“The Bogart suspense picture with the surprise finish!”: the ending of In a Lonely Place

Nicholas Ray’s searing anti-climax, added on at the very last moment of the shoot, is one of the few genuinely tragic endings in film noir

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Posters touted In a Lonely Place (1950) as “the Bogart suspense picture with the surprise finish!” This was false advertising, since there is nothing in the ending that you don’t see during the opening credits. It is all there in the eyes of Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), refected in a rear-view mirror as he drives the dark streets of Hollywood. His eyes are wary, hunted, glittering with seeds of rage – but above all, they are bleak. They are eyes that have already seen the end, even if Dix himself doesn’t know it yet.

When he meets Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a hat-check girl who is reading the trashy bestseller he’s supposed to adapt for the screen, she confides: “I already know the end. I always read that first.” The line strikes a chord you don’t catch at the time. Mildred is close to her own very unexpected end, since she will be murdered the same night.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Her death brings Dix together with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), his alluring neighbour; but their affair, conducted under a cloud of police suspicion over Mildred’s murder, is threatened from the start by Dix’s unpredictable violence and Laurel’s habit of running away from things. After one ugly scene, he recites to her some lines he has written for his screenplay: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” He’s not sure where the lines should go. Laurel suggests, “The farewell note?” It seems that – like Mildred – they already know the end.

There are many movies about Hollywood, many movies about movies. But In a Lonely Place is above all about the art of storytelling that lies at the heart of Hollywood cinema. The screenplay (credited to Andrew Solt, but heavily rewritten by director Nicholas Ray) is both a meditation on screenwriting and an example of the form at its finest. Dix constantly views life through a lens of narrative: when he tells his agent about matching wits with a police detective (“It was his story against mine – but, of course, I told mine better”); when he talks a friend and his wife through Mildred’s murder as he imagines it; or when he uses an ordinary morning routine as a lesson in writing a good love scene.

But Dix can’t write or direct the scenes in his life: he can’t control his anger or Laurel’s mounting distrust of him; he can’t stop driving her away with his possessiveness. That breakfast scene is not really about a couple in love but about a couple whose love is strained to breaking point. But he’s right that the scene – unsettling and sad and funny all at once – is a lesson in good writing.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The original screenplay ended with Dix strangling Laurel in a jealous rage and then sitting down to type the final words of his screenplay (“I was born when she kissed me…”) before the police arrive. Ray shot this contrived, heavy-handed ending but immediately thought better of it; instead, he improvised a scene in which the attack is interrupted by a phone call from the police, who tell the couple that Dix has been cleared of suspicion. This good news comes too late and Dix walks away without a word, following a neatly landscaped path into a hopeless future.

This anticlimax, with its drained and burned-out flavour, is one of the few genuinely tragic endings in film noir. With all its deaths and defeats, noir rarely breaks your heart: cynicism and fatalism are defences against heartbreak. But Ray’s romantic temperament was never hardened against disillusionment. In a Lonely Place is about the lovers’ inability to transform themselves, to escape from the fixed orbits of their barren lives.

But the love that they share is so alive, so captivating in its blend of easy intimacy and appreciative surprise, that for a fleeting moment we believe it will save them both. As we watch them pull apart, we are torn by an anguished ability to see both sides – what is irresistible and what is unforgivable in this man and this woman. When Laurel recites Dix’s words with one crucial change (“I lived a few weeks while you loved me”), she translates them from movie poetry into what feels almost unbearably like real life.

  • This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Sight and Sound.