Few directors understand male obsession as plaintively and empathetically as Nicholas Ray. His characters are often emotional thrashers, men who chew themselves up as well as anyone else who might stumble within close proximity. As others have remarked, the title of Ray’s In a Lonely Place could apply to nearly all of his other films, as it provides a poetic encapsulation of his governing theme. Ray explored a great variety of subject matter, but his films are all occupied with figurative and literal lonely places, with exclusion and marginalization suffered by the creative and the misunderstood.
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a classic Ray character, a disenfranchised neurotic, in this case a Hollywood screenwriter who’s never entirely recovered from his past, though the film understands that his problems run deeper than that. Dixon is also a classic Bogart character, a brutally charismatic and intelligent dreamer who wears his frustration and isolation as badges of honorable cruelty. Characters go out of their way to sing the praises of Dixon’s brilliance, usually as a way of evading his violent impulses, and we believe them: His outward presentation is a work of art, a shrewd, sexy embodiment of a rebellious American male on the cusp of disaster, with trim suits, a carefully disheveled physicality, curt verbal wit, and that evocatively creased face. (Even his name affirms curdled masculinity, sounding like “Dick Steel,” which suggests a porn star’s nom de plume.) When Dixon is questioned for a woman’s murder, he doesn’t crumble as most of us would, instead mounting what’s essentially a ghoulish stand-up routine; when a beautiful woman comes on to him at a bar, he doesn’t lap her up with gratitude, but turns away, because he’s a manly artist with greater, manlier concerns.
It’s key to the film’s cumulative emotional impact that we enjoy Dixon in the early scenes, particularly when he’s questioned for a hat-check girl’s death. We know that Dixon is trouble, but we assume he’s trouble in that unchallenging way which most glamorous heroes are, in a fashion that celebrates social conformity by reveling in autonomy (see Bogart in Casablanca). We groove on Dixon’s unbridled masculine power, though we’re jolted by the freedom Bogart’s been allowed here and by his astonishing conviction in the role. Dixon is to Bogart’s career what Ethan in The Searchers was to John Wayne’s, or what Scottie in Vertigo was to Jimmy Stewart’s: a daring and thorough detonation of a legendary actor’s bedrock type.
Dixon suggests Casablanca’s gloriously heartbroken Rick and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s feverishly psychotic Fred C. Dobbs if they were rolled into one man, revealing that the two aren’t as distinctive from one another as we might like to believe. Underneath Dixon’s and, by extension and implication, Bogart’s cool, lurks calculation and pathological distrust of others, especially women. Dixon’s wit springs from hatred, his creativity from paranoia and a nihilistic urge to see his worst suspicions realized, if for nothing else than relief—a tendency that’s embodied by Dixon’s chilling hypothetical recreation of the hat-chick girl’s murder in front of a police officer and his wife.
Bogart achieves something exceptionally difficult in this film, allowing Dixon to be at his most pitiable when he’s at his most despicable. When Dixon strangles Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a beautiful neighbor he’s taken to be the love of his life, the actor’s jagged, vicious physicality allows us to see the desperation that fuels violence. Bogart forges one of the great portraits of an abuser, recognizing that abusers always see themselves as the wronged party. But he goes further than that, as he and Ray offer a figurative illusion of looking directly into Dixon’s emotional landscape, seeing the barren realm of a man, who, like all of us, is the architect of his own loneliness.
Ray complements Bogart’s performance with an atmosphere of closed-off stagnation that would prove greatly influential to such self-conscious, meta-textual noirs as The Long Goodbye, L.A. Confidential, and Mulholland Drive. Throughout In a Lonely Place, Ray’s framing is often close and cramped, accentuating the privacy and the creepily impersonal, quasi-tropical friendliness of the decoration of the few apartments and courtyard that serve as the film’s predominant settings, which become symbolic of a tormented state of mind. Fleetingly, Ray even implicates us, in a startling series of first-person shots that appear to literally place us in Dixon’s head.
Ray exhibits a matter-of-fact mastery of tone that would become a trademark in his work. In a Lonely Place is a tricky thriller that’s understated in its exploration of the theme of dream versus reality that governs most Hollywood-set mysteries. In a haunting leitmotif, Dixon is working on a screenplay that mirrors the situation he finds himself in with Laurel, who wonders if his violent propensities actually led him to kill that woman that night, dumping her callously into the canyon. Life and fiction beautifully merge when Dixon lectures Laurel on how to write love scenes, correctly asserting that the great ones are always about more than love. Dixon uses this moment between him and Laurel as an example of a nuanced love scene, missing what it really is: a magnificent falling-out-of-love scene. Dixon fails to notice how Laurel cowers in a corner away from him, as he stabs into a grapefruit with a deformed grapefruit knife like a befuddled caveman.
Like all insecure, domineering control freaks, Dixon must be the big fish of his own pond. It’s a pond that can house no other fish, and he chafes at the stifling limitations of this prison while feeling incapable of reaching beyond it. His one attempt to escape it, pulling Laurel into his own hell, proves unsuccessful, and we’re as grateful for her as we are heartbroken for him. It’s this double awareness that informs In a Lonely Place with the irresolvable heft of tragedy. The film is about the impossibility of true connection for sick people, perhaps most people. In its final moments, the film dramatizes an emotional desolation that’s so intensely hopeless that it’s paradoxically transcendent. We feel as if our darkest impulses have been shown back to us, perhaps readying us for some future test of cohabitation. The lonely place of the title isn’t only Dixon’s, but our own.
As with Criterion’s recent refurbishing of Only Angels Have Wings and Easy Rider, this 2K digital transfer is so rich it casts new light on the artistry of a film that’s primarily known by the last few generations of filmgoers from vastly inferior editions. This release emphasizes In a Lonely Place’s dexterous use of planes in its imagery, particularly when characters are looking up or down on one another from different vantage points. The background, middle ground, and foreground of the image are always distinctly differentiated, and the blacks and grays are subtly varied and shaded. Close-ups of actor’s faces are gorgeous and finely detailed. The new monaural track offers a vibrantly clean aural landscape, with a nuanced score and sharp diegetic detail.
In an audio commentary recorded exclusively for Criterion, film scholar Dana Polan deconstructs how In a Lonely Place invites us to "look at and with Dixon at once." Polan observes the density of this film’s world, with its intimate, cloistered places of negotiations and resentments. Polan covers subtext, how an evolving post-war culture influenced self-conscious noirs, and the symmetry of the way the story closes in on itself, among many other topics. It’s a good listen that teases out the film’s various resonances.
More evocative is "I’m a Stranger Here Myself," a 1975 documentary that follows Nicholas Ray as he wanders a commune in New York, working with his students on what would eventually become We Can’t Go Home Again. A scene between Ray and a young actor, in which their argument is indistinguishable from rehearsal, captures the filmmaker’s distinctly immersive process of direction. Another highlight is the documentary’s overall survey of Ray’s incomparable physicality, his graceful lumbering gate and gruff voice.
Biographer Vincent Curio discusses Gloria Grahame in a new interview, displaying refreshing empathy and appreciation for the actress’s screen presence, astuteness, and skill. A 2002 appreciation of In a Lonely Place by director Curtis Hanson, a 1948 radio adaptation of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel that inspired the film, an essay by Imogen Sarah Smith, and the theatrical trailer round out a sturdy if unsurprising package.
As with a number of Criterion’s recent releases, the supplements follow a certain prescribed pattern, but this transfer of an overlooked American masterpiece is so gorgeous as to render that concern beside the point.