According to the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood the real difference between men and women is pretty simple. “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Nicholas Ray, who directed In a Lonely Place, would probably agree.
Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele – how’s that for a manly name? – a Hollywood screenwriter whose career has suffered because he’s gotten a reputation for being “difficult.” After he goes to Paul’s, a nightclub frequented by people in the film industry, we begin to realize why. Everybody wonders where he’s been. He doesn’t answer his phone. Mel Lippman, his agent, offers his a job adapting Althea Bruce, a best-selling novel, but he’s already decided that it’s trash. An old girlfriend tries to chat him up at the bar. He insults her. Nicholas Ray’s use Bogart is brilliant. In spite of his movie star charisma, Bogart had a morose, self-pitying quality that could often be alienating. The flip side of Bogart’s dour personality was the cranky independence that eventually transformed him into a symbol of the best side of American manhood. That too is on display at Paul’s. When Junior, an obnoxious film producer, bullies Charlie, a washed up, has been, alcoholic old actor, Steele punches him in the mouth. “Dick Steele” values friendship over kissing up to the powerful and well-connected.
Eventually, the middle-aged Steele invites Mildred Atkinson, a teenage coat check girl who had earlier expressed her admiration for the novel Althea Bruce, back home to his apartment to help him work on the script. It all goes pretty much the way you think it would. The educated, cultivated Dixon Steele tries to connect with the low-brow movie-going public as represented by Atkinson, but he just can’t fake it – she can’t even pronounce the book’s name – so he gives her twenty dollars for cab fare, and sends her on her way. He pours himself a drink, admires his Laurel Gray, his beautiful neighbor played by Gloria Graham, as she steps out onto her balcony in her nightgown, then goes to bed. The next day, he’s visited by Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai, an old friend from the Second World War. Even though he’s not under arrest, it’s “not a social call,” and Steele follows Nicolai down to the police station where he learns, more to our horror than his, that Mildred Atkinson was murdered a few blocks away from his apartment.
Nicholas Ray, we suspect, was familiar with Camus’ novel The Stranger, which was published in 1942, and Dixon Steele soon becomes the prime suspect in the Mildred Atkinson murder, not because the police have any evidence, or reason to believe he wanted her dead, but simply because Captain Lochner, the senior detective, thinks he’s weird. A normal person, Lochner argues, would have been horrified by the photos of the murder scene. Steele doesn’t seem to care. What’s more, he has a criminal record. Over the course of his career in Hollywood, he’s committed a number of assaults, none of which he’s ever done any jail time for, but all of which make it at least believable that he could have committed a murder, especially the murder of a young woman. Steele has a reputation for being a misogynist as well as a difficult, often violent loner. The only thing that saves him from being arrested is Laurel Gray. Steele remembers playing peeping Tom and, after the police call her down to the station, and ask her what she was doing at the time of the murder, she confirms his alibi. Dixon Steel was at home, with a drink in his hand, admiring Laurel Gray, who was being an exhibitionist on her balcony, while Mildred Atkinson was “in a lonely place” on the side of the road getting her head bashed in.
And there the movie might have ended. Yes, Dixon Steele is a violent asshole. No, he didn’t kill Mildred Atkinson. What gives In a Lonely Place its deserved reputation of being a great film is the way Nicholas Ray manages to make us, and Laurel Gray, doubt what was right in front of our eyes. After Gray begins a romantic relationship with Steele, Captain Lochner continues to pursue his vendetta against the psychically tormented Hollywood screenwriter. Ray’s ability to weave a nuanced, complex narrative is remarkable. It’s a dirty trick for Lochner to use Brub Nicolai to spy on Dixon Steele. They were in combat together. But then again, they were in combat together, and Nicolai knows that Steele is capable of killing. He’s done it in the war. Laurel Gray fell in love with Steele at first sight. There are some hints that Gray may have had a lesbian relationship with her older friend Martha – who feels pretty much the same way about men that Margaret Atwood does – but Steele, after all, is played by Humphrey Bogart and Laurel Gray “likes his face.” What’s more, she understands his personality, his creative habits, his need for isolation. Soon, they are living like a married couple. Steele has gotten over his writer’s block. Gray has found her place in life. Steele’s agent Mel Lippman is overjoyed. “Had he met you twenty years ago,” he remarks to Gay, “I never would have gotten my ulcer.”
Is In a Lonely Place a story about domestic violence or is it a story about how state persecution can destroy an innocent man? It’s both. As their relationship develops, Laurel Gray discovers that Dixon Steele, interesting face or not, is a violent, tyrannical misogynist who eventually brow beats into a depressed shell of her former self. Dixon Steele didn’t kill Mildred Atkinson, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have, and it doesn’t mean he won’t kill her. Before long, she’s no longer Steele’s lover, but, effectively, his prisoner, negotiating with his ego for her survival. When I first read Margaret Atwood’s remark — “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — I thought she was exaggerating. Now I’m not so sure. Dixon Steele is no cartoon, sexist villain. He’s one of us. Any American male can identify with his paranoia, his desire to be alone, his need for unconditional loyalty from his girlfriend in the face of state persecution. The only thing more heartbreaking than the way Laurel Gray betrays Dixon Steele is the way that you can’t help but think that he probably deserved it.