A few weeks ago I took another look at Nicholas Ray’s haunting film noir, In a Lonely Place (1950). As I watched, it slowly began to rankle that the central character, Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with an explosive temper, is consistently touted as a great guy by most who know him. Even the ex-girlfriend whose nose he once broke remains a friend (she never pressed charges), and it's well known that he's had scrapes with the law more than once for his loutish dust-ups. His friends remain staunch even after he is named prime suspect in the killing of a young hat-check girl who was last seen with him.
Dix's harsh treatment of his new girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), is mostly excused because, as a murder suspect, he's under great stress. For example, there's the night...
|Lovejoy, Donnell, Bogart, Grahame - this party is about to break up...|
Steele becomes pointlessly enraged with Laurel at a cookout and gets behind the wheel of his car, taking her on a hair-raising ride. His recklessness causes an accident and when the other driver confronts him, Dix’s temper blows and he begins viciously beating the man. Even after Laurel intercedes (saving the other man’s life?), Dix seems to feel justified in his violent attack because the other driver called him names.
Dix refers to his own “artistic” temperament and, according to one supporting character, “…he’s a writer, people like that have a right to be temperamental.” A long-time associate comments, “…he has a right to explode sometimes, it’s as much a part of him as his eyes…” His former Army buddy (Frank Lovejoy) observes, “he’s an exciting guy” with “a superior mind.” This is a man who challenges a stranger to a fist fight within the first five minutes of the film and punches out another man minutes later.
Because I had questions about a plot point that seemed incongruous, I became curious about the changes that may have occurred as the story made its way from page to screen and decided to read the novel on which In a Lonely Place was based.
I was in for a few surprises.
In a Lonely Place was first published in 1947, penned by prominent mystery/crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes. It was her eleventh novel and two of her previous books had already been made into films – The Fallen Sparrow and Ride the Pink Horse. Interestingly, the author’s first published work was a book of poetry; she was also a literary critic.
While many of the book's elements were retained, both its plot and themes are significantly different from the film.
Dix Steele, not long back from WWII, is staying in Los Angeles in the swank but borrowed garden court apartment of an old Princeton chum. He contacts war buddy, Brub Nicolai, of the locally prominent Nicolai family, now married and a detective with the LAPD. Both men had dropped out of elite colleges to enlist in the war and flew together in Europe where they became close pals.
Dix has no profession, he’s been drifting since the war, but says he’s writing a mystery novel. He originally devised this story so the very wealthy uncle who raised him would subsidize him for a year or so while he wrote. Dix, unlike his uncle, has no interest in hard work but developed a taste for the good life at Princeton and as a high-living ace flyer during the war.
Brub, along with most of the LAPD, is focused on a sensational case involving the rape/strangulations of young women in West L.A. Brub is afraid for his own lovely blonde wife, Sylvia; the couple lives in Santa Monica near the beach.
Dix, who is handsome, charming and polished, is attractive to women and knows it. When he catches sight of one of his garden court neighbors, a knockout named Laurel Gray, he is dazzled and pursues her on the spot. Young but savvy, Laurel is a fledgling actress just out of a miserable marriage to a wealthy man. She and Dix soon become involved.
Dix Steele, a screenwriter who “hasn’t had a hit in ten years,” is known for his intransigence about the writing assignments he will accept - as well as his violent temper. He comes under police scrutiny when a young hat-check girl is murdered after a visit to his apartment. Dix’s old Army buddy, strictly middle-class Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an LAPD detective, takes Dix in to the station for questioning the morning after the girl’s murder.
Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), Dix’s new neighbor, steps in as a witness on his behalf, but Dix remains the #1 suspect. Laurel and Dix become romantically involved. Meanwhile, Dix’s peculiar behavior one evening at the Nicolai home disturbs Brub’s wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell). Brub scoffs.
Dix has other friends, all Hollywood types, who attest that he’s a stand-up guy, albeit one with an erratic temper. Dix explodes several times in the course of the film and even those close to him (Brub, Sylvia, Laurel) become suspicious of his connection to the murder. But Dix is innocent; the slain young woman’s boyfriend eventually confesses.
The novel takes a less circuitous route in identifying the murderer, in this case a serial killer:
Written as a third person narrative, the book presents the story entirely from the viewpoint of Dix Steele. And from its early pages, there is no doubt that Dix is a killer. By the end of the book, it develops that he has not only raped and strangled women in Los Angeles but also on the East Coast and in Europe...and that he has also killed a wealthy college pal and appropriated his home, his belongings and his charge accounts.
These facts emerge slowly as the story unfolds and Dix, a stealthy character (though not nearly as clever as he thinks) but lacking an overtly nasty temperament, does not become a suspect until toward the end of the book. It is Brub’s wife, Sylvia, quiet and perceptive, who notices that something is awry in the man. Later, Laurel, who observes Dix’s inconsistencies and mood swings, comes to believe that Dix is the killer and confides her suspicions to Brub and Sylvia. Dix finally begins to unravel, certain from one moment to the next that either the police are closing in on him or that he’s outsmarted everyone again.
As with the movie, the book does not depict murder, though Dix’s stalking of his victims is detailed. In a Lonely Place is a well-written and well-plotted page-turner. Hughes’ description of Dix through his internal dialogue is thoroughly absorbing. The writer provides no explanation for Dix’s deeper motives though, through his agitated thoughts, it comes out that he profoundly resented being raised by a wealthy but stingy uncle who insisted his nephew adopt his own intense work ethic. We know from his behavior that Dix has no desire to work but has a sense of entitlement. We discover that, at Princeton, Dix attached himself, as a toady, to a rich crowd so that he could pass as one of them. From Dix’s reactions to certain intrusive sounds it seems that though he enjoyed the excitement of flying in combat, something of the experience rattled him. And finally, it develops that he continues to be a fixated on “Brucie,” the woman he loved during the war.
It’s fair to say that the story of a rapist/murderer told from the killer's point of view might not have appealed to filmmakers (not to mention censors) in 1950. And, though he was not an actor afraid of playing flawed characters, it’s doubtful Bogart, whose own company produced, was inclined to portray a serial killer/rapist at age 51. So, it's understandable that changes were made. But what of Dix’s onscreen character? Though he does offer jaded charm and dry wit, he is just barely sympathetic. Perhaps emphasis on the devotion of his friends was meant to cue audience acceptance. And perhaps the mores of mid-century America allowed the brutish acts of a man otherwise labeled 'good' to be tolerated.
|I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me...|
By the last act of Nick Ray’s film, Laurel has become convinced of Dix’s guilt and is terrified of him. As the murder investigation wears on, Dix has grown more unpredictable and paranoid; when he discovers that Laurel has plans to slip away, he snaps. He very nearly does kill her - she is virtually saved by the bell, a ringing telephone that brings news of Dix's exoneration. The relationship has, of course, just been demolished. It's worth noting that Laurel's lament that had the call come a day earlier it would've "meant the world" to the two of them, implies that their romance would've survived had Dix kept his abusive antics just short of attempted murder...
The back story on In a Lonely Place is that the film was originally going to end with Dix, not yet a killer, actually murdering Laurel in that scene. However, Ray, who was involved with the script (along with Andrew Solt), wasn't satisfied with this ending and changed it.
Today Nicholas Ray's rendering of In a Lonely Place stands as classic noir, noteworthy for its intimations on Hollywood during the blacklist era. The performances of Bogart and Grahame are regarded as among their finest. Meanwhile, the reputation of Dorothy B. Hughes was revived early in the 21st century with the reissue of some of her best work. She has been compared to the icons of mystery/crime fiction and one contemporary writer of the genre has claimed that Hughes "puts Chandler to shame."