In a town full of eccentrics, Nicholas Ray blazed a relatively brief yet notably distinctive path through Hollywood. He is remembered, in both his life and in his art, to this day (“cinema is Nicholas Ray,” proclaimed Jean-Luc Godard in 1957).
He was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Jr. in Galesville, Wisconsin, on August 7, 1911. His high school years were split between nearby LaCrosse and Chicago, where he stayed with his older sister. Finishing 152nd out of 153 students (excelling only in English and public speaking), Ray subsequently spent but one semester at the University of Chicago, yet managed in that time to befriend both professor Thornton Wilder and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After working with folklorist Alan Lomax recording folk and blues musicians for the “Back Where I Come From” radio program, he worked as Elia Kazan’s assistant on the 1944 film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and subsequently directed his only Broadway show, the Duke Ellington musical “Beggar’s Holiday”, two years later.
Shortly thereafter he directed his first picture, the influential They Live by Night, which was held up for release until 1949. After nearly a dozen black and white films, including In A Lonely Place, Ray in 1954 directed the defiantly uncategorizable Trucolor drama Johnny Guitar, which Francois Truffaut described as “the Beauty and the Beast of westerns”.
The next year, Ray proved himself both a perceptive interpreter of outsider youth and a master of the widescreen CinemaScope frame with Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s final film and the only one in which he received top billing.
A heavy smoker and fond of drink and drugs, Ray’s contrarian instincts made him a tough sell in the 1950s studio system, and despite such remarkable work as Bigger Than Life(1956), Party Girl(1958) and the 1961 biblical epic King of Kings(derisively referred to by some as “I was a Teenage Jesus”), his career ended abruptly after he collapsed in the midst of the 1963 epic 55 Days at Peking.
Following that, as the story goes, Ray ran in to Dennis Hopper at a 1970 Grateful Dead concert, and the actor secured him a job teaching filmmaking at the State University of New York in Binghamton. He spent the next two years making the improvisational feature We Can’t Go Home Again with his students. Shortly after collaborating with Wim Wenders on the 1980 documentary Lightning Over Water (aka Nick’s Film), Nicholas Ray succumbed to lung cancer on June 16, 1979 at the age of 67.
By 1947, the fiercely liberal Humphrey Bogart had just about had enough of the Hollywood studio system he’d worked in steadily since 1930. Never one to suffer fools gladly, Bogart had often clashed with higher-ups over his assigned parts and once advised Robert Mitchum the only way to survive the town was to be an “againster.” High Sierra (his last role as a gangster), The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca had made him a bona fide star earlier in the decade, and his new contract allowed him to form his own independent production company, which he promptly did with producer Robert Lord right before filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948.
Named after his yacht, Santana Productions, the shingle got down to business with the Bogart starrers Knock on Any Door and Tokyo Joe (both 1949). Neither Bogart or his chosen director, the similarly head-strong Nicholas Ray, were entirely happy with Knock on Any Door, but they teamed up again in 1950 to make a film of Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 novel “In a Lonely Place”.
The story of hot-headed screenwriter Dixon Steele, who may or may not have murdered a coat check girl, the book was adapted by Edmund H. North and written by Andrew Solt. Bogart loved the script, with critics subsequently theorising it was because it was the one role to date that was the closest to his own personality, warts and all (Steele even eats Bogart’s favourite meal, ham and eggs—twice).
Bogart had originally wanted his wife Lauren Bacall to play the female lead, aspiring actress Laurel Gray. The two had met while filming Howard Hawks To Have and Have Not in 1944 (he was 44, she was 19), co-starred once again the following year in The Big Sleep and married in May 1945 less than three months after Bogart’s divorce. Studio chief Jack Warner put a stop to that idea, almost certainly as revenge for Bogart forming Santana and the pair’s popularity (Dark Passage and Key Largo followed).
Ginger Rogers was considered for the part before Ray persuaded them to hire his then-wife, Gloria Grahame. The pair had married in 1948, but it was a rocky relationship and they divorced in 1952 after Ray found her in bed with his 17-year-old son from his first marriage—whom Grahame later wed herself.
In a Lonely Place is often called a noir, though the darkness is more in the story than the visuals (note the haunting shot of Bogart’s eyes during a key monologue). The film was photographed by Tennessee-born Burnett Guffey, who began as an assistant to John Ford on 1924’s western saga The Iron Horseand was hired by Columbia Pictures 20 years later. He photographed some 20 films noir (including Knock on Any Door), and subsequently won Academy Awards for From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Art Smith, who plays Steele’s long-suffering agent Mel Lippman, was a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist in 1952 and lost his career, though he went on to originate the role of Doc the soda shop owner in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story”. As for Bogart, his very next film was The African Queen. He sold Santana Productions to Columbia Pictures for a million dollars in 1955 and died of oesophageal cancer at 57 in 1957. With the passage of time, In A Lonely Place has emerged as a career highlight for Bogart, Ray and Grahame, and one of the most thought-provoking films noir in that most provocative of genres.
“Can I have your autograph, mister?” asks a young lad outside Paul’s, the favourite Hollywood haunt of screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart). “Who am I?” Steele asks. “I don’t know,” says the kid. “Don’t bother, he’s nobody,” says a more jaded girl with him. “She’s right,” Steele answers, with apparent sincerity. This exchange comes shortly after the post-credit sequence, when Steele almost gets into a fight with another driver at a traffic light.
Taken together, the two scenes are an effective introduction to the protagonist, a weary curmudgeon with a violent temper who’s well-regarded in the industry but hasn’t written a hit picture “since before the war.” At Paul’s, Steele’s agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) presses a thick book on him with the promise of a job but, too tired to read it, he persuades the coat check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who’s devoured it while working, to explain it to him that night in his apartment.
Sending her home with cab fare, he’s surprised the next morning when old army buddy turned cop Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) reveals that Mildred was murdered after leaving Steele’s place. Even though new neighbour and aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) alibis him, Steele remains a suspect in the crime and the tension affects both his career and growing relationship with Gray. Is Dixon Steele a murderer, or merely cursed with a violent streak that taints his personal and professional relationships?
The new restoration of In A Lonely Place premiered at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2018. Introducing the program, Columbia Pictures executive Grover Crisp mentioned that he had never been happy with the previous restoration prepared for the DVD release in 2001. Since that time, the technology had been developed which enabled the damaged Original Camera Negative to be repaired and then used, for the first time, as the material for this stunning 4K digital restoration.
Dir: Nicholas RAY | USA | 1950 | 94 mins | B&W | Sound | English | DCP (originally 35mm) | PG.
Prod. Co: Columbia Pictures, Santana Pictures | Prod: Robert Lord | Scr: Andrew SOLT, Edmund H. NORTH, from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes | Photo: Burnett GUFFEY | Edit: Viola LAWRENCE | Des/Art: Robert PETERSON | Sound: Howard FOGETTI | Music: George ANTHEIL.
Cast: Humphrey BOGART (Dixon Steele), Gloria GRAHAME (Laurel Gray), Frank LOVEJOY (Brub Nicolai), Carl BENTON REID (Capt. Lochner), Art SMITH (Mel Lippman), Jeff DONNELL (Sylvia Nicolai), James ARNESS (Young Detective)
Source: Park Circus.