There’s a great documentary extra on my DVD copy of In A Lonely Place, in which Curtis Hanson – a huge advocate of the film and Nicholas Ray’s work more generally – visits the Art Deco apartment block in which Bogart’s troubled screenwriter Dix Steele and fellow tenant Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, in a failing marriage with Ray at the time the film was made) both live. Hanson explains he became obsessed with the film and tracked down the location many years ago, discovering that Ray himself actually lived there when he first moved to Los Angeles. (Parts of the building were recreated on a soundstage for the movie.)
That’s just one small tidbit, but perhaps indicative of the way that Ray’s earlier films seem to inspire this kind of devotion among cinephiles. They’re popular partly because they sit uncomfortably or slightly awkwardly within their own genres; In A Lonely Place is a noir that appears at first to be about the brutal murder of a checkout girl, but the killing itself isn’t shown and the subsequent whodunnit gradually becomes more and more incidental to the story, with greater emphasis placed on the romance between Steele and Gray. In fact the outcome of the murder case, once it has been resolved by Carl Benton Reid and Frank Lovejoy’s dogged detectives, is conveyed via a rather flat telephone call that lasts just a few seconds, and it doesn’t really bring much in the way of relief to the character who has previously been implicated. There’s no shootout here, no heroic sacrifice (well, kinda, sorta) and no wild goose chase for some MacGuffin or clue that’s key to unravelling a convoluted plot.
The decision by screenwriter Andrew Solt – who wildly altered an earlier, more faithful adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’ late-1940s novel – to concentrate on the romance was vindicated; Bogie loved Solt’s treatment so much he wanted to make the film without revisions, though later research revealed that Ray changed a lot during the shoot. The movie is a success because of the undeniable chemistry between the two leads, and while few actors of the time could do inner turmoil as well as the more widely-celebrated Bogart, he’s more than matched by Grahame, who nails her character’s unfavourable mix of true love, apprehension and self-preservation under testing circumstances (she was forced to sign a contract that stipulated Ray was “entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday”. Just to compound matters, it also read: “I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.”)
It was a nasty business at times back then, and this film seems to sum up the inherent darkness of Hollywood very well indeed. Drunk, has-been actors are insulted by up-and-coming directors. Writers with proven track records are treated shoddily. Arguments escalate between Hollywood players and fights break out over nothing. The film asks us to care for a man who is so inured to random acts of violence towards women that he barely bats an eyelid when informed that the lady he was with the night before was cruelly thrown out of a speeding car shortly after they parted. The title could be hinting at Steele’s own despair or, as Curtis Hanson sagely points out, the space in which a writer exists, chained to their own desk in search of inspiration or desire; or it could be referring more widely, and damningly, to Hollywood itself. (****½)