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?
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.
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