The Criterion Corner

In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Year of release: 1950

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Nicholas Ray's 1950 noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place.

Although Humphrey Bogart would go on to win the Oscar for 1951's The African Queen, his work as washed up screenwriter Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's brilliant noir chamber drama In A Lonely Place remains his best and most complex performance. While outwardly a mystery thriller concerning the murder of a young hat-check girl who was last seen alive leaving Dixon's apartment, the film is more fundamentally concerned with irrational male delusion. By placing Bogart in the role of a depressive writer who gets more than his share of attention from women, Ray cannily turns the epitome of cool on its head; revealing the emotionless detachment of someone harboring a general disdain for humanity. 

Of course, there's a love interest introduced in the form of Dixon’s new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is both drawn to and increasingly wary of her lover's apparent disinterest in the death of an innocent young girl. As the cops continue to investigate and suspect Dixon, Laurel herself begins to feel trapped in the embrace of a possible sociopath, which Ray wisely captures by setting the majority of the film inside cramped spaces. Meanwhile, Bogart keeps up the veneer of the damaged romantic by playing on the persona he'd perfected for years up until that point, but then investing that same attitude with erratic bursts of violence and remorseless apathy. In one bravura scene, Dixon narrates a possible scenario to his detective friend where the murdered girl was strangled by the driver of a moving vehicle, and the way Bogart amps up the near orgasmic hysteria is both disturbing and intensely compelling. 

There's this idea of 50's American cinema as being imbued with a sunny, family-friendly disposition as a direct response to the heinous evils perpetuated during World War II. Though made at the very beginning of the decade, In A Lonely Place is surprisingly bleak for it's time, with the entire narrative framework--of whether or not Dixon actually committed the murder--being treated as little more than a footnote to the film's real objective. This objective, by the way, is the inversion of the lone male hero, which Ray himself idealized in films like Rebel Without A Cause and On Dangerous Ground into a sad, defeated loser. Dixon's abject despair; his inability to be a decent human being in a godless world, turns the romanticized anti-hero into the existential coward. When he rehearses a line 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", Dixon's sentiments of love conquering all has an ironic absurdity. In A Lonely Place, too, understands the absurdity of living with hope when human empathy no longer matters.