety, the efforts at psychological control it suggests are nevertheless mirrored in Dix’s increasing possessiveness. 

Bogart, Grahame and Ray. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Once Laurel has admitted to herself that she has fallen for Dix and is “interested” in embarking on a relationship, Ray instantly reorients the mise en scène to place her in subservient positions to him (which echo her position to Martha during the massage scene). After Dix makes an arch quip about Laurel’s hesitancy in announcing “the official results” of her deliberations on getting involved with him, Ray shows him looking down at her from a very high angle, then cuts to a shot of her looking up at him from below, her head suggestively adjacent to his loins at a distance of about ten inches. Another high-angle shot of Dix is followed by one of him placing his hands around her throat as he leans down to kiss her. The next shot shows her head dwarfed by his body as his hands appear to tighten. The tone of the sequence, set by George Antheil’s deceptively soupy score, is contrapuntally romantic and even elicits audience sympathy for Dix, who confesses to the more assured Laurel that he had been looking for someone to love. Neither character is conscious of the murderous implications of his body language, unlike the viewer, who is privy to cinematographer Burnett Guffey’s claustrophobic framing, the sequence’s oppressiveness, and—having seen Dix gloatingly “direct” Brub and Sylvia in re-creating Mildred’s strangling as he imagines it—his ingrained misogyny, otherwise manifested via off-color wisecracks.

As film noirs reflected, the late 1940s was a period characterized by sociosexual tensions: military personnel brutalized by the war returned to a much-altered American home front, in which women were exerting newfound independence. Perhaps responding to these tensions, Ray further demolished audience expectations for a satisfying resolution to In a Lonely Place by making the marriage proposal sequence one of the film’s most dispiriting, in defiance of the romance genre convention. Before Dix presses Laurel to give him the only answer he’ll accept, their interaction in the kitchen shatters any residual illusions the viewer has about his character and Laurel’s willingness to tie herself to a dangerously paranoid man. As Dix straightens out a grapefruit knife—suggesting his dislocation, as Laurel’s earlier looking for a jolt of coffee in the dregs of some cop’s used cup undercut her elegance—and utters screenwriterly lines about how anyone can see that they’re in love, Laurel’s expression indicates that she no longer is. Ray’s medium close-up of her struggling not to cry, after Dix has stood over her threateningly again and left the kitchen, isolates her in a very lonely place. Grahame’s infinitesimal registering of each of Laurel’s emotional fibrillations is something to behold: hers is an exquisite performance.

Ray considered the couple’s inevitable sundering to be the lesser of two evils. Halfway through production, he shot the ending Solt had written. Learning that Laurel is about to desert him, Dix strangles her (as Grahame’s unfaithful wife would be strangled by her paranoid husband in Fritz Lang’s 1954 Human Desire) and carries on working (his obsessive typing anticipating that of the psychotic Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s 1977 The Shining). Ray hated this ending, as he explained when interviewed by Myron Meisel in February 1973 for the biographical documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1975), included as a supplement on the Criterion release of In a Lonely Place

“In the meantime, I had separated from my wife,” he said of the murder scene’s place in the production schedule. “And if I had let the producer Bobby Lord or Bogie know that, they would have gone crazy, or Harry Cohn would have gone crazy. So I said, ‘Look, I’m having trouble with the third act. Make an apartment for me in a couple of dressing rooms, ’cause I don’t want to drive to Malibu every night. I want to get downstage and work at night.’ Which I did. And Gloria behaved beautifully. Nobody knew that we were separated. And I just couldn't believe the ending that Bundy [Solt] and I had written. I shot it because it was my obligation to do it. Then I kicked everybody offstage except Bogart, Art Smith and Gloria. And we improvised the ending as it is now. In the original ending we had ribbons so it was all tied up into a very neat package, with Frank Lovejoy coming in and arresting him as he was writing the last lines, having killed Gloria. Huh! And I thought, shit, I can’t do it, I just can’t do it! Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way, they don’t have to end in violence. Let the audience make up its own mind what's going to happen to Bogie when he goes outside the apartment.”

Ray preserved the film’s ending from the nihilism augured by Dix’s admission that he’s “nobody” by suffusing its last few seconds in lush romanticism. Tears stream down Laurel’s face as she leans against the door jamb watching him depart—below her now—and murmurs words from the mantric lament he had prophetically originated for the script she, as his muse, had inspired him to write: “I lived a few weeks while you loved me. Goodbye Dix.”

She is young enough to find someone else. Dix halts fleetingly as he strides out of the courtyard where they had first met but then exits the frame. In an interview with Movie, Ray said: “You do not know whether the man is going to go out, to get drunk, have an accident in his car, or whether he is going to go to a psychiatrist for help,” as Mel had once recommended he do.

“And that’s the way it should be; either one of the two things could happen to him because now the pressure is off, but now there is an internal pressure,” Ray concluded. “He has a problem about himself.” It begs the questions: did Ray or Grahame, in partially feeding their lives to their art, learn anything about themselves from making In a Lonely Place? If they did, why were they powerless to prevent their marriage becoming a fiasco in 1951, to the extent that Ray had to move out and could never go home again, as if he were walking in Dix Steele’s footsteps.

Graham Fuller is the New York film editor of The Culture Trip.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4