Jean-Luc Godard (or was it Francois Truffaut) once said that “Nicholas Ray is cinema”. I’m not quite sure what he meant by this, but I’m sure it was very profound and intellectual.
Ray’s debut film, ‘They Live By Night’ (1949) was only made the previous year and, although he did make four films in that year alone, he was still very early in his career when he made In A Lonely Place. Yet it is a remarkably assured piece.
The film is set on the seedy side of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a place where individuals were chewed up and spat out of the system, and people clambered over each other to reach fame and success. It centres around Dix Steele (great film noir name) played by Humphrey Bogart, a character who is … well, Humphrey Bogart really. A down on his luck drinker, with dry wit and a pessimistic outlook on life, his spare time (when not in a bar) is spent writing mediocre scripts for Hollywood. One evening, he takes a girl back to his apartment to ‘discuss a potential script’. Later that night, the police find her murdered body dumped by a road side. Whilst being interviewed by police, Bogart meets a neighbour of his, Laurel, played by Gloria Grahame (Ray’s wife at the time). They quickly strike up a romance, but as she discovers more about him, her doubts over his innocence increase.
The film is based upon (though nearly entirely different in terms of plot) a book by Dorothy B. Hughes, in which Dix Steele proves to be the murderer. Conversely, the film shows that Steele did not commit the murder, thereby killing any tension about the killer’s identity. However, it cleverly raises it in a different way. By gradually revealing Steele’s violent past, by showing his angry outbursts (including beating a man with a rock), it suggests that while he did not commit this murder, he may have killed in the past, would be more than capable of it in the future, and that Laurel’s life may be in danger.
The ‘Lonely Place’ has dual meaning. It refers to both the location of the dumped body, and to Bogart’s place in life. Constantly put down by the Hollywood system, and built into the role of a bachelor. He looks to have solved the latter with Gloria Grahame, but she becomes increasingly distrustful. Many critics, in hindsight, have referred to this as his greatest performance, focusing on his struggles with growing paranoia. Gloria Grahame is also superb. She was made for film noir, with her unblinking, wide eyes simultaneously indicating innocence and flirtation.
This film is one of many made in a short burst by Hollywood set in Hollywood: The Bad And The Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952), Singin’ In The Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1952) and, of course, Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). For the first time, there was a whole period of self-reflexiveness in Hollywood. (There had been odd films such as A Star Is Born (William A. Wellman, Jack Conway, 1937) or the fantastic Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941). The film itself is self-reflexive. Characters say “if we were in a film …”, and talk about films such as Gone With The Wind, and people such as David O. Selznik.
Nicholas Ray went onto have a great influence on world cinema, particularly in France where he was admired as a great, underrated auteur. Francois Truffaut (or was it Jean-Luc Godard) borrowed many of Nicholas Ray’s ideas, notably copying mannerisms of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) for his film Les Quatre Cents Coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959).
In A Lonely Place was largely passed over at its time of release. However, it was the adoration of the above French New Wave critics that have led to, firstly, the film’s reassessment, secondly the belief that this may well have been Bogart’s greatest performance, and finally that Nicholas Ray was an auteur, and a vastly underrated one at that.