Summer Readings & Screenings

‘In a Lonely Place’
Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Given the warm reception of last year’s Summer Readings and Screenings series, we thought we’d do it again. We’ll be keeping the same format: every two weeks or so, we’ll pair a book recently reissued by NYRB Classics with a film from the Criterion Collection and exchange our critical responses to them. Like last summer, we’ll be reading and watching widely—sometimes following our passions (Italian cinema, Russian literature, Henry James), other times venturing into less familiar but equally exciting territory (Japanese food writing and film noir).

And if you want to read and watch along with us (as we hope you do!), in two weeks we’ll be discussing The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, along with The Tree of Wooden Clogs by Ermanno Olmi.

Please feel free to join in the conversation on Twitter!

***

Griffin,

We really know how to pick ’em, don’t we? We started off our last summer series with a wintery choice: Georges Bernanos’s harrowing novel Mouchette. This year, we’re beginning with a California novel, Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place. A good sign, you might think: California has beaches and palm trees.

Yet Hughes’s 1947 noir masterpiece is, like Mouchette, anything but sunny. At one point, a character finds himself “lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea.” That’s how the reader feels, too: lost, empty, keening.

In a Lonely Place perfects all the noir conventions: the postwar disillusionment (“it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools”); the lean, poetic style; the crepuscular atmosphere and endless supply of highballs and beer, cold shrimp cocktails and hot black coffee. (I can’t read a noir without wanting to drive to a diner or beachside surf n’ turf joint. This book is no exception.)

Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Hughes boldly (or perhaps cruelly?) aligns the narrative perspective with Dix Steele—the comically perfect name for someone whose defining feature is his threatened masculinity. Dix flew fighter planes during World War II, a role that offered him “the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth.” In postwar America, he’s back on the crawling earth. He doesn’t have much money, though he’s skilled at cadging off friends and family; he doesn’t have a profession, though he tells others that he’s working on a novel (we’ve heard that one before); most crucially for him, he doesn’t have a woman.

Feeling restless and emasculated, Dix psychotically lashes out: roughly once a month, he prowls through the Los Angeles night, finding a woman to sexually assault and then strangle. Noir famously charts postwar despair and its violent effects. In a Lonely Place charts the same but gives it a gendered twist, dramatizing the resentment that can result when men don’t get what they want or think they deserve. Novelist Megan Abbott puts it well in the afterword to the NYRB Classics re-issue: Hughes sees in America “a dangerously beset masculinity—and how it can explode into sexual violence.”

Hughes plays a delicate perspectival game throughout, simultaneously revealing and concealing. It’s not like she holds back from Dix’s crimes. Within the first twenty pages, stalking through the fog, he finds “a girl, an unknown girl, standing alone, waiting alone there.” It’s her aloneness that attracts him, both making her more vulnerable and suggesting that he’s not alone in his aloneness. The murder takes place in the white space between sections but it’s clear what happened. There isn’t an “aha” moment; we dwell with a serial murderer from the beginning.

Yet it’s crucial that the violence takes place off-page; that Dix never says out loud, to himself or the reader, what he’s done; that he maintains a polished façade to the world around him. In a Lonely Place resembles a sweaty Henry James nightmare. Like James, Hughes sees how good we are at refusing to know what we know; how resiliently we continue thinking, as Dix does, that we’re the good and righteous ones, especially when we’re not.

Unlike James, Hughes also gives us a plotty plot. Will Dix be caught or won’t he? Will his veneer finally crack? Dix’s former war buddy, Brub Nicolai (god, I love noir names!), is now a detective on the case; Brub’s new wife, Sylvia, suspects that something is off with Dix. This, as you might expect, complicates things.

Another complicating factor: Dix meets a classic femme fatale named Laurel, complete with red hair. Dix tells himself he’s fallen for her. But he can’t stop murdering girls; we know that he’s really just fallen for a way out of his anomie. When she brushes him off, he reacts first with annoyance, then with paranoia, finally with poisonous anger.

From start to finish, Hughes doesn’t flinch. There’s no redemption for Dix, no breath of fresh air offered by a shift in perspective. We start lost, empty, and keening, and we largely end that way.

W. H. Auden wrote that we read crime fiction, where the crime is solved and the criminal caught, in order to imagine “being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence.” What did you think, Griffin? Do we end In a Lonely Place in Eden, in hell, or just crawling along in the same old fallen world?

***

Funny you should mention hell, Tony, as I couldn’t stop thinking about Dante’s Inferno the whole time I was reading Hughes’s novel. It’s not just the surreal, disorienting setting of postwar Los Angeles (Dix always drives down the California Incline into a sand-strewn canyon to reach the crime scene), but the solitary prison of absolute hatred in which Dix finds himself. His sin is not just that he’s a misogynist, or a liar, or a mooch, but, as you mention, that he refuses to see himself as anything other than righteous. Whatever ills befall him are always someone else’s fault. Like Dante’s Farinata degli Uberti or Count Ugolino, egotistically clinging to moral superiority even after they’ve permanently closed the door to redemption, Dix’s rage is born more of envy than jealousy. He doesn’t just want the things that other people have: money, social status, women. He wants those things—and those people—not to exist at all.

Like a Tony Soprano avant la lettre, we identify with Dix, feeling compassion for him despite knowing full well that he’s evil.

There’s one moment, though, where Hughes suggests the possibility of Dix’s redemption. After his initial rendezvous with Laurel, Dix wakes up to find himself in a room bathed with blue and yellow light. It’s one of the only peaceful scenes in the book, where Hughes’s deliberate use of Edenic language nudges us, however briefly, into sympathizing with a sociopath: “The room was swirling with sun and [Dix] rested there content in brightness.... The sun and the day would pass; there would come night. And the night would flame with a radiance surpassing the sun.” Here we see what Dix refuses to see: that this irenic moment, which seems so eternal, so replete with Laurel’s maternal, unconditional care, won’t last. All Dix really needs is love, but for him, hell really is other people, and he’s unwilling to break down the walls of the lonely place he’s cemented himself within. But like a Tony Soprano avant la lettre, we identify with Dix, feeling compassion for him despite knowing full well that he’s evil.

This small germ of Dix’s moral goodness, almost undetectable in the novel, blossoms into the core of Nicholas Ray’s freewheeling adaptation of In a Lonely Place. I don’t expect “fidelity” from films based on books, but the artistic liberties Ray takes with Hughes’s source material really shocked me. True, Humphrey Bogart is perfectly cast as Dix: he’s hard-boiled and quick-witted, but also lonely and deeply wounded. And while Ray gives us the film noir ambience we came for (there are fast cars, stiff drinks, and smoke-filled piano lounges), the similarities with the novel end there, as Ray quickly tosses Hughes’s book aside and gives us another story entirely.

Most surprisingly, in Ray’s film Dix is not the murderer. He’s entirely innocent, and that changes everything. Gone is the book’s pointed class critique—or rather, it’s reversed, as Ray transforms his Dix into what Hughes would have called a “rich stinker,” a big-shot Hollywood screenwriter flush with cash. The source of Dix’s rage in the film is a different kind of poverty, one of artistic inspiration: he hasn’t written a hit film in years, and disdains having to produce blockbusters for the popcorn-munching masses. Thus Ray portrays the same civic rot as Hughes, but seen from a different angle, as even those at the top (like Dix) resent the crass commercialism and cult of success that pervades all aspects of American society.

I was also intrigued by the amount of space Ray’s In a Lonely Place gives to that generic partner-in-crime of film noir: romantic melodrama. In the film, Dix’s relationship with Laurel (played by a radiant Gloria Grahame) is initially a healthy, loving one. She becomes his muse, helping him write a new screenplay. But the widespread suspicion that Dix committed murder (there’s just one killing, of a hatcheck girl from Dix’s studio) grates on him, leading him to lash out in anger, first humiliating his friendly manager, then scorning Laurel herself. The film ends not with Dix’s arrest but with his full exoneration, which unfortunately comes too late to save his and Laurel’s broken relationship. Under the glare of suspicion, true love is impossible: that’s the tragedy the film lays bare, and that’s what becomes Ray’s rejoinder to Hughes. The destructive, antisocial logic of evil isn’t something reducible to a single sociopathic personality. Rather, it’s embedded in the set of corrupt social relations surrounding it. Hughes’s novel gives us an indictment of one man’s toxic masculinity; Ray shows us how a suspicious society, obsessed with the idols of wealth and fame, crushes the very love that would seek to transform it.

Tony, I know you’ve thought a lot about the #MeToo movement and its attendant “cancel culture.” Of course, I’m all for justice, and anyone guilty of sexual abuse or harassment deserves a stiffer sentence than just losing their career. But there’s also a kind of rank hysteria clouding our view these days. That’s one thing Ray wants us to see: just suspecting others of evil won’t deliver us from our lonely places. Before we cast stones, we need to point our fingers at ourselves.

So, what about it, Tony? Did you find anything in Dix worth loving?

***

Griffin,

I would’ve set the over/under on your first Dante reference at four sentences. Even by your standards, I’m impressed!

This conversation reminds me of a 2016 piece by Matthew Boudway. In it, he considers Lester Ballard, the monstrous protagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God, arguing that Ballard’s monstrosity, and the novel’s title, forces a difficult question upon us: “Can we accept, or even imagine, that a murderous necrophiliac, really is ‘a child of God’—in that way like ourselves, if in no other?… Christian readers of this novel are forced to ask themselves if their God could really command anyone to love a creature as vile as Lester Ballard, without illusion but also without reservation.”

Boudway is right to say that McCarthy wants us to ask such a question. I don’t know that Hughes does. Or, rather, she flips the question. If McCarthy challenges us to love Ballard, despite his vileness, Hughes asks us to see our own vileness, despite how much we love ourselves. Most of us aren’t murderers. But most of us can be envious, petty, suspicious. In that way, Hughes wants us, as you put it, “to point our fingers at ourselves.”

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to point the finger at Dix. You say that we’re asked to sympathize with him in that Edenic love scene; to see in it a “small germ of Dix’s moral goodness.” Maybe I’m not being charitable enough. But I read even this (admittedly beautiful) passage skeptically.

The film criticizes our suspicions and tells us there’s much to be suspicious of.

Your ellipsis jumps over a crucial sentence: “It was good to know she would return after her little errands and business appointments and lessons were done, would return eagerly to his eagerness.” What’s Edenic here isn’t the experience of love but the sense that the world seems fitted—finally, Dix would say—to his desires: Laurel “would return eagerly to his eagerness.” Dix doesn’t love Laurel for her care so much as for her compliance. (And when that compliance ends, he reacts with rage.)

But you’re absolutely right that the film version does make Dix more sympathetic—both in ways that are obvious (he’s innocent of the plot-generating murder) and in subtler ways, too. His love for Laurel seems genuine; he displays kindness toward a washed-up, booze-sodden actor; he, like most Criterion Collection viewers, hates how screenwriters have been turned into mere “popcorn salesmen.”

You write that “under the glare of suspicion, true love is impossible.” That’s spot-on. This is a deeply suspicious film even before we get to the murder. As the opening credits roll, Dix drives through the LA streets, his eyes darting to the rearview mirror as if he’s worried that he’s being tailed. As he comes to a stop, a woman in the car next to him cries out, “Dix Steele! How are you? Don’t you remember me?” Dix reacts confusedly before she explains, “You wrote the last picture I did.” Even before he is hounded for a murder he didn’t commit, Dix feels hounded: he can’t drive through the night without being reminded of his past successes and present failures.

On the one hand, I completely agree that the film indicts a “suspicious society” and its “rank hysteria.” On the other hand, the suspicion toward Dix, the last person seen with the murder victim, isn’t unfounded. After all, he has a rap sheet of assault charges, including a recanted accusation of battery by an ex-girlfriend. For a long time, Dix has been, as one detective fairly puts it, “an erratic, violent man.”

In the film’s most disturbing scene, Dix tells Brub and Sylvia how he thinks the murderer must have done it. Or, rather, he doesn’t tell them; he urges them to recreate it. You pretend you’re driving, he coaches Brub. Now, wrap your arm around your wife: “Go ahead, go ahead Brub, squeeze harder. You love her, and she’s deceived you. You hate her patronizing attitude. She looks down on you. She’s impressed with celebrities. She wants to get rid of you. Squeeze harder. Harder.” The whole time, he’s smiling ghoulishly, his panting voice and creepily lit face emerging from the otherwise shadowy shot. In the novel, we know that Dix did it from the very start; in the film, we know that he didn’t. But, in moments like this, we can’t help but feel that he could have done it. (In fact, after Dix gets into a car accident, he seems primed to smash another man’s head in with a rock until Laurel stops him.) The film simultaneously criticizes our suspiciousness and tells us there’s much to be suspicious of.

You mention that, in addition to noir, Ray’s film trades in romantic melodrama. It throws other genres into the pot, too, including metafiction (it’s a great film about film) and, weirdly enough, screwball comedy. But it’s noir to which this film and Hughes’s novel display their primary allegiance—a genre that finds evil in society, evil in others, and evil in ourselves.

In a Lonely Place
Dorothy Hughes
NYRB Classics, $14.95, 224 pp.

In a Lonely Place
Nicholas Ray
Criterion Collection, $23.96, 93 min.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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