Not unlike Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Nicholas Ray’s remarkable In a Lonely Place represents the purest of existentialist primers. Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter under pressure to produce a good screenplay, has been given the simple task of writing a cut-and-dry adaptation of a novel when he meets a hatcheck girl named Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who he invites to his home in order to discuss the adaptation. An hour later Mildred is found dead on the side of a road and Dixon becomes prime suspect in her murder. Dixon’s history of abusing women seasons his material but it certainly doesn’t help his credibility factor. What unravels—or, rather, how Dixon begins to unravel—becomes a brilliant extrapolation of what Camus called “philosophical suicide.”
A lesser film may have established Dixon’s innocence early on, and though the spectator naturally assumes the man is free of guilt, screenwriters Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt go to great lengths to play with the spectator’s expectations. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), a new tenant in Dixon’s apartment complex, sees her neighbor saying goodbye to Mildred on the night of her murder, and as such provides police with Dixon’s alibi. Laurel is emotionally wounded, having recently left an abusive lover. It’s no surprise she ends up falling in love with Dixon, typing his screenplay and becoming susceptible to his burgeoning rage. Like Dixon, she’s alone in the world and the filmmakers suggest this loneliness is her ulterior motive for saving him. Maybe he isn’t innocent—maybe she’s just attracted to him.
The male heroes of Ray’s films—from Robert Ryan’s cop in On Dangerous Ground to James Dean’s classic loner in Rebel Without a Cause—are all consumed by deep-rooted, seemingly irrational feelings. Women hover around them hopelessly trying to find a way to crack their guarded psyches. In On Dangerous Ground, Ryan’s hard-boiled but humane cop struggles to understand the reasons behind a murderer’s violent behavior—an answer revealed to him by the killer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino). The film’s vast countryscapes are in sharp contrast to the crowded and noisy city streets that drive Ryan’s cop to near-madness and the invisible border between the two locations comes to represent the divide between rationality and irrationality.
Ray understands the effects of environment on the human condition. Had Bogart’s Dixon been moved from his diseased Hollywood milieu to a more remote and morally scrupulous locale, could his violent disposition have been tempered? Though On Dangerous Ground is comparatively more hopeful than In a Lonely Place, seemingly counteracting the common notion that existentialism is rooted solely in despair, the more claustrophobic In a Lonely Place truly embodies a unique but nonetheless existential purpose that supreme happiness is inextricably bound to the absurd.
Just as Camus’s Meursault was condemned for showing little remorse in the wake of a crime he committed, Dixon is similarly judged for his emotionless. His scorned refusal to feign empathy is a personal and ethical choice that is condemned by the film’s moral order: the officers at the police station. Dixon understands the existential ideal that every decision has a cause and effect, yet he refuses to change his ways in order to dodge suspicion. The tragedy of the film becomes Dixon’s dogged honesty to the self. From his macabre recreation of Mildred’s death at a dinner party to his conscious decision to incorporate real life events into his art, Dixon is unwilling to part with his violent proclivities. He remains conscious of his violent streak and accepts it. Both Camus and Ray never address whether their protagonists are atheists, but their logical—almost unapologetic—approach to life evokes men who are not only governed by their free will but who are also prepared, however lackadaisically, to defend it. To thine own self be true.
In The Stranger, Meursault murders an Arab youth during a vacation to the beach. When Dixon beats a young man by the side of a curvy Hollywood road, he showcases a kind of instinctual disdain for the world around him. Like Meursault, Dixon is seemingly possessed by primal, uncontrollable urges. One could also say unexplainable. If both men seem incapable of justifying their crimes it’s because they live so strongly inside themselves to ever be able to explain their actions on a moral, scientific, natural, or psychological level. The greatest tragedy here is that Dixon was about to commit a murder out of frustration for the very frustration that got him into trouble with the film’s moral police to begin with. Yes, it’s a vicious cycle. Had Dixon killed the young man, who would have been to blame: Dixon or the police that doubted his innocence and thus stirred his anger?
That Laurel’s window can be seen from Dixon’s apartment evokes a special kind of connection between these characters. Halfway through the film, Dixon goes over a piece of dialogue with Laurel while driving in his car: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” By this point in the film, their love seems relatively absolute. Dixon has seemingly transformed himself from a louse to a poet, but this exchange of words, through raw and empowering, foreshadows the end of their romance. Laurel and Dixon may love each other but it’s evident that they’re both entirely too victimized by their own selves to sustain this kind of happiness. In the end, their love resembles a rehearsal for the next and hopefully less complicated romance. This is the existential endgame of one of Ray’s smartest and most devastating masterpieces.