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In a Lonely Place

July 24, 2013

Poster - In a Lonely Place_03

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) is an archetypal film noir and one of my favourite films. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a troubled screenwriter with a violent temper who is suspected of murdering a young woman and whose behaviour gradually convinces those around him, including his lover and the police, that he is the killer. Bogart’s performance is full of cynicism and menace. His scenes with Gloria Grahame, playing Laurel Gray, an aspiring movie actress, are tense with sex and fear; their on-screen relationship deteriorates into maelstrom of jealousy, threatened violence, and sleeping pills. Despite admiring the film, I didn’t read the novel from which it was adapted until quite recently, when it was reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. I think it’s wonderful.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes was published in 1947 and was her eleventh novel. It is a highly accomplished, fast-paced psychological drama in which the reader unwillingly sympathises with Dix Steele even though it is obvious from quite early on that he is a sociopath, and most likely a rapist and murderer. Like Jim Thompson, whose later The Killer Inside Me (1952) is much more graphic in its description than In a Lonely Place Hughes manages to encourage and sustain a lurid desire to know more about disturbed Dix Steele. Later, when things are clearer, you want him to get caught, but not just yet. She does so with observant, more or less elegant prose and smart dialogue, this from when Dix takes Laurel to dinner:

“You think you’ll know me the next time you see me?”
He returned to her actuality. He laughed but his words weren’t made of laughter. “I knew before I ever saw you.”
Her eyes widened.
“And you knew me.”
She let her lashes fall. They curved, long as a child’s, russet against her cheeks. She said, “You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you, Dix?”
“Never before.”
Her eyes opened full again and laughter echoed through her. “Oh, brother!” she breathed.

The corniness of Dix’s words in this scene are partly what Laurel’s exclamation is about, but it also hints at her cynicism about their possible future relationship, and perhaps also her realisation, even at this early stage, that he is going to be trouble. Dix the psycho-killer lives in the certainty of his feelings at a given moment and attaches himself to Laurel with an emotional force that is both sincerely felt, and utterly artificial. Hughes makes sure her female character shows that she knows they are overblown too, though she doesn’t yet know why.

This relationship, and the one between Dix Steele and Laurel Gray in the film, are mirror images of one another. Here Laurel Gray has already begun to suspect, subconsciously, that Dix is not quite as he should be, and she is right; in the film, the relationship is ruined by false suspicion and misplaced distrust. In the one, a woman is taken in by a dangerous, controlling man; in the other, a damaged, troubled man loses the woman he loves because he is unable to allay her fears about him.

Book and film are radically different from one another, and at a deeper level than plot alone. Where Hughes’s novel can be read as an examination of masculinity through an extreme version in which women are objectified, exploited, killed, and dumped by the roadside, in the film adaptation neither Laurel nor Dix ever really understand or trust each other. This bleak analysis of human relationships, of men betrayed by women, is a trope of classic Film Noir, but both novel and film have interesting things to say about loneliness and isolation. Bogart-Dix’s ‘lonely places’ are his isolation under false accusation and the existential loneliness of a war hero, a writer in decline and a man without a woman. In Hughes’s original, lonely places are where girls are killed, the sad apartments where men and women live isolated and alone, and the corners into which compulsive liars are backed by their delusions. In the novel, Dixon Steele’s loneliest place is his own deranged mind. In the film he is driven to loneliness in a postwar America which suspects outsiders and fears imagination.

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