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Marriage: in a Lonely Place.

Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950) is a critical favorite. (1) It stars Humphrey Bogart, in what one critic has observed is his last, great movie, (2) and Gloria Grahame, who at the time was, unbeknownst to others associated with the movie, separating from Ray with whom she was then married. (3) This highly romantic movie tells of how two people meet, fall passionately in love but come to distrust one another so that by the final shot each is again alone. Bogart, who plays the screenwriter Dixon ("Dix") Steele, writes the epitaph for the movie in the oft-quoted dialogue he creates for the screenplay at the center of the movie: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." Saying good-bye to Dix, Grahame, who plays the unsuccessful actress Laurel Grey, speaks to herself the movie's last line, "I lived a few weeks while you loved me." While classified by some as film noir, (4) the movie is more readily understood as a melodrama, more akin to Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow (1956) than to Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).

At its heart is a disbelief in the sufficiency of romantic love to prevail in the face of social, marital conventions. Those post-World War II conventions required that the couplings of men and women be founded not on love but on a commercial exchange seemingly benefiting both and resulting in marriages of comfort and convenience rather than genuine satisfactions and a transcendence of one's lonely state. Mid-way through the movie Dix and Laurel are wholly in love with one another, and Dix, in particular, is at peace with his Hollywood career, writing non-stop throughout the night a script based on--but which does not adhere to--the plot of a popular, trashy novel. It is at that moment that Dix's thespian friend, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), a washed up actor from the silent era, quotes from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29. (5) That sonnet tells of a man, likely an artist, who is "in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes". In that respect he is like Dix, who has not had a commercial success, because he refuses to work on something he does not like and thereby become a "popcorn salesman". A social failure, Shakespeare's artist is "all alone", and in that respect, too, is similar to Dix, who lives alone and is known to let his phone ring unanswered. Shakespeare offers, however, his artist the redemption of great love: "Happily I think on thee, and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising ... For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings. That then scorn to change my state with kings." Ray makes explicit the connection to Dix and Laurel when, as Dix falls asleep at "break of day" following his night of non-stop writing, Laurel repeats the Shakespearean line "that then I scorn to change my state with kings".

Ray also makes explicit, however, that the transcendent state of such Shakespearean love is not possible in his contemporary world. Ray identifies Dix's lonely state in the opening shot. As the credits roll, we see in a car mirror a pair of disembodied eyes floating against a backscreen shot of the street down which the driver makes his way. The name "Humphrey Bogart" momentarily appears over those eyes, identifying the actor with his character, Dix Steele. The driver stops at a red light, pulling next to another car whose occupants are an attractive, young woman and a portly, older man. The woman banters with Dix, asking whether he remembers her, since he wrote her last picture at Columbia. "Oh, I make it a point to never see the pictures I write," he replies, highlighting his distaste for his screen-writing career. That casual exchange, however, provokes a jealous rage in the man, who insists that Dix stop "bothering" his wife. "You shouldn't have done it, honey, no matter how much money that pig's got," Dix replies, and then notches up still further the husband's threat that they "pull over to the curb" by replying, "What's the matter with right here?" More "civilized" than Dix, the husband drives off, leaving Dix standing alone in the street, his car door open. In a Lonely Place consists of a series of such encounters by Dix with married or engaged couples. In contrast to the redemption offered by Shakespeare and notwithstanding Dix's refusal to conform to the social conventions of marriage in which love plays little or no part, Dix finds himself, together with Laurel, trapped by those conventions--both as enacted by those around them as well as unwittingly played out by themselves.

The unraveling of their relationship begins even as Dix and Laurel first meet one another. Dix is introduced to Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a hatcheck girl at Paul's Restaurant, during the next scene. While never seen together with Henry Kesler (Jack Reynolds), Mildred is deeply involved with him, a "nice and substantial" man who lives with his parents and eats pie with cheese before going to bed, i.e. conforms to the cliched, social norms. In contrast, as a hatcheck girl, Mildred is from a lower and more questionable social standing. Thus, like the couple Dix encountered in the film's opening scene, theirs, too, will be a marriage of mutual convenience. That Mildred accepts, albeit with supposed hesitation, Dix's offer to read to him at his apartment the trashy novel for which Dix has been asked to write the screenplay and that she does so by breaking her date with Kesler--"I can see Henry anytime," she later comments--suggests the convenience which motivates her likely marriage to Kesler. That she later readily accepts Dix's explanation for why he has changed into his silk bathrobe and slippers--after all, as she has acknowledged, he makes her feel important--and that she eventually makes a pass at Dix, asking whether he is going steady with anyone, makes clear that she will marry for convenience with its mutually attendant benefits. Dix, in turn, rejects her pass at him because of the very banality with which she enjoys the "epic" novel she summarizes for him, and his evening with Mildred enables him to meet Laurel, albeit only briefly and in passing. Ironically, however, his evening with Mildred also results in Mildred's brutal murder later that same night, in turn, setting in motion events which will subvert Dix's unconventional attraction to and genuine love for Laurel.

Kesler, Mildred's boyfriend, and Dix meet only once--appropriately enough at the police station. Kesler is socially conventional so that the police view him as less of a murder suspect than the unconventional Dix. Dix speculates, however, that as between the two of them Kesler has the stronger motivation for murdering Mildred, namely jealousy. Kesler comments in reply that Dix has "quite an imagination" from writing movies, and Dix responds that Kesler has "quite a grip" from counting money, reminding us of Dix's earlier re-imagining of Kesler's "vice-like" grip which murdered Mildred. Business, money and death are for Ray all variations of the same social coinage. In contrast, Dix possesses in abundance not money but an imagination, as many characters acknowledge. That coinage, however, is not socially acceptable but is instead potentially dangerous. When Mildred describes Kesler as "nice and substantial" and that she "can see Henry anytime," Dix readily intuits that "in other words, you don't love him." Mildred accuses Dix of being a mind reader, and Dix acknowledges that "most writers like to think they are." Dix's imagination, that is, his ability to see and think beyond the socially conventional, is socially dangerous insofar as it enables him to perceive that which others wish to remain unseen in order that they might collectively continue to go about their business.


It is another couple, however, Detective Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who served under Dix during the war and as such should best understand Dix, and Brub's wife, Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell), who inflict the greater injury upon Dix and Laurel. The Nicolais represent the conventional, happily married couple. Dix has avoided returning Brub's call for over a year, and it is surely no coincidence that they see one another again for the first time when Brub shows up unannounced at Dix's apartment at 5am the morning after Mildred's murder. Ray warns us immediately about Brub and Sylvia when Dix tells Brub half-jokingly to "get out of here", and Brub responds by asking whether that was an order and commenting: "You make me homesick for some of the worst years of our lives,"

In a Lonely Place is Ray's response to the more conventional--and Academy award-winning--The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) in which each of the three returning war veterans becomes reintegrated into the norm of everyday life (including in one case, government disability payments) and enjoys the rewards of a conventional marriage of home and family. In contrast to Dix who lives alone and has not had a commercially successful script since before the war, Grub is now a happily married and gainfully employed veteran. In response to Dix's query about how Brub came to be married, Brub informs Dix that Sylvia "had a couple of bucks to spare", adding as an afterthought "besides I liked her". The marriage of Brub and Sylvia mirrors the relationship between Mildred and Kesler, though with a reversal of the roles. Brub is the hunk from the lower class while Sylvia is the educated, moneyed spouse. That Brub can so readily reenact with Sylvia Kesler's strangling of Mildred at the imaginative evocation of the murder scene by Dix--"You get to a lonely place in the road, and you begin to squeeze ... It's wonderful to feel her throat crush under your arm"--makes explicit that the two couples mirror one another.

While Kesler's murder of Mildred initiates the police investigation, it is Brub and Sylvia who directly participate in the destruction of the love affair between Dix and Laurel. Brub begins the process by his pre-meditated invitation to Dix for dinner at Brub's house at the prompting of Brub's superior, Capt. Lochner (Carl Benton Reid). While observing to Sylvia after dinner that Dix's mind is "superior" so that he has learned more from Dix's imaginative reenactment of the murder than all of the photographs and other conventional tools of the police trade, Brub nevertheless betrays Dix's trust and reports Dix's reenactment back to Lochner. When Lochner, in turn, betrays Brub's trust by disclosing to Laurel that reenactment, Brub's only response is a passive acceptance that Lochner knows what he's doing. In an obvious contrast to his perception of himself, Brub acknowledges to Sylvia that Dix is "exciting". Nevertheless, he exhibits none of that excitement in his own life and instead follows Lochner's orders just as he apparently did with those of his commanding officer Dix during the war. Dix is now, however, the enemy.

Sylvia expresses what makes Dix the enemy in the very act of explaining why she remains attracted to and hence married Brub. Calling upon her knowledge from a college class in abnormal psychology, she tells her husband in one of the more poignant moments in the film how glad she is that Brub is "not a genius" and that she likes him the way he is--"attractive and average"--even as she reflects upon how there's something "not normal" or wrong with Dix. Brub and Sylvia are then momentarily silent, each self-consciously reflecting upon the implications of what Sylvia has said. Sylvia barely kisses Brub and enters their home alone, with Brub remaining outside alone. Of course, others make similar observations about Dix, though judging his abnormal behavior differently. Mel (Art Smith), Dix's agent, makes the most impassioned speech about what's "wrong" with Dix: "You knew he was dynamite--he has to explode sometimes! Years ago I tried to make him go and see a psychiatrist. I thought he'd kill me! ... He's Dix Steele. And if you want him, you've gotta take it all, the good with the bad ..." Sylvia, however, rejects those extremes in behavior, because she is satisfied with her suburban home, which on a clear day offers a view of Catalina. Dix is "exciting", because he is not "normal" and hence represents a rejection of her conventional life. Thus, at the nighttime picnic she furthers the sundering of Dix and Laurel's relationship by her supposed "Freudian slip". She discloses to Dix that Laurel has, unbeknownst to Dix, met again with Lochner, thereby setting off Dix's rage in full view for Laurel to see and come to fear. When Laurel visits Sylvia the next morning at the Nicolai home to seek comforting advice from Sylvia given Laurel's now apparent fear of Dix's behavior, Sylvia administers the coup de grace. While truthfully expressing to Laurel one moment that Dix "is very much in love with you," the next moment she proposes that Laurel go away for a while from Dix given Laurel's anxiety about Dix's emotional instability.

For Ray society protects itself by inevitably punishing those who refuse to conform to the conventional. Those such as the Nicolais justify their lack of excitement and genuine passion either by compelling others such as Dix and Laurel to conform or by ostracizing (and often destroying) them. Laurel herself previously sought to escape and will be punished for that effort. Her backstory consists of a prior, socially acceptable coupling from which she ran away. An "actress", whose only continuing connection with the movie industry has been Martha (Ruth Gillette), a masseuse, Laurel is linked socially with a Mr. Baker, the "real estate Baker" as Mel terms him. Having apparently had a loveless affair with him, she declined his offer of marriage, notwithstanding his money. Baker represents the conventionally acceptable marriage, and Martha repeatedly reminds Laurel of its benefits. Cautioning Laurel against being "nursemaid, sweetheart, cook and secretary" to Dix, she reminds Laurel that she needs to think of herself and of her need for security, that she should discard Dix so that she can be up on "Miller Drive", and that Baker is "a good business man who wants to get married". She succinctly summarizes what is at stake: "Remember, angel, in the beginning was the land. Motion pictures came later." Money comes first; the world conjured up by imagination is, at best, a luxury. Marriage is a contractual undertaking; love is socially useless.

It is in the context of this backstory that Laurel is initially hesitant to become involved with Dix, though fully understanding what Dix represents. That she comments at the police station that "she likes his face"--and consequently makes up an alibi for him on the night of Mildred's murder--expresses her attraction to character over conventional good looks or money. Indeed, she expresses no interest in Dix's supposed celebrity-hood. When Dix later looks at himself in the mirror and asks "how could anyone like a face like mine," displaying the tired, sagging flesh of an aging face, the line between Dix Steele, the movie character, and Humphrey Bogart, the movie actor, disappears. Lacking the conventional, Hollywood appearance, it is Bogart's depth of character--the lack of separation between role and actor and the honesty which that demands--which attracts Laurel. Dix likewise comments to Mel in reviewing the casting directory that Laurel has a "wonderful face". Both speak their mind and know what they like. They will have "an affair", but only because they love one another. At that daybreak moment when Dix and Laurel are most in love, Laurel will teasingly tell Dix that she does not love him but rather "it's your money I'm after." Not surprisingly, in contrast, Capt. Lochner, the voice of conventional authority, that same morning expresses incomprehension at why Laurel is not, in fact, being paid for her "work" for Dix--in the same way that he earlier questioned Dix's motive for having paid a large sum of money to Mildred for Mildred's "work". Lacking imagination, Lochner can see only the conventional, marital quid pro quo of sex and money.

Yet notwithstanding her rejection of the conventional, Laurel remains attracted to its supposed benefits, which Dix's love renders impossible. As Laurel acknowledges to Sylvia, Dix would be no different even if he were not an artist. Their love, which is premised upon the unconventional, necessarily imbues their affair with ambiguity and risk. In response to Laurel's consent to their affair, Dix speaks eloquently. "I've been looking for someone a long time ... I didn't know her name or where she lived--I'd never seen her before ... Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look.". Yet Dix acknowledges in that most romantic declaration of love that such love comes at a price: "A girl [Mildred] was killed, and because of that, I found what I was looking for." Dix kisses Laurel passionately as a summation of his romantic declaration. Yet even his kiss is qualified by the ambiguity of his gesture. His hands are upon Laurel's throat as he draws her ever closer to him.

For all of her desire to embrace and reciprocate Dix's love, Laurel fears that ambiguity and uncertainty which it demands. Tellingly, it is Laurel's sarcastic retort to Lochner at her second interrogation--that she will invite Lochner to the wedding if she marries Dix--that later results in Sylvia's "Freudian slip" at the picnic and Dix's resulting rage at Laurel's deception. Following Dix's manifestation of his rage by assaulting a UCLA football student, Dix reenacts yet again the murder of Mildred when Dix gently places his arm around Laurel's neck. Laurel has now, however, begun to believe that Dix has murdered Mildred. When Dix asks Laurel to repeat his scripted dialogue, significantly Laurel fails to speak the last line--"I lived a few weeks while she love me." Instead, choosing the next day to visit Sylvia at her home, Laurel confesses that "this is what I'd like to have some day", a "small cozy home near the ocean", and the domesticity which accompanies such normalcy. She also now observes for the first time that "there is something strange about" Dix. In fact, Dix is the antithesis of normalcy, at their breakfast together straightening the normally curved grapefruit knife even as he tells Laurel that this scene is about "something else". While Laurel acknowledges how much she loved the love scene which Dix has written for his screenplay, in "real life" she fears the consequences demanded by such love. The "something else" enacted at this particular scene, which Dix identifies as their love, is, in fact, a disintegration of that love.

Nor is Dix himself immune from the pressures of conventional marriage represented by those around him. On the one hand, he exhibits his contempt for the conventional marriage by his extra-marital affairs with other women and his observation during the nighttime picnic that married women are too well versed in the laws of community property as well as the number of minks needed to make a coat. On the other hand, as his relationship with Laurel increasingly deteriorates, he seeks refuge in a hurried afternoon to purchase with Laurel an engagement ring and a home in substitution for the social transiency represented by separate apartments. Indeed, he hastens the deterioration by his insistence that he and Laurel be married that very day. Even Mel, who has known Dix the longest, plays his part in confusing the illusion of happiness offered by a conventional marriage for love. "We'll be such a happy family," he exclaims to Laurel before realizing that Laurel's fear has already won. He then compounds his mistake by misleading Laurel into believing that if Dix achieves commercial success, then nothing else matters, thereby justifying his theft, with Laurel's consent, of Dix's completed screenplay. Praised by all, it ironically does not follow the narrative of the cliched novel which had initially so enraged Dix. Dix has achieved commercial success as a result of his refusal as an artist to conform; he has, however, failed to achieve romantic love, because his commercial success has not lessened his refusal to conform to the demands of social success. Symbolically, the love affair between Dix and Laurel ends as it began. While her fear leads her to confess that she cannot live with a "maniac", it is that manic state that leads him to confess that he cannot live without her. He "cannot let her go", and his hands are once again upon her throat. It is only the ringing of the telephone which brings Dix to his "senses".

While it is Brub on the phone, it is Capt. Lochner who offers an ineffective apology to Laurel for the mistake in suspecting Dix as Mildred's murderer. Lochner early in the movie observes that "killing has a fascination" for Dix, but the irony is that killing for Lochner possesses an equal fascination. The walls of his office are covered with photographs of victims, and he unhesitatingly shows Dix the photographs of Mildred's murdered body and later shows Laurel the photographs of "normal looking" men whom he identifies as "maniacs" who have killed others. Capt. Lochner represents "civilized" society's accepted form of brutality, which rejects the unconventional, including its ambiguities and uncertainties, and acts on its behalf to kill off the love between and Dix and Laurel.

Lochner's belated, matter-of-fact apology is evocative of Dix's own apologies--the dozen white roses to Mildred for his failure to act the part of a "gentleman", the $300 check to the UCLA student from "Mr. Squirrel", and the offer of a new tie to Met for Dix's striking of Mel as events irretrievably unravel. The difference is that Dix tenders his apologies in a tone both lighthearted and sincere so that, for example, Laurel acknowledges to Sylvia how Dix is so sweet and gentle, bearing an armful of gifts, in the mornings after. In contrast, after defensively expressing to Brub his mistaken suspicions about Dix, Lochner coldly delivers his apology. He acts more the executioner than one regretful for what he has wrought.

For Nicholas Ray romantic love is necessarily passionate and thereby irrational; moderation and the conventional play no part. Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) and Bowie (Farley Granger) in They Live by Night (1948) marry on an impulse. Vienna (Joan Crawford) in Johnny Guitar (1954) chooses Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden) for the very reason that he is "gun crazy", possessing a genuine passion for her not extinguished after so many years. And Jane Brand (Ruth Roman) in Bitter Victory (1957) chooses Captain Leith (Richard Burton) over Major Brand (Curd Jurgens), because Leith, a disillusioned idealist, is prepared to risk all in the face of his disgust for the conventional. Ray's idealized love entails risk, and his characters often lose in the process of seeking to achieve such love. In In a Lonely Place the love of Dix and Laurel is killed off by the couples around them who supposedly "mean well" but who are, in fact, invested in the conventions of "normalcy", stability, home and its material possessions. They have compromised their passions and love for the sake of security, including their well-paying, if unimaginative jobs and their homes with handmade curtains and a clear view of other such homes. For his refusal to become a "popcorn salesman" and for her refusal to live on Miller Drive, Dix and Laurel are suitably punished. Both are relegated at film's end to "a lonely place", a place no different than that enjoyed by all of the film's couples.


(1.) A partial list of articles on In a Lonely Place can be found in "Nicholas Ray: A Bibliography of Materials in the UC Berkeley Library.", which was retrieved on March 3, 2012.

(2.) James Harvey, Movie Love in the Rifles, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2001), 150.

(3.) Ironically, Ray fought to have his wife Gloria Graham, rather than Ginger Rogers, star in the movie. Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American tourney, trans. Tom Milne (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 134. As filming of the movie progressed, however, Ray and Graham's marriage deteriorated to the point where they eventually separated; Ray told no one of their separation. 1d. 144.

(4.) Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1979), 144-46 ("a peculiar kind of film noir ...").

(5.) Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 reads in full as follows: When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd, Desiring this man's art and that man's scope, With what I mast enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; For thy sweet love remernber'd such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
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Author:ALpert, Robert
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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