Thu, 6 May 2010


In a Lonely Place’s world of surfaces

BY  Adam Young

Nicholas Ray’s films are a study of the plight of the troubled individual in conflict with society. They raise tough questions and often present disturbing conclusions through their cataclysmic endings. He was much respected by the French existentialist film critics under Andre Bazin (Naremore, 23), and his films personify the struggle of the existentialist anti-hero. In a Lonely Place is, with Rebel Without A Cause and On Dangerous Ground, one of Ray’s finest and most complex films. It is a particularly interesting examination of existentialism and alienation through the eyes of a complex, antisocial character in an oppressive society.

In a Lonely Place (buy dvd) portrays a complicated individual fighting for his identity in a society of conformity and paranoia. It is the story of Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele, an irascible man who has enjoyed success but who has a reputation of being difficult to work with. His agent encourages him to write an adaptation of a popular novel about which Steele is indifferent. Steele asks a coat-check girl back to his apartment to summarize the plot for him; they are seen by his neighbour. The next day, the girl is found brutally murdered, and Steele is the prime suspect. Steele’s neighbour confirms his alibi and they fall for each other. Steele is prone to violent outbursts, though, and in combination with the continued suspicions of the police (including an old friend of Steele’s), his new lover’s confidence in him wavers and she plans to abandon him. Steele finds out and begins to strangle her when a phone call from the police absolves him of all suspicion. Steele leaves Gray’s apartment, and life, for good.

The film raises some disturbing questions about the nature of identity and truth. The main characters are know only by their actions and judged guilty as a result of their emotional reactions. During the initial questioning of Steele by police inspector Lochner, he accuses Steele though their is no evidence of Steele’s complicity in the murder:

LOCHNER: The girl you are with last night was found… murdered… what’s your reaction? Shock, horror, sympathy? No…

STEELE: I don’t see why [that] should worry you–that is, unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion.

Lochner asks Sgt. Nicolai after the interview whether he thought that “Steele was especially perturbed”. This apparent lack of emotion is enough to convince Lochner of Steele’s guilt. Later, Sgt. Nicolai (who is an old friend of Steele’s) invites Steele and his new lover Laurel Gray to dinner, and, again, surfaces become truth. At the Nicolai’s, Steele reenacts the crime with impressive detail. Steele’s imagining of the crime is enough to make it so, to will it into being, in this world of surfaces. His guilt is created in the ‘real world’ through a dramatic enactment, the language of the movies. Steele’s enactment of the crime causes Nicolai to choke his own wife entirely through the power of the narrative. He is placed in a trance by Steele’s narrative and only ceases to choke his wife at her panicked cry. After Steele has left, Nicolai’s wife concludes that “[Steele] is a sick man”. The performance of the crime, the surface enactment, is a surrogate for the real event. J.P Telotte comments in his incisive essay on the film: “What we get is surface, the appearances of a world, of characters, and of their actions, all of which must stand on their own, speak their own meaning” (Telotte, 9). Reality becomes a function of surfaces, gestures, performances, and the discourse of cinema itself. Steele’s fall begins after he has heard his life summarized in the cheap novel that he is asked to adapt (Telotte 10). Althea Bruce is the story of a woman accused of killing her husband after becoming involved in a doomed love affair. The plot of Dixon’s life is thus “reduced to that of a melodramatic potboiler…as the voice of the popular film comes to speak for him, Dix increasingly becomes a function of its discourse” (ibid). Steele’s fate parallels the plight of Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger, sentenced to death for murder because of his apparent lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral. The film contains many of the characteristics of existential literature. In the first five minutes of the film Steele’s existential despair is revealed while he answers a request for an autograph:

STEELE: Who am I?

KID: Don’t bother–he’s nobody.

STEELE: He’s right.

Steele’s “lonely place” is his existential angst. The existential “absurd” is ever-present in the film, most notably in the ironic fate of Steele and Gray.

In a Lonely Place eloquently portrays the struggle of a troubled nonconformist in a shallow society. In a conversation with Steele’s agent, Gray laments “Dix doesn’t act like a normal person…why can’t he act like other people?” It is this failure to conform that ultimately dooms Steele to his “lonely place”.


Naremore, James. American Film Noir: The History of an Idea. Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2. (Winter, 1995-1996), pp. 12-28.

Telotte, J.P. The Displaced Voice of "In a Lonely Place". South Atlantic Review, Vol. 54, No. 1. (Jan., 1989), pp. 1-12.