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By Martin Keady · November 27, 2017
The Story Behind The Screenplay is a new series by Martin Keady that examines the origins of some of the greatest screenplays ever written. It continues with an examination of the story behind one of the finest and most fascinating film noirs ever made, In A Lonely Place.
“Screenwriter noir” is probably the smallest of the sub-genres of noir, essentially consisting of three masterful films about Hollywood and its treatment of writers that were made more than forty years apart. The most recent of them is the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), in which John Turturro gives a career-best performance as the titular playwright (loosely based on Clifford Odets) who struggles to adapt to Hollywood and discovers his only friend is a potential serial killer. The other two were made in 1950. The first is Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece about the coming of sound in cinema, which fittingly contains the finest voiceover in movie history. The second, In a Lonely Place, stars Humphrey Bogart as a struggling screenwriter who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and Gloria Grahame as the woman who loves him but is unsure whether he is a killer or not. Although In a Lonely Place is much less well known than Sunset Boulevard and possibly even Barton Fink, it nevertheless thoroughly merits its inclusion in the unholy trinity of “screenwriter noirs”.
In a Lonely Place is currently playing at the National Film Theatre in London as part of a retrospective of the films of Grahame, timed to coincide with the release of Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, the film of Peter Turner’s memoir about his love affair with her when he was a young actor and she was a fading movie star. In a Lonely Place was probably the greatest film that Grahame ever made and is a fitting testimony not only to her undeniable beauty but to her grace, élan and intelligence as a screen actor. The irony is that the back-story behind In a Lonely Place would probably make an even better movie than Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.
The film of In a Lonely Place was based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes, which was adapted into a screenplay by Edmund H. North (who, more than 20 years later, would co-write Patton with the pre-Godfather Francis Ford Coppola) and Andrew Solt. However, regardless of the merits of the source novel and the screenplay, much of the drama and intrigue of the film derives from the extraordinary tension between Grahame and the director, the legendary Nicholas Ray, who were married when filming began but grew apart during it. In effect, their off-screen relationship mirrored and reflected the on-off relationship between Bogart’s screenwriter, Dixon Steele, and Grahame’s young starlet, Laurel Gray.
Bizarrely, Ginger Rogers was Columbia’s first choice to play Gray. However, Ray, who had already directed one classic noir, They Live By Night (1948), persuaded the studio to hire his wife, Grahame, instead, who had had a minor role in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) but was hardly a major star. It was a decision that Ray may have ended up regretting as his marriage to Grahame began to unravel during the making of the film, the associated pressures of which (long days, late nights etc.) can hardly have helped their already troubled relationship.
The situation became so bad that Hollywood legend has it that Grahame was ordered by Columbia to sign a contract that was unbelievably restrictive, even by the standards of Golden Age Hollywood, when studios controlled their stars (and especially their leading ladies) as if they were their own personal serfs. Her contract stated, “My husband 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.” In the post-Weinstein Hollywood of the 21st century, those words appear even more appalling, and it is little wonder that Grahame chafed against them.
Nevertheless, filming of In a Lonely Place began. However, the problems afflicting the Ray-Grahame marriage must undoubtedly have fed into the final script, especially as Ray, like many Hollywood directors then and now, took to rewriting (uncredited) the script himself, assisted by one of its two official writers, Andrew Solt. In fact, such was Ray’s determination to make the film, even as it was contributing to the demise of his marriage, that he took to sleeping on the set, ostensibly to prevent studio chiefs coming in at night and taking away control from him. Grahame, apparently, was happy to go along with this arrangement, as it meant she no longer had to share a bed with him. Nevertheless, her respect for her husband as a director (if not necessarily as a man) meant that she never revealed publicly that she and Ray had effectively separated during the film.
There are countless Hollywood movies that have back-stories that could be easily made into a film, novel or play. Indeed, many of them already have, such as the story of Marilyn Monroe’s last film, The Misfits, which was adapted into a play of the same name. However, even among such remarkable back-stories, the one behind In a Lonely Place remains thrillingly, awfully unique, precisely because the film’s back-story and the film’s plot began to merge.
At the start of In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart’s screenwriter, Dixon Steele, is revealed to be a typical Hollywood screenwriter of the time, in that, first, he is apparently more interested in drinking and carousing than he is in writing, and, secondly, because he looks down upon the material he is asked to work with. When his agent, in one last desperate attempt to help his client, asks him to adapt a potboiler novel into a film script, Dix cannot even be bothered to read the original book (something that, alarmingly, is far from uncommon in Hollywood, even today).
Instead, he asks a friendly hatcheck girl, who has already read it, to tell him the story, even inviting her to return to his place (one of what were literally studio apartments, in that they were apartments owned by the Hollywood studios and used to house their employees). The girl is initially skeptical, but eventually agrees when Dix convinces her that he is only interested in her storytelling. As Dix drinks and half-listens to the girl recounting cliché after cliché, he is clearly bored, but thanks her for her help and sends her home in a cab. Unfortunately, she never returns home and when her body is found, Dix is firmly in the frame for her murder.
Given his propensity for drinking and fighting, plenty of people (including the police) are ready to believe that Dix is the killer, but he is given an unlikely alibi by Grahame’s young starlet, Gray, who also lives in one of the studio apartments and had seen the hatcheck girl leaving Dix’s apartment alone and uninjured. Grateful to Gray, Dix asks her out and eventually they fall in love, with Grahame’s starlet learning the truth about Hollywood through Dix’s veteran smarts and Dix gaining a new lease of life and a new zest for writing through Laurel. However, the suspicions about him persist, not least because he provides a convincing description of how he might have killed the hatcheck girl (pulling his car over and murdering her “in a lonely place”) when he and Grahame visit an old police buddy and his wife. Of course, such a description is a testament to Dix’s skill as a writer, but it also hints at his underlying obsessiveness and apparent love of violence.
All the time, of course, Ray and Grahame were experiencing their own long night of the soul, as their personal relationship foundered even while their professional relationship was not just beginning but flourishing. As a result, it is impossible not to imagine Ray himself as the Bogart character, the supremely skilful film-maker with the sliver of ice in his heart, who could prompt his wife to new artistic heights even though he could no longer apparently satisfy her in their marriage.
In a Lonely Place is one of the great films about screenwriting, that essential but often overlooked part of the film-making process. The title, of course, is not only a nod to the kind of place that Dix imagines would be perfect for a killing but is also a description of the usual status of the screenwriter, working alone, often late at night and for buttons (if they are paid at all). And the film also contains three of the finest lines ever found in any screenplay, as Dix says of a character who Laurel has inspired, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Initially, those lines were supposed to end the film, but as Ray wrote and rewrote the script with Solt, right up to the end of the production, they were moved to the middle and a new, more ambiguous ending was instead created.
The story of how Ray created the marvellously uncertain and inconclusive ending to In a Lonely Place is one of the best stories about the nuts-and-bolts film-making process, and in particular how even great films (and in particular great endings) can be created by a mixture of luck, lack of time and sheer, bloody-minded determination. Apparently, the original ending of the novel and the early drafts of the script had Dix finally strangling Grahame in a fit of jealous rage, and it is this murder (rather than the earlier murder of the hatcheck girl, which he is eventually exonerated of) for which he is jailed.
Ray himself had kept this original ending throughout his rewrites, but by the end of the film had come to hate it. So, instead, he wrote and improvised with Bogart and Grahame (having cleared the set of everyone else) a new ending, in which Bogart almost kills Grahame, only to be interrupted by a phone call from the police exonerating him of the hatcheck girl’s murder. Although he is now officially in the clear, in another sense Bogart is guilty as hell: guilty of the kind of jealous, even murderous rage that he has just shown towards Grahame. And so the film ends with him leaving, once more alone, and Grahame informing the police that, although it is wonderful Dix has been cleared, it has come “too late” to save their relationship.
Once again, it is impossible not to think of Ray and Grahame’s own relationship as the relationship between Dix and Gray is forensically examined on screen and found wanting. It would have been all too easy and understandable if Ray had stuck with the original ending and brutally “killed off” his wife’s character. Instead, it appears that something in him softened, or, more realistically, he realised that the original ending was not nearly as good as the new one that he and the actors had come up with.
In a Lonely Place did well commercially and it remains one of Humphrey Bogart’s finest screen performances, which is saying something considering that Bogart is the greatest male film star of them all. However, it is not only Bogey’s film. It is also Ray and Grahame’s film, with the ending of their marriage played out indirectly, even obliquely on screen.
Remarkably, after the film was released, they were briefly reconciled, but their marriage finally ended some two years later, when Ray apparently found Grahame in bed with his seventeen-year-old son from his first marriage. That, if it really happened (and Hollywood directors and studios were certainly not averse to badmouthing their former charges), is the tawdry reality. In a Lonely Place is the magnificent myth. And if, ultimately, it contributed to the break-up of Ray and Grahame’s marriage, then, as Dix himself says, “There’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality”.