Nicholas Ray to this day remains one of the most daring directors to ever work within Hollywood to this day. All of his best work deals with deeply damaged individuals if it’s James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause to James Mason’s portrayal of a drug addicted father in Bigger Than Life. Ray himself was a deeply damaged individual who had 4 marriages and was addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling and even supposedly experimented in homosexual experiences later on in his life.
Humphrey Bogart plays perhaps the most psychologically complex role of his entire career as the down on his luck screenwriter Dixon Steele in Ray’s In A Lonely Place. Steele is adapting some trashy novel and picks up some hat girl from one of his local haunts who seems intrigued by the book. She reads it to him and leaves but he is woken up the next day by an old army buddy because the girl has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. He lucks out because his neighbours Laurel (Gloria Grahame) confirms his alibi but due to his increasingly erratic behaviour and their naturally doomed affair she has her doubts if he is truly innocent.
The film came out around the same time as the other masterful noir on Hollywood Sunset Blvd. It’s as much of a statement on Ray’s on dislike of the Hollywood system as it is about the post-war male experience. Bogart’s character just keeps damaging himself and any relationships around him, obviously to modern audiences he is suffering from PTSD. Many who knew Bogie said this role was the closest to the real Bogie on-screen with all his flaws. As does some much noir especially of the ’50s onwards (no so much the ’40s) there is some influence from the burgeoning concept of existentialism through the work of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Ray was very much a bohemian rebel from the get go so he would have read that stuff.
Gloria Grahame’s performance is also equally damaged partly down to the fact her marriage was falling apart to Ray and her absolute hatred of her looks. She had numerous plastic surgery operations to get that perfect lip pout and in the process damaging her face. Graham and Ray officially divorced after he found her in bed with his 13-year-old son, oh what a different time the ’50s was. Burnett Guffey who shot 20 noirs was the cinematographer and despite most of the being shot on the backlot, it never feels that way.
In A Lonely Place was based on the very different and amazingly bleaker novel by unfairly forgotten pulp novelist Dorothy B. Hughes. She was one of the few women writing pulp novels (at least openly, many used male alias) and over the years there has been a large cult gathered around her work. Despite many plot differences she was a fan of the finished film. In the novel Steele is a serial killer and rapist and there is no ambiguity to the character.
The always exceptional Criterion has pulled together an excellent package. It’s shockingly the first film with Bogart to be the collection which is frankly insanity but considering most of his films were at Warners Bros., it’s not so much. The feature consits of Commentary from the writer of BFI book on the film, a strong vintage doc on Ray, an interview with Gloria Graham’s biography, an old featurette with Curtis Hanson and a radio adaptation of the novel.