An aspiring actress begins to suspect that her temperamental and mentally impaired boyfriend is a murderer.
In a few key scenes near the end of In a Lonely Place, you can quite clearly see Pierre-Auguste Renoir's La Loge (1874) framed conspicuously in conversation with Dixon Steele. It is a good choice of artwork, for not only is La Loge a piece depicting a high-society couple at the theatre (arguably the forerunner to the modern cinema), but it engages with the question of how we make judgements about other people, and, perhaps, that two people can share the same 'opera box' in life yet have remarkably different interests and priorities. Le Loge is potentially a prototypical 'noir' painting as well, given that it appears to be teasing out the dangers inherent in the attractive woman combined with an aloof man.
What makes this a heartbreaking tragedy instead of a jaded satire [of the vulgarity and shallowness of Tinseltown] is that, beneath its bruised pessimism, the film still clings to the hope that art and integrity and love can survive in the wasteland—a hope that dies slowly, agonizingly before our eyes. […] Any romantic aura around Dix is shattered by the horrible moment when he slaps his meek, long-suffering agent, Mel (Art Smith), breaking his glasses. This small, pathetic moment is even more disturbing than when Dix slugs a stranger in a traffic altercation, or when he shows how easily he can identify with Mildred’s unknown killer. […] With all its deaths and defeats, noir rarely breaks your heart: fatalism and cynicism are defenses against heartbreak. But Ray’s romantic temperament was never hardened against disappointment.
— Imogen Sara Smith (Criterion)
It’s key to the film’s cumulative emotional impact that we enjoy Dixon in the early scenes, particularly when he’s questioned for a hat-check girl’s death. We know that Dixon is trouble, but we assume he’s trouble in that unchallenging way which most glamorous heroes are, in a fashion that celebrates social conformity by reveling in autonomy (see Bogart in Casablanca). We groove on Dixon’s unbridled masculine power, though we’re jolted by the freedom Bogart’s been allowed here and by his astonishing conviction in the role. Dixon is to Bogart’s career what Ethan in The Searchers was to John Wayne’s, or what Scottie in Vertigo was to Jimmy Stewart’s: a daring and thorough detonation of a legendary actor’s bedrock type. […] The film is about the impossibility of true connection for sick people, perhaps most people. In its final moments, the film dramatizes an emotional desolation that’s so intensely hopeless that it’s paradoxically transcendent. We feel as if our darkest impulses have been shown back to us, perhaps readying us for some future test of cohabitation. The lonely place of the title isn’t only Dixon’s, but our own.
— https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/in-a-lonely-place-bd/ (Slant)
It’s clear that each of [Dixon Steele and police officer Burb] stands for a fork in the postwar path: one becomes a cop, a man in search of an antidote; the other becomes a killer, exchanging the work they began together for a solo career.
‘Man wants to apologise to you,’ he croaks. He means Lochner, but also, perhaps, himself. The scene becomes a bookend to the original seduction in the police station. Again, Laurel speaks to the detective but directs her words at Dix. ‘Mr Steele’s absolutely in the clear,’ the police captain tells her, and she replies, rubbing her throat and staring at Dix, who is standing on the threshold about to leave: ‘Yesterday, this would have meant so much to us. Now it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.’
— Gaby Wood (London Review of Books)