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Ray, Nicholas (1911-1979)  
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In October 1947, the completed film was previewed and received very favorable reviews in trade journals. However, because the film did not conform to any established genres, the studio was uncertain how to market it. Finally, in November 1949, the film was distributed with a new title, They Live By Night, determined by an audience poll. The publicity campaign, emphasizing the theme of juvenile violence, did not succeed in attracting audiences; the film lost over $445,000.

Although delaying the release of his first film, the studio was impressed by Ray's talent and renewed his contract. Howard Hughes, who took over RKO in 1948, often clashed with Ray, who resented his involvement in all phases of films produced at the studio. Yet, despite their disputes, Hughes provided Ray with strong protection by utilizing his considerable influence to prevent Ray from being called as a witness by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Given Ray's history of leftist activities and sexual "deviance," an appearance before HUAC would certainly have harmed his career.

On June 1, 1948, Ray married sultry actress Gloria Grahame in Las Vegas. Foreshadowing the problems that would plague their brief marriage, he gambled away virtually all his existing financial resources in the days leading up to the wedding. Their son Tim was born on November 12--four months earlier than expected, according to studio publicity.

In a Lonely Place

Following the completion of They Live By Night, Hughes initially assigned Ray to comparatively routine films, including A Woman's Secret (1949) and Born to Be Bad (1950). Although under great pressure to do so, Ray managed to avoid directing I Married a Communist, a right-wing thriller that Hughes was committed to making as a demonstration of his studio's patriotism. (It was eventually directed by Robert Stevenson and released in 1951.)

Discontented with his assignments at RKO, Ray was delighted when Hughes decided to loan him out to Santana, an independent film company founded by Humphrey Bogart. For Santana, Ray created Knock on Any Door (1949), a naturalistic juvenile crime film, largely planned before he was hired, and In a Lonely Place (1950), which starred Bogart himself and which is recognized as one of his masterpieces.

The title not only reflects the situation of the protagonists, but it also expresses Ray's view of Hollywood. Like They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place synthesizes romance and film noir. Because the lead characters are mature adults, their despair and anxieties seem even more poignant and intense than those of the adolescents in the earlier film.

The story concerns screenwriter Dixon Steele (played by Bogart), accused of killing Mildred Atkinson, a hat check girl, whom he had invited to his apartment to narrate the story of a best-selling novel. While under suspicion for the crime, he becomes involved in an affair with Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame), a neighbor who provides an alibi for him. Their relationship is quickly destabilized by Steele's propensity for violence. Because his manliness is explicitly noted both by himself and other characters, his violent acts signify the inherent problems of conventional masculinity.

Suspicious and fearful, Grey plans to leave the city. Furious when he discovers her intentions, Steele starts to strangle her, but, ironically, he is interrupted by a police call that informs him of evidence that clears him of Atkinson's murder. This news comes too late to save his relationship with Grey, and he walks off into the night.

The theme of the corrosive effects of suspicion was very relevant in the McCarthy era. Ray evokes a sense of pervasive surveillance through frequent close-ups of sharply lit eyes, including over the opening credits. Throughout, Ray filmed actors with camera angles that correspond with the viewpoints of other characters. The unusual arrangement of the apartment building enables Grey to watch all of Steele's activities, although he cannot see her.

Despite romantic interludes, in the film heterosexual interactions generally seem unstable and fraught with danger. For example, when Steele first asks Grey out on a date, his intense gaze and fidgeting hands indicate an exceptional nervousness, inappropriate to the situation. Once their affair has begun, Steele frightens Grey by the extraordinary haste and fervor with which he insists upon marriage.

Through his depiction of Grey's interactions with her masseuse, Martha (Ruth Gillette), Ray opens up the possibility that a lesbian relationship might provide greater satisfaction than her liaison with Steele. A heavyset, muscular woman, Gillette corresponded to the 1950s stereotype of the butch lesbian. Lining up Gillette/Martha directly behind and above Grahame/Grey, Ray visualized their unity. The exceptionally low camera angle in the massage scene helps to convey the protection that Martha could provide. Martha speaks in low, intimate tones as she encourages Grey to abandon Steele. Although Martha does not appear on screen again, she plays a significant role in the culminating stages of the film through her telephone conversations with Grey.

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