Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) stops his car at a junction in town and is noticed by a passenger in the car next to him. She says hi and acts friendly, but her boyfriend is none too happy about her behaviour and threatens him. Dixon flies into one of his rages and gets out to confront the man, but he speeds off. Calming down, the writer continues on his way and to his regular haunt, a bar where he can hang out with fellow, cynical movie people. When he arrives, he is told that there's a book a producer would like him to adapt, but it's currently being read by the hatcheck girl, Mildred (Martha Stewart): it is a fateful meeting for Dixon...
A film noir "did he or didn't he?" rather than a whodunnit, In a Lonely Place exhibited one of director Nicholas Ray's favourite themes, that of the destructive, self and otherwise, modern male. Adapted from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes by Edmund H. North with a screenplay written by Andrew Solt, it also provided Bogart with one of his finest roles; Bogart was not the most versatile of the Golden Age stars, but cast him right and he could work wonders for your film, as he does here. In essence, here his tough guy persona is exposed as a form of psychosis, a drive to prove himself that alienates him.
We're so used to seeing Bogart as a capable character, always with the right thing to say and not afraid to use his fists if the situation called for it, that it's unsettling to see those traits used against him. What happens is that Dixon asks Mildred to accompany him back to to his home to tell him the story of the book to save him reading it himself (he's not really interested, it's simply another job to him). This she does, and after Dixon gets the idea of what the book is about, he thanks her and asks her to go call a taxi to take her home - he never sees her alive again.
Mildred has been murdered, and although the police can't prove it, they think Dixon is the killer, after all, he's notorious for his violent temper, so could this have developed into a killer's impulses? At the station, he is questioned by his old friend, now a detective, Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and while his cynical personality does him no favours, he does have an alibi: the woman who has moved in to the apartment across the courtyard says she saw him with Mildred. She is Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, soon to be Ray's ex-wife) and is attracted to Dixon, but could this attraction have blinkered her to who might be a terrible criminal?
The rest of the film could have been a simple suspenser, but in Ray's hands it's more complex than that. It's more a character study than a straightforward thriller, and although there is certainly tension in the drama it's Dixon's contradictory reactions to being under suspicion that are so absorbing. For instance when he gets Laurel as a girlfriend he throws himself into his work, writing one of his finest scripts, but this is based on the book Mildred described to him, so could it be that the murder has inspired him? Then the pressure begins to crack him up, and his rages get worse: see the sequence where he nearly crashes his car and beats the other driver unconsious. Laurel is with him when he does so, and her scream may have prevented him from killing the man, and it's here we realise that we're not on Dixon's side anymore, we're on Laurel's and we're worried about her. But the story does not end in the obvious manner, and that's what is so memorable, its aching bleakness and pity. Neglected in its day, it's a cult classic on any reasonable terms. Music by George Antheil.