In an early scene in Nicholas Ray’s noir masterpiece, In a Lonely Place, a boy stands outside of a Los Angeles bar clutching an autograph book. A car rolls up, and the screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele—a grizzled Humphrey Bogart—emerges. He walks towards the bar with a palpable heaviness, the air of a walking wound, his eyes obscured by the shadow of his brow.
“Can I have your autograph, Mister?” asks the kid.
Dix stops. “Who am I?” he shoots back.
“I don’t know,” admits the boy.
“Don’t bother, he’s nobody,” yells his friend.
“She’s right,” Dix says, but leans down to write his name anyways. The camera fixes on his rollercoaster of a signature—romantic loops and steep drops, topped off with an exclamation point: Dixon Steele!
It’s a signature with transformative powers, an autograph that turns the deflated, down-and-out Dix into something alive and active, an exclamation of a person. Dixon Steele! Sure, he might be another nobody walking into the bar, but give him a pen and paper, and Dixon Steele becomes a somebody.
Based on the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name, In a Lonely Place follows Dix Steele, a hot-headed screenwriter accused of murdering a coat check girl he asked to come home with him to explain the novel he’s adapting for the screen. (Dix, an artist, would not bother wasting his time reading such hackneyed crap, even if his job calls for it.) A trip to the police station for questioning brings him into the orbit of his neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), an actress in the bungalow across the courtyard who provides him with an alibi. The interrogation quickly turns into a flirtation, and before we know it, Laurel and Dix have become enmeshed in a romantic relationship that seems to suit them both. With Laurel, Dix becomes a better writer, and with Dix, Laurel has parts to play: the role of Dix’s muse and, if all goes well, the star of the film he’s writing. However, their courtship is plagued by the specter of doubt surrounding Dix, who, given his violent reputation, remains suspect number one. But make no mistake, In a Lonely Place isn’t a whodunnit or a murder mystery. Rather, it’s the tale of a man who refuses to apologize for his bad behavior and the city that bends over backwards to excuse him anyways.
Dix is a rude bachelor—an ace at taking up too much space and expecting those around him to serve him without question. He flings off his shoes and socks with the gusto of a teenager, donning a bathrobe and swanning around his apartment in front of company as if to say, this is who I am, get with it. Though Dix is somewhat creatively dry—we’re told he hasn’t had a hit since before the war—his temper, a cocktail of creative prowess and PTSD, flourishes. He’ll fight anytime, any place: in a crowded bar, from a moving car, on the side of the road in the blinding glare of his own headlights, unapologetically possessed by what he labels his “artistic temperament.”
If it was just artistic temperament, there’s a world in which we might be able to forgive Dix, or at least see some of his fights as noble. When Dix throws a punch at a cantankerous half-rate filmmaker, a “popcorn salesman” who spends the evening bragging about his movie’s great reception in Pasadena (notably not Los Angeles proper), it seems in some way that justice has been served, if only to spare the bar from the drivel. But before long, we begin to pick up more sinister murmurings, the whisper network snaking its way around town: Dix punched a producer, he broke his lover’s nose, and he’s abused too many women to count. The Hollywood lingo of “hits” becomes a poetic irony: Dix is a man caught somewhere in between the movie world of hits, box office smashes and critical darlings, and the physical world of hits, the punches and strangulations, hits of the fist-on-face nature. As if by magic, the act of writing blurs the line between the two.
When Dix punches his agent in the face, he finds him in the bathroom, hangs his head and asks, “Did I break your glasses? Did I cut your eye? Do you want me to look for another agent?” But these are less apologies than character admissions. He’s saying, this is who you represent, take me or leave me.
“No,” his agent says. “Business isn’t so hard.” He’ll stay.
Of course he’ll stay, because if he doesn’t, someone else will. Like all problematic artists seen as too valuable to hold to account, apologies are made on Dix’s behalf, piped through the mouths of the Hollywood elite who have come to adore him, the word “sorry” swarming in the wake of his bad behavior—Sorry about Dix, Sorry for Dix, and, at times, Sorry, Dix. In the world of In a Lonely Place, Los Angeles is little more than a city of skilled apologists—actors, agents, and producers desperate to avoid questioning their boy geniuses—and the whole toxic system from which they profit.
“He’s a writer,” says a friend. “People like him can afford to be temperamental.”
In recent years, society has started to excavate that very belief; slowly but surely, art has begun to dissolve as a shield against accountability. In the wake of the endless revelations about the horrible behavior of so-called brilliant men, we’re left to reckon not just with the question of what to do with their art, but the very idea of “the artist” as a persona and the elements of bad temperament not only once seen as acceptable, but also essential to a brilliant male creative.
The manifesto for this type of artist is perfectly articulated in none other than Woody Allen’s film Bullets Over Broadway. In it, John Cusack plays a writer named David Shayne who has an illicit affair with his leading lady. He feels guilty about it, so he confesses to his friend, a fellow writer played by Rob Reiner, who replies:
“Guilt is petit-bourgeois crap. An artist creates his own moral universe.”
This is justification for Shayne’s affair, but also a condemnation of conscience: If Shayne feels guilty for his actions, he might not actually be a real artist. Furthermore, the line justifies a different plot in play; in the same film, a bad actress gets gunned down by a creatively gifted mobster because he believes her lack of talent is ruining his play. Reiner’s statement is an exoneration of them both: Any artist is allowed license to do most anything in the pursuit of beauty, whether that means sating their desires or weaponizing their artistic temperament to vanquish that which they deem ugly, replacing it with something better.
Self-importance verging on ignorance is an essential facet of the artist’s profile. An uncompromising fidelity to the vision, whatever that entails, implies that the work is free from the influence of the ordinary (as embodied by popcorn salesmen and Pasadena audiences), which makes it, somehow, more truthful. However, we’re beginning to re-evaluate this idea based on a new understanding: What we once saw as deep devotion to craft, and thus to truth, is often just thinly-veiled devotion to the self. A controversial artist’s work will usually perpetuate their own misguided worldview.
“I could never throw a lovely body from a moving car,” Dix defends himself at one point. “My artistic temperament couldn’t permit it.” There’s something about this statement that’s worse than an admission; if murder did suit Dix’s temperament or agree with his worldview, he’d commit it. He feels the reason people should believe him is because such an act simply doesn’t square with his high taste. The way Dix reduces Mildred’s corpse to a faceless “lovely body” renders her little more than a prop; his description makes it clear he has no interest in viewing her as a person. However, he doesn’t care that we know that; he’s saying you don’t have to trust my character, just trust my allegiance to my art.
This is the completely backwards logic of Dix’s personal moral universe, the idea that his devotion to the pursuit of great art will always equate to his innocence. He’s bombastically confident in this outlook, so much so that instead of engaging with guilt, he finds ways of writing himself out of it. In one instance, he quite literally forgoes an apology for poetry; after nearly beating a man to death in front of Laurel, in lieu of the words “I’m sorry,” Dix recites a poem:
“I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
Pretty, though it fails to acknowledge the pulped body still crumpled in the Santa Monica brush. The recitation displays that essential out-of-touch-ness; Dix is a man who will use his craft as a balm for his transgressions.Thus, the adapted screenplay at the center of the film, the cheesy story of Althea Bruce, becomes the object on which his fate hinges. If the script is good enough, Dixon Steele will continue to be forgiven, and he’ll live to see another day in Hollywood.
With the stakes for great art so high, Dix follows his instincts, forgoing the Althea Bruce source material for something much nearer and dearer: his own life with Laurel. But it doesn’t quite work. About half-way through In a Lonely Place, something shifts. Part of it is a trick of the light: though Dix started out as the kind of war-torn mystery man Bogart was famous for representing, the Dix of the latter half of the film cuts a different shape in the frame. He appears shorter, almost nervous—his mania prickling under his skin. Ray trains the light on Dix’s brow, removing the signature shadow and revealing his eyes to be drunken puddles of malice. What was once an exciting and charming romance turns menacing: the way Dix kisses Laurel, two hands around her neck, makes it look as though he’s just made a split-second decision not to strangle her instead.
In “The Right To Murder,” Gaby Wood writes that “Hughes, one of very few female crime writers in the noir canon, made it clear that she intended to sidestep the whodunnit in favor of character, and here her focus is on the ways in which women might be seen by a man who ritually kills them.” We see this in Dix’s kiss, the way he views Laurel as either his lover or his victim, but never as an autonomous person. In turn, we see Laurel’s physicality change as she begins to discover this, the full-body realization that she’s not living a dream but a nightmare. This is perhaps one of the strangest and loneliest places of all, to discover something about the one you love that they don’t know you know, to be trapped running the usual routine with that knowledge, to kiss them with that knowledge. Grahame plays this painful, isolating dissonance perfectly; Laurel starts to kiss with her eyes open, her usually languid body goes stiff with fear, and she no longer gazes lovingly at Dix, but desperately at the door.
Dix, maintaining that critical lack of awareness, continues to drive the narrative forward with all of the power of a director, maneuvering Laurel around the room, orchestrating their love scenes as though he’s trying to write himself out of trouble. And in a way, he is; now that he’s scrapped the original source material, both his life and the film he’s writing depends on the continual momentum of his relationship. It’s an unsettling bargain, to insert your own life into your craft, blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, it seems an inevitable progression for a man who has used his art to evade consequences to then make his life into his art. Dix benefits from blurring that line as it gives him the control he so desperately craves. By connecting his life and his art, he can operate under the delusion that he’s authoring them both at the same time.
Dix isn’t the only one playing that game. The entirety of In a Lonely Place and the conditions of its production present a nuanced study of the toxic crossover between reality and fiction. It started at the very beginning: when Bogart first bought the rights to In a Lonely Place, he wanted to cast his new wife and on-screen partner, Lauren Bacall, opposite himself in the role of Laurel. Warner Brothers wouldn’t release her from her contract, so Ray championed his own wife Gloria Grahame, despite their volatile relationship. To avoid the consequences Grahame and Ray’s unpredictable marriage could have on the production, Columbia had Grahame sign a marriage clause stating that Ray could “direct, control, advise, instruct, and even command [her] actions during the hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day except Sunday, during the filming.” She was forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease, or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him,” an arrangement shockingly similar to the unquestioning obedience Dix demands of Laurel within the film.
With the clause signed, the haunted production began, the paranoid writer Ray directing his wife in the role of a woman at the mercy of a paranoid writer, his carte blanche baked into the contract. Fantastic. What could go wrong?Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is everything.
In her essay, Wood describes In a Lonely Place as Ray’s “poisonous and immoral parting gift” to Grahame. Ray admitted as much to Vincent Curcio, Grahame’s biographer, who wrote that Ray flat out told him the film paralleled the disintegration of his marriage and represented his perspective. And how could it not? During filming, Ray moved out of the home he shared with Grahame and had the producers build him a small apartment on the set. He slept in the studio, and like Dix, spent his nights writing and rewriting his script, rejecting the source material in favor of scenes from his own life with Grahame (Ray wrote in an essay that he sees himself as “a creator as opposed to an interpreter,” which gets at some of this inclination), coming to engage in a practice eerily similar to that of his protagonist. Like Dix, he agonized over the ending; perhaps he was waiting to see what happened in his own life.
In the original ending of the film, when Dix finds out that Laurel has planned to leave him, he strangles her. She dies, and hours later, the police walk in to tell him that Mildred’s true killer has confessed, only to find Dix in a trance at the typewriter, clacking away at the last lines of the script. Ray shot this ending, but, he recalled years later, it didn’t sit right:
The original ending, we had it all tied up into a very neat package. And I thought “Shit. I can’t do it, I just can’t do it!” Romances don’t have to end that way. Marriages don’t have to end that way, they don’t have to end in violence. Let the audience make up its own mind.
If what he told Curcio is true, it’s safe to assume he was thinking of himself and Grahame. At the last minute, with Bogart’s blessing, Ray kicked everyone off the set but the two leads and had them improvise around his new idea. The resulting ending leaves us not with a murder, but an apology. So, the scene rewinds and we begin again:
Dix finds out Laurel is leaving him. His eyes shift into those swamps of black, and he leaps across the room and reaches out. His hands clasp around her neck and he squeezes. She fights with him, she pleads with him, but he’s going to finish the job until…
Dix releases Laurel. He walks to the telephone and picks it up. It’s the police. They’re on the line to tell him that Mildred’s killer has come forward (it was, as the ingenious Dix had suspected, her boyfriend). The police chief wants to apologize to both of them for the trouble. Dix’s face falls and he holds out the phone to Laurel.
“A man wants to apologize to you,” he says.
He means the police chief, but of course, he also means himself. He just can’t say it because an apology would be an admission of something far more dangerous for an artist like Dix; it would acknowledge the world of apologies he never made. To stay an artist, to maintain the only thing he has left beyond Laurel, he can’t say sorry. To apologize would make him a commoner like the rest of us. An artist creates their own moral universe, but they are also condemned to live in it to uphold its legitimacy. As soon as they leave that lawless place, as soon as they say sorry, the spell is broken.
In the end, Dix walks out the door. The script is finished, and he can’t write himself out of it. The ending is deeply unsettling; no one we care about was killed or brought to justice. The audience can’t easily condemn Dix as one bad apple and leave the theater. Instead, we have to sit with the fact that he will walk out the door into the world, and he’ll probably have a hit movie to boot. It’s not a particularly satisfying ending, but it’s a familiar one. Creative men get second chance after second chance, excused for their temperament in exchange for their art. If the genius is great enough, if the work is lauded enough, the violence gets jammed into the closet, only to come tumbling out onto the next person who makes a wrong turn in the artist’s house. In this case, neither art nor love could overcome violence. It begs the question of whether or not it ever can.
In an autobiographical article aptly titled “Ray’s World According to Ray,” Ray writes about filmmaking: “Whether it’s a good film or a bad film, every film is in some way a key to the director if he has any signature at all. Otherwise, he’s a craftsman, and no more…we survive by what we expose of ourselves.” It seems that in his view, films can be, and perhaps should be, confessionals, sanctioned places in which one can release their demons, and ideally, absolve themselves. Viewership is some form of forgiveness too. To write down the worst of yourself, your most personal demons and thoughts, the desires and deeds that make you despicable, and then see such things adored, written about, and embraced so wholly, is absolution.
Art has long acted as an alibi, the greatest defense against consequence because it gives an adoring audience an out: an excuse to supplement the evidence, to read between the lines when there is no text, to write and rewrite the script around those they love. It’s the connection between the art and the artist that makes the apology stick; a beloved body of work adds critical weight to performed remorse, the lazy iPhone notes app apologies, or the more carefully crafted white-text-on-black-background admissions of passive guilt. Statements from powerful people almost always attribute their actions to something outside of themselves: a different culture, a circumstance, a time and a place, and implicitly point to the great work they’ve given us as proof of their innocence.
When Laurel decides at last to leave Dix, she confides in his agent who conveys one final, sad wish: he just wants the script to be sold before she goes. “If Dix has success, he doesn’t need anything else.”
To not only be seen for who you are, but to be loved in spite of it mitigates the artist’s ugliness, allows them to live another day in their constructed world. Success means never having to say you’re sorry; the world will say it for you.