Why is the artistic process so mysterious? How come one day you sit at your desk, or on your couch, ride a bicycle, go to a coffee shop, shaking your head, baffled, frustrated, unable to come up with any inspiration, and the next ideas and inspiration fill your head and you feel like you’re unstoppable? Also, the emergence of artistic inspiration fluctuates not just on a daily basis: sometimes it’s hour to hour, week to week, month to month. For Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (played by Humphry Bogart) in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), it’s even more extreme. “You haven’t written a hit since before the war,” he’s told early in the film. There’s no clear-cut answer as to what causes artistic stagnation or inspiration since everyone will probably have different descriptions of both that disheartening walk through the creative malaise and that soaring sensation of the imagination buzzing like an electric spark. But if ever there was a more fascinating and adventurous example of this process, it might be Steele being given an “epic” novel by his agent and how he adapts it into a screenplay.
Now, Ray’s film is many things: a character study, a film noir, a murder mystery, a devastating romance, and yet all these elements can serve as frameworks for Steele’s creative dilemma.
As the film opens, he’s driving through the nighttime streets of Hollywood, the streets cloaked in an eerie darkness (courtesy of the great cinematographer Burnett Guffey) and at a stoplight a woman in the car next to him calls out to him that she was in a film he recently wrote. It’s ambivalent whether Steele recognizes her or not, but he acts like he doesn’t, saying, “I make it a point never to see the pictures I write.” This is a common practice with artists, a very pure and selfless demonstration of their concern with good work and utter disinterest with commercial incentives or audience judgment. And yet just a few moments later, while walking to a bar, Steele is stopped by a few kids, one of which asks for an autograph. “Don’t bother, he’s a nobody,” the other says, to which Steele responds: “She’s right.” Ray establishes immediately a sort of weary honesty in Steele. He’s aware that he can produce good work, but he’s also candid about his shortcomings, not even trying to trick a kid into thinking he’s somebody.
The mystery/noir aspect of the film gets under way when Steele invites a hat-check girl who’s riveted by the novel he’s supposed to adapt over to his apartment to tell him what it’s about. Though he knows he’s under pressure to come up with a good screenplay, this isn’t exactly a project he’s thrilled about, evinced by the fact that he’s not even planning to read it. It’s a bit ironic that just before they depart for his apartment, Steele says to a waiter, “there’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.” This is the kind of mindset that probably made Steele a hit screenwriter at one point, but at this point we can’t quite be sure whether he still believes it.
The reading session ends up being a humorous trifle, with the hat-check girl dramatically explaining the plot while drinking a ginger ale with a twist of lemon (“it’s called a horse’s neck”) while Steele listens disengaged, bored to the point that he wanders into his room and gets distracted by his female neighbor standing on the balcony. She will become the other central figure in the story once the police show up the next morning with the shocking news that the hat-check girl has been found dead on the side of the road.
Steele is a potential suspect, not just because the girl was at his apartment the night of the murder, but because he also has a violent temperament, ready to beat someone up even over the most trivial of issues. While this turn in the plot could have been the grounds for a meaty murder crime story, it ends up being more of a backdrop for Ray to investigate Steele’s character and his creative problems.
This is partly why the film has always fit awkwardly in the film noir canon. The element of crime is always ebbing and flowing in and out of the narrative, with the audience never being entirely engaged in who actually killed the girl, instead being fascinated by the change in course it produces in Steele’s life.
Steele shows no anxiety over being a suspect in the case, instead treating the entire situation like a blast of much-needed excitement to counteract the deterioration of his life. He has a playfully snide encounter with the police chief, his indifference to the situation suggesting he sees this as a game, or something out of a movie. “I have a lot of experience with matters of this sort,” he says. “In pictures of course.” And perhaps he doesn’t try to defend himself because he feels a spark from the entire situation and if he stopped playing games perhaps that spark would go away.
Steele’s alibi comes by way of the Laurel Gray (played with sultry allure by Gloria Grahame), the woman on the balcony who saw the hat-check girl leave Steel’s apartment alone. More importantly this gives rise to a romance between Laurel and Steele. She initially says she just likes his face while teasingly evading his approaches. “I said I liked it. I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.” But Steele’s infatuation with her soon leads to a full-on love affair, and watching the way he goes from exhausted cynic to beaming, almost giddy lover shows a spectacular acting range on Bogart’s part.
The murder mystery lingering around and Steele and Laurel growing closer and closer produces a massive change in Steele’s creative output. I opened this piece with the question: what brings us artistic inspiration? For Steele it’s these two elements, and while it’s a bit more extreme than, say, listening to a song or having a talk with a friend, it makes sense given Steele’s intense and fiery personality. You get the sense it takes a little more than most for him to get inspired, but when he does he has a similarly extreme creative output.
There’s a great scene where we see Steele’s agent visit in the morning to find Laurel essentially taking care of Steele and poking fun at him in a gently teasing way while he sits at his desk writing away. The romantic chemistry between Bogart and Grahame is almost palpable, yet the focal point is simultaneously on the fact that Steele’s been up since the day before working on the script. We’re never entirely sure what Steele is writing about other than the fact that he’s deviating strongly from the source material, but regardless, creative inspiration is in full force for him. The utter thrill his agent gets when he sees him lets us know we’re seeing the old Dixon Steele, free from creative lethargy.
As the love story and Steele’s writing continue to grow, the murder investigation sneaks back into the film, as Steele learns at a lovely picnic by the beach that he’s still a suspect. While earlier the investigation was something he actually needed in his life, now Steele has found what he’s looking for. Consequently he becomes irate that he’s still under suspicion. On the drive home he sidesweeps another car while speeding, and when the driver angrily confronts him, Steele nearly beats him to death.
This is the turning point in the film, the beginning of the end of Steele’s creative and romantic bliss. Laurel was aware of his violent tendencies, but now having actually seen it in person she gets frightened and increasingly weary of their relationship. While they’re driving back, Steele tells her a great line he has that he wants to put in the script: “I was born when she kissed me…I died when she left me…I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” and then asks her to repeat it. It’s a damn good line for a script, but in the film it’s emblematic of their mutual realization that their own romance is dwindling. Steele’s relapse into his old, destructively temperamental self ends up being his downfall. The film doesn’t dig too deep into why he has such a bitter edge to him, instead simply acknowledging that it’s an unfortunate part of his nature. “You knew he was dynamite,” Steele’s agent tells Laurel. “He has to explode sometimes.” For Steele it all but ends this brief euphoric moment in his life. After all, those moments of creative inspiration can’t last forever.
The murder mystery is solved, and the Laurel and Steele’s relationship ends in predictably tragic fashion, but I won’t comment on those elements now. Because despite the fact that Steele’s left forlorn by the end of the film, his script has been turned in and it’s been met with immense praise.
Critic Kim Morgan called In a Lonely Place “one of the most heartbreaking love stories ever committed to film.” I agree. But if you choose to read the film through the lens of the artistic process, I actually think it is in it’s own strange way rather inspiring.