SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film — and the novel it is based on — that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen the film and read the novel.
This might come as a surprise to people used to films that slavishly adhere to the smallest details of the novels and comic books they’re adapted from (lest the filmmakers incur the wrath of throngs of nerds on the internet), but movies based on books used to be wildly different from their source material.
The phrase “the book was better” became a cliché for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that during the era of the Hays Code, novels could be much more explicit about sexuality, violence, race, gender, and other “grown-up” issues than Hollywood films could be.
There was probably no way Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel In a Lonely Place — which is about a man who stalks, rapes, and murders a series of women in postwar Los Angeles — was ever going to make it to the screen with its original plot intact. What’s interesting about Nicholas Ray’s film adaptation, however, is that it fundamentally changes the story while retaining the novel’s exploration of toxic masculinity.
Hughes’s novel is a third-person narrative that never leaves the perspective of Dixon Steele, a World War II veteran who is pretending to write a novel while receiving financial support from a rich uncle.
Dixon — “Dix” to his friends — sponges off a wealthy friend from college, Mel Terriss, who never appears in the novel and is supposedly out of the country. Dix lives in Mel’s apartment, wears his clothes, and charges purchases to his expense account.
One of Dix’s friends from his days in the service, Brub Nicolai, is now an LAPD detective investigating the murders that Dix is committing. Under the guise of “research,” Dix insinuates himself into Brub’s life and into Brub’s investigation. Dix was a pilot in the war, and he became addicted to the thrill of danger when flying missions. When he rides along with the police and returns to the scenes of his crimes, he learns what they know and what they don’t know, and he experiences rushes of adrenaline by pushing his luck.
Andrew Solt’s screenplay, from an adaptation by Edmund H. North, retains most of the characters’ original names, but nearly everything else is different in some way. Instead of pretending to write a mystery novel as a cover, in the film version Dixon Steele is a successful screenwriter; or at least he used to be. Instead of being outwardly “normal” and utterly average-looking, the film’s Dix is distinctive-looking, well-known around Los Angeles, and has a police record for violence. Instead of a string of murders, Dixon is suspected of only one; the murder of a checkroom girl he took home one night to help him with a screenplay.
If the producers had been casting for a straight adaptation of the book, I think the perfect choice for Dixon Steele would have been Robert Montgomery, who starred in another adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse (1947). Montgomery was the kind of guy who would be hard to pick out of a police line-up, but he had intense and haunted eyes. He also served in combat in World War II, just like Dixon Steele.
Bogart, on the other hand, is always “Bogie” no matter who he is playing. I don’t mean that he was ever typecast, just that his unique image and his star power were always bigger than the character, at least in the post-Casablanca era. This works for the film version of In a Lonely Place, since Dix is recognized all over Hollywood, mostly by people who dislike him.
In a Lonely Place is a masterful film from Nicholas Ray, a director who had already made a handful of impressive films in a relatively short career. The changes made to Hughes’s novel all work in the context of the film, since it’s not a film about a murderer, it’s a film about an angry and deeply unhappy man who is unable to control his rage.
In a Lonely Place works on two levels. If you go into it without knowing the ending, you’ll probably spend most of the film trying to guess whether or not Dix is guilty of murder. Bogart’s performance is perfect in this regard. His line “I’ve killed dozens of people … in pictures” rivals Bela Lugosi’s famous line from Dracula (1931), “I never drink … wine.”
Solt’s screenplay originally ended with Dixon — who is innocent of the murder he’s suspected of — strangling his girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). This is a trite conclusion that implies that police railroading “made him do it,” and it’s good that Ray shot a different ending.
What we’re left with is something much more profound. Unlike most Hollywood films, the love of a good woman doesn’t reform Dixon Steele. His rage and his refusal to confront his own propensity for violence drives her away. He is unwilling to confront his own demons, and it damns him to a lifetime alone.