Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a troubled screenwriter suspected of murder and Grahame co-stars as Laurel Gray, a neighbor who falls under his spell. Beyond its surface plot of confused identity and tormented love, the story is a mordant comment on Hollywood mores and the pitfalls of celebrity and near-celebrity, similar to two other American films released that same year; Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Joseph L. Mankiewicz' All About Eve.
Although lesser known than his other work, Bogart's performance is considered by many critics to be among his finest and the film's reputation has grown over time along with Ray's.
Dixon "Dix" Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter who has not had a hit, "since before the war." While driving to meet his agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith), at a nightclub, Dix's explosive temper is revealed by a confrontation at a stoplight with another motorist that almost becomes violent.
At the nightclub, Mel cajoles him to adapt a book for a movie. The hat-check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), is engrossed in reading it and asks if she can finish, since she only has a few pages left. Dix has a second violent outburst when a young director bad-mouths Dix's friend Charlie (Robert Warwick), a washed-up actor.
Dix claims to be too tired to read the novel, so he asks Mildred to go home with him, ostensibly to explain the plot. As they enter the courtyard of his apartment, they pass a new tenant, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). As soon as Mildred is convinced that Dix is not trying to seduce her, she describes the story, in the process confirming what he had suspected—the book is trash. He gives her cab fare to get home.
The next morning, he is awakened by an old army buddy, now a police detective, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who takes him downtown to be questioned by Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid). The coat check girl Mildred was murdered during the night and Dix is a suspect. Laurel is brought to the police station and confirms seeing the girl leave Dix's apartment alone and unharmed, but Lochner is still deeply suspicious. Although Dix shows no overt sympathy for the dead victim, on the way home from the police station, he anonymously sends her two dozen white roses.
When he gets home, Dix checks up on Laurel. He finds she is an aspiring actress with only a few low-budget films to her credit. They begin to fall in love; this invigorates Dix into going back to work with a vengeance, with Laurel assisting him, much to his agent's delight.
However, Dix behaves strangely. He says things that make his agent Mel and Brub's wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) wonder if he did kill the girl. In addition, Lochner sows seeds of doubt in Laurel's mind, pointing out Dix's lengthy record of violent behavior. Dix becomes furiously irrational when he learns of it. He drives at high speed, with Laurel a terrified passenger, until they sideswipe another car. Nobody is hurt in the collision, but when the other driver accosts him, Dix beats him unconscious and is about to strike him with a large rock when Laurel stops him.
Laurel gets to the point where she cannot sleep without taking pills. Her distrust and fear of Dix are becoming too much for her. When he asks her to marry him, she accepts but only because she is too scared of what he might do if she refused. She makes a plane reservation and tells Mel she is leaving because she cannot take it anymore. Dix finds out and almost strangles her during a violent confrontation before he regains control.
Just then, the phone rings. It is Brub with good news: Mildred's boyfriend (named Henry Kesler, the same as the film's associate producer) has confessed to her murder. Tragically, it is too late to salvage Dix and Laurel's relationship.
When Edmund H. North adapted the story, he stuck close to the original source and John Derek was considered for the role of Dix because in the novel he was much younger. North's treatment was not used, and Andrew Solt developed the screenplay with regular input from producer Robert Lord and director Nicholas Ray, and the end result is far different from the source novel. Solt claimed that Humphrey Bogart loved the script so much that he wanted to make it without revisions - Solt maintains that the final cut is very close to his script - but further research shows that Ray made regular re-writes, some added on the day of shooting. In fact, only 4 pages of the 140 page script had no revisions. The film was produced by Bogart's Santana Productions company, whose first film was Knock on Any Door (1949), which was directed by Ray and starred Bogart in the leading role.
Louise Brooks wrote in her essay "Humphrey and Bogey" that she felt it was the role of Dixon Steele in this movie that came closest to the real Bogart she knew. "Before inertia set in, he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey's own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the character's pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart." Apparently, in one voyage in their yacht Santana, Bogart showed an inexplicable burst of rage that frightened his wife Lauren Bacall.
The original ending had Dix strangling Laurel to death in the heat of their argument. Sgt. Nicolai comes to tell Dix that he has been cleared of Mildred's murder but arrests him for Laurel's. Dix tells Brub that he is finally finished with his screenplay, and the final shot was to be of a page in the typewriter which has the significant lines Dix said aloud to Laurel in the car (which he admitted to not knowing where to put) "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me." This scene was filmed halfway through the shooting schedule, but Ray hated the ending he had helped write. Ray later said, "I just couldn't believe the ending that Bundy (screenwriter Andrew Solt) and I had written. I shot it because it was my obligation to do it. Then I kicked everybody off stage except Bogart, Art Smith and Gloria. And we improvised the ending as it is now. In the original ending we had ribbons so it was all tied up into a very neat package, with Frank Lovejoy coming in and arresting him as he was writing the last lines, having killed Gloria. Huh! 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 what's going to happen to Bogie when he goes outside the apartment."
Bacall and Ginger Rogers were considered for the role of Laurel Gray. Bacall was a natural choice given her off-screen marriage to Bogart and their box-office appeal, but Warner Bros. refused to loan her out, a move often thought to be in reaction to Bogart having set up his own independent production company, the type of which Warner Bros. were afraid would jeopardize the future of the major studios. Rogers was the producers' first choice but Ray believed that his wife Gloria Grahame was right for the part. Even though their marriage was troubled, he insisted that she be cast. Her performance today is unanimously considered to be among her finest.
Grahame and Ray's marriage was starting to come apart during filming. Grahame was forced to sign a contract stipulating that "my husband [Ray] shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday...I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail." Grahame was also forbidden to "nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him." The two did separate during filming. Afraid that one of them would be replaced, Ray took to sleeping in a dressing room, lying and saying that he needed to work on the script. Grahame played along with the charade and nobody knew that they had separated. Though there was a brief reconciliation, the couple divorced in 1952, when Ray found Grahame in bed with his seventeen-year-old son. The film was one of a number of Nicholas Ray films to be scored by avant garde classical composer George Antheil (1900–1959). The production began on 25 October and ended on 1 December 1949.
At the time of its original release, the reviews were generally positive (in particular many critics praised Bogart and Grahame's performances), but many questioned the marketability given the bleak ending.
The staff at Variety magazine in May 1950 gave the film a good review and wrote, "In a Lonely Place Humphrey Bogart has a sympathetic role though cast as one always ready to mix it with his dukes. He favors the underdog; in one instance he virtually has a veteran, brandy-soaking character actor (out of work) on his very limited payroll...Director Nicholas Ray maintains nice suspense. Bogart is excellent. Gloria Grahame, as his romance, also rates kudos."
Bosley Crowther lauded the film, especially Bogart's performance and the screenplay, writing, "Everybody should be happy this morning. Humphrey Bogart is in top form in his latest independently made production, In a Lonely Place, and the picture itself is a superior cut of melodrama. Playing a violent, quick-tempered Hollywood movie writer suspected of murder, Mr. Bogart looms large on the screen of the Paramount Theatre and he moves flawlessly through a script which is almost as flinty as the actor himself. Andrew Solt, who fashioned the screen play from a story by Dorothy B. Hughes and an adaptation by Edmund H. North, has had the good sense to resolve the story logically. Thus Dixon Steele remains as much of an enigma, an explosive, contradictory force at loose ends when the film ends as when it starts."
Not unlike Nicholas Ray's debut They Live by Night (1948), it was advertised as a straight thriller while the film is not as simply fit into one genre as the marketing shows. Ray's films had a brief revival in the 1970s and Bogart's anti-hero stance gained a following in the 1960s, and the French Cahiers du cinéma critics during the 1950s praised Ray's unique film making. Time magazine, which gave the film a negative review upon its initial release, called it one of the 100 best films of all time in their 2005 list.
Critic Ed Gonzalez wrote, "Not unlike Albert Camus' The Stranger, Nicholas Ray's remarkable In a Lonely Place represents the purest of existentialist primers...Laurel and Dixon may love each other but it's evident that they're both entirely too victimized by their own selves to sustain this kind of happiness. In the end, their love resembles a rehearsal for the next and hopefully less complicated romance. This is the existential endgame of one of Ray's smartest and most devastating masterpieces."
Curtis Hanson is featured on the retrospective documentary of the DVD release, and has stated his admiration for the film, notably Ray's direction, the dark depiction of Hollywood and Bogart's performance. This was one of the films which he showed to actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in preparation for filming L.A. Confidential. He said, "I wanted them to see the reality of that period and to see that emotion. This movie, and I'm not saying it's the greatest movie ever made, but it represents many things that I think are worth aspiring to, such as having character and emotion be the driving force, rather than the plot....When I first saw In a Lonely Place as a teenager, it frightened me and yet attracted me with an almost hypnotic power. Later, I came to understand why. Occasionally, very rarely, a movie feels so heartfelt, so emotional, so revealing that it seems as though both the actor and the director are standing naked before the audience. When that kind of marriage happens between actor and director, it's breathtaking."
In 2009, film critic Roger Ebert added In a Lonely Place to his "great movies" list.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 97% of critics gave the film positive reviews, with an average rating of 8.7/10, based on thirty-four reviews.
In a Lonely Place was based on Dorothy B. Hughes' 1947 novel of the same title. Some controversy exists between admirers of the film and admirers of the novel (who view the film as a watered down adaptation), as Edmund H. North's script takes some elements of the novel, but is ultimately an entirely different story. Hughes herself wasn't bothered by the changes made by North and praised Grahame's performance as Laurel.
The strongest difference between the two works lies in the primary character: the film's Dixon Steele is a screenwriter with an offbeat lifestyle, and a decent person with fatally poor impulse control and prone to wild overreaction when enraged. The novel's Steele is a limited third-person view from Dix's perspective, reminiscent of the first-person in noir, à la The Killer Inside Me. Steele is a charlatan who pretends to be a novelist while sponging money from his overbearing uncle. When this well dries up, he murders a wealthy young man and assumes his identity, in a manner similar to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. (Hughes' novel predates Highsmith's and may have influenced it.) The film follows the question of whether Dix finally went too far in his anger and committed the murder under investigation to a tragic end: even though he's proven innocent, his rage at the cloud of suspicion has driven the woman he loves away for good. No question of Dix's innocence exists in the novel, which follows the investigation of a murder Dix plainly committed and his self-insertion into that investigation for his own ends.
Curtis Hanson, in the DVD featurette 'In A Lonely Place Revisited', further analyses the parallels and differences between the novel and the film. He notes that there is a parallel in the film between Dix's adaptation of a novel for film with the adaptation of In a Lonely Place for film, he also notes a key difference between Dix in the film and Dix in the novel is their respective treatment of women. In the novel Dix pursues women, the first chapter details his pursuit of a woman. In the film, Dix is pursued by women.
Hughes' novel, out of print for decades, was re-released by The Feminist Press at CUNY in 2003, which edition is still in print as of April 2007. Penguin Books also published a paperback edition in the UK in 2010 as part of their Modern Classics imprint. The novel has been hailed lately as a stellar example of mid-twentieth-century hardboiled/noir fiction, both as a rare example of women's writing in that genre and for its quality and contributions to that genre.