Reviews of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place always seem to focus on the film’s shrewd depiction of the implosion of Bogart screen persona—indeed, the witty, sophisticated man that etched the characters of Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade into our cinematic memories can still be recognized, but Dix Steele certainly serves as the ugly flipside of that great mythological presence. With so many elements to focus on—the crackling sexual chemistry between Bogart and Gloria Grahame, the shrewd Hollywood skewering, the endlessly clever dialogue, I found what kept me riveted this time around was Ray’s direction, and how the occasional subversive flourish with the camera keeps the audience in a stage of constant instability, if not actual psychological apprehension. A few screen captures to demonstrate my favorite examples of this:
Mildred Atkinson, whose dead body is the starting point for most of the film’s action, can safely be called a throwaway character. A hatcheck girl taken home by Steele because she’s read the bestselling novel he’s been asked to adapt for the screen and is more than eager to share the plotpoints with him, her enthusiasm quickly becomes obnoxious, a feeling Steele obviously shares.
She launches into the intricacies of the novel’s trashy plot as if she was reciting a great Shakespearean monologue:
And then something happens:
Suddenly, we take on Dix’s perspective of Mildred, and her wide, almost wild eyes firmly meet our own. With the (slight) change in blocking, the fourth wall is unexpectedly ripped down, forcing ourselves into a position of complete identification with the character of Dix. Furthermore, Mildred has no intention of backing down, but whips herself up into a frenzy, creeping closer and closer to Dix, the camera, and to us:
The closer she gets, the more revulsion she inspires: I remember muttering “ugh, just get her away!” And that’s the point, of course—we have been manipulated into feeling the exact same thing Dix feels. It’s not that Mildred is a bad person—if the sequence had been shot in a more conventional manner (sorry, I don’t know any cinematic jargon to be more specific) Mildred’s carrying-on would have been tiresome but essentially innocuous. But by having her stare directly into the camera there’s a sense of increasing claustrophobia and even entrapment, and suddenly, in a sick way, a violent reaction (or at least a lashing out) doesn’t seem completely out of the question.
Interestingly, this performance by Martha Stewart brought to mind one of the performance I most admired in a 2006 film: Mia Kirshner’s turn as the title character in Brian de Palma’s otherwise forgettable The Black Dahlia. Kirshner’s character is portrayed in a more sympathetic manner, but the wide-eyed combination of enthusiasm and desperation in the two performances are nearly identical—and give the same feeling of queasiness, vague dread and repulsed fascination.
Another example is a the subversion of a sequence that is almost a cliché in filmmaking, particularly in studio-era star vehicles.
First, the shimmery closeup of the luscious leading lady:
Which leads to a kiss complete with a swooning crescendo compliments of the score:
But Ray throws things off with a brief glimpse from a different angle, which completely changes the tone of this romantic moment:
Considering the direction the film takes it’s a rather heavy-handed bit of foreshadowing, but it still serves as an example of how throughout In a Lonely Place Ray doesn’t just seem intent on shattering the Bogart myth, but forcing the audience into a point of identifying with that breakdown. Tom Huddleston accurately labels In a Lonely Place an “insular world,” but not only does Ray’s direction draw the viewer into a seedy back-alley Hollywood location, but also into that literal lonely place that Dix Steele finds himself helplessly suspended.