Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is one of the greatest examples of film noir ever produced—a deft thriller that doubles as a spellbinding meditation on love and its limitations. Nearly as intriguing is what happened behind the scenes.
By all accounts, Ray’s four-year marriage to Lonely Place lead actress Gloria Grahame was contentious. By the time they got around to shooting the film, the state of their relationship had deteriorated so badly that Ray moved out of the couple’s shared home and into the film’s principal set: a soundstage-bound courtyard apartment complex inspired by one of his very first Los Angeles residences.
The residence in question is the Villa Primavera, a hacienda-like West Hollywood apartment building designed in 1923 by Arthur and Nina Zwebell, the husband-and-wife architectural team who introduced Spanish courtyard design to the city’s then-booming multi-family housing market. Twenty seven years later, that same building would inspire the primary location of one of Hollywood’s greatest-ever noirs, its expressive Spanish revival architecture deepening the doomed love story between floundering screenwriter Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and would-be actress Laurel Gray (Grahame).
Also known as the Mexican Village, the Villa Primavera is located at the corner of Harper and Fountain avenues, just two blocks south of famed celebrity playground the Chateau Marmont. The wood-and-stucco building houses 10 compact units that open to a central courtyard, a striking outdoor space that includes a tiled fountain, verdant garden, and majestic fireplace capped by a stone relief of the Madonna and Child.
LA’s population more than doubled over the course of the 1920s, necessitating a huge amount of residential development. The Zwebells—young Midwest transplants whose lack of formal training was made up for by their artistry—were inspired by photography books featuring Spanish architecture, particularly a type that was fashionable in the southern region of Andalusia.
“That [style] was becoming very popular because a lot of people were traveling to Spain,” says Roger Sherwood, coauthor of the 1992 book Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles and professor emeritus at the USC School of Architecture.
One of the few European countries to remain neutral during World War I, Spain remained open during those years to young American architects touring the continent. The country’s architecture soon began circulating in a series of photography books, exerting a particularly powerful influence on Southern California designers like the Zwebells, who would go on to name their most famous courtyard building in Los Angeles after the Andalusia region.
Once they completed the Villa Primavera, the Zwebells spent the next few years designing and building several more courtyard-style complexes around LA, including the Casa Laguna in Los Feliz; the Andalusia, La Ronda, and El Cabrillo in the Hollywood area; and the Villa Primavera’s next door neighbor, Patio del Moro. Sherwood notes the couple would typically build one unit for themselves, often incorporating two-story spaces into the design to accommodate Nina’s beloved pipe organ.
A key aspect of these buildings was the Zwebells’ innovative placement of parking areas, which were housed in separate forecourts hidden from view so as not to detract from the architectural beauty of the living spaces. But when a change in the building code in Los Angeles in the early 1930s mandated a minimum number of parking spaces on what were often small lots, builders were forced to construct costly underground garages that rendered the Zwebells’ unique courtyard garden layout obsolete.
“That was a very expensive, big problem,” says Sherwood. “As soon as you put the garage there, it was much harder to have a garden because you’re building on top of a parking garage.”
Along with the collapse of the housing and stock market in 1929, the new code coincided with the rapid decline of the Zwebells’ careers as the designers of buildings (they later transitioned to designing film sets and furniture).
Roughly 15 years after the Zwebells built the last of their courtyard-style complexes, Ray, who by that time was already a respected theater director in New York, relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a film career. The Villa Primavera was one of his earliest homes in LA, and—judging from his later adoption of its courtyard design for In a Lonely Place—it appears to have made a strong impression.
Ray is widely regarded by film critics and historians as a director highly attuned to spatial considerations in his work, with architecture and design elements often mirroring the psychological states of his characters.
That is unsurprising given his brief but formative stay at Taliesin, the rural, 800-acre estate of architectural giant Frank Lloyd Wright, where budding young architects studied painting, dance, theater, music, and sculpture “in their places as divisions of architecture.”
Ray was among the first crops of students to attend the school, residing there between December 1933 and May 1934. The director’s biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Wright had lured the talented young creative out from New York by offering him a deal on the school’s tuition in exchange for his services as a stage director.
“He needed someone to organize a playhouse, turn it into the heart and soul of Taliesin,” says McGilligan, author of the 2011 biography Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. “They have this huge central performance area, and he was in charge of what was put on on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes during the week. [It was intended to] be an artistic inspiration for the people who were students.”
Ray’s stint at Taliesin was brief (McGilligan points out that the notoriously-troubled director was likely ejected over “drunkenness and misbehavior”). But in later interviews, he would note the influence of that experience on his work as a filmmaker.
“He always emphasized the broad artistic and philosophical perspective he had absorbed at Taliesin, linked to his own preference for the widescreen Cinemascope format with its horizontal lines of visual expression,” says McGilligan of Ray’s affinity for the anamorphic process, which he first used in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause.
Though Cinemascope wasn’t invented until 1953, many critics have pinpointed the dynamic use of architecture and design in Ray’s earlier films, including his fourth: In a Lonely Place.
After Columbia Pictures hired him to direct the film—loosely based on the 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes—Ray enlisted the services of art director Robert Peterson, who had previously worked with the director on the 1949 courtroom melodrama Knock on Any Door.
“For the look of the patio apartments where Dix and Laurel live in close proximity, Ray asked Columbia art director Robert Peterson to recreate one of the director’s first Hollywood homes, a residence on Harper Avenue... where he briefly stayed in 1944,” McGilligan writes in his book.
That building was, of course, the Villa Primavera, which during its heyday is rumored to have hosted a number of future Hollywood A-listers, including Katharine Hepburn and James Dean. With idyllic courtyards that played upon LA’s idealized image, the Villa Primavera and other courtyard complexes designed by the Zwebells were a draw for Hollywood’s striving class.
“It was Southern California imagery, you know?” says Sherwood of the buildings’ lush courtyards and evocative architecture. “For sure, it was a great place to live… and they were close to the [film] studios.”
Known as the Beverly Patio Apartments in In a Lonely Place, the complex where Laurel and Dix make their home is far from an exact replica of Villa Primavera. Whereas the latter’s circular tiered fountain is located in the direct center of the courtyard, the Beverly Patio’s fountain is rectangular and built into a wall off to one side. The walkways that lead from the street are also entirely different; at the Primavera they are red brick, while the footpath at the Beverly Patio consists of square concrete pavers placed over a spacious lawn.
But the similarities in design are perhaps more striking than the differences. As at the Villa Primavera, Laurel and Dix’s apartments are accessible only through the interior courtyard—a design element that differentiated the Zwebells’ work from typical multi-family buildings in LA at the time. Additionally, both complexes feature ample foliage, tile roofs, and elegant arched entryways.
More importantly, Peterson’s design captures the feel of the Primavera and the Zwebells’ other courtyard complexes, whose cloistered, dreamlike spaces lend themselves to enticing illusions of privacy.
In In a Lonely Place, that illusion is punctured very early on. In a striking shot early in the film, Laurel’s elegant form is framed by Dix’s front window as she stands on her second-floor balcony, her view into his apartment almost entirely unobstructed.
”You know, Miss Gray, you’re one up on me,” Dix tells Laurel later. “You can see into my apartment, but I can’t see into yours.”
”I promise you, I won’t take advantage of it,” she replies, leading Dix to counter: “I would, if it were the other way around.”
The set’s ingenious courtyard design, which serves both plotting and thematic functions, is often singled out in retrospective reviews of the film.
“The courtyard of the Hollywood building occupied by Humphrey Bogart… is one of the most evocative spaces I’ve seen in a movie,” Roger Ebert wrote. Film critic and historian Philip Kemp has noted Ray’s “exceptionally acute sense of space… conflict can be played out, and tension expressed, in terms of spatial areas (upstairs and downstairs, for example, or the courtyards and levels of an apartment complex) pitted against each other.”
Though he doesn’t discount the influence Ray’s stint at Taliesin had on his career as a filmmaker, McGilligan feels the director is sometimes given too much credit for the set design in his movies. He instead makes a point of highlighting Peterson, who worked on a total of three films with Ray: Knock on Any Door, In a Lonely Place and the 1956 musical Hot Blood.
“I think if [Ray] hadn’t worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and his father wasn’t a builder, nobody would say that,” McGilligan says. “It’s a very easy thing to say.”
Whatever the extent of Ray’s contributions, the design of In a Lonely Place’s courtyard apartment building has become an endlessly discussed feature of the film, with many noting echoes between the physical space and the interior lives of its two main characters. When Laurel and Dix first lock eyes in the courtyard, the lush communal area represents a point of connection, even potential salvation, for the two damaged souls. Only later does it reveal itself as a yawning chasm—an unbridgeable divide between two people whose personal hang-ups make any enduring romance between them impossible.
From a plotting standpoint, Peterson’s design of the Beverly Patio set is crucial. When Dix is suspected in the murder of a young woman who visited his apartment the night before, Laurel’s direct perspective into his unit provides an alibi.
Much more interesting are the metaphorical undertones of the space. As some critics have noted, the complex echoes the dualities of Laurel and Dix’s tormented relationship—a deep love torn asunder by rage. When things are good between the couple, however briefly, the almost fairytale-like space feels like an oasis of romance and possibility, cocooning them.
But as Dix’s violent temper becomes more and more apparent to Laurel, the sheltered environment soon comes to feel like a cage, its close spaces constricting around her. The confines of the complex also begin to suggest the psychological prison both Laurel and Dix have constructed for themselves, closing them off to the possibility of true connection with others. This is visualized by their view of one another across the courtyard, confined in separate boxes and partitioned by a gulf.
The film’s heartrending final moments throw the complex’s dual nature into sharp relief. As Dix walks out of Laurel’s life through the building’s mythical front archway, he leaves the tear-stained woman staring out at the vacant but still-beautiful courtyard, now revealed for what it really is: empty space.