Art Makes Life: Reality & Film in Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place”

Called his smartest and most shocking masterpiece, In a Lonely Place poetically renders director Nicholas Ray’s lifelong fascination with the misunderstood outsider.  Made in 1950, the picture is essentially about movies and movie people: Dix, our protagonist, is a washed up screenwriter who finds himself at the heart of a murder plot when a girl he was with turns up dead.  When Laurel, his alluring neighbor, sashays into the police station with an alibi, a passionate love affair ensues and the two become inseparable.  Alternating between the suspense and anxious paranoia of noir and the overpowering intensity of melodrama, In A Lonely Place is a devastating film you won’t soon forget.

“Art makes life,” Henry James once said.  In a Lonely Place represents a chilling refashioning of this old adage.  The English-American novelist may have meant that art imbues life with meaning, but in Ray’s film noir this sentiment becomes terrifyingly literal.  With the rise of Hollywood film, cinema increasingly dictated how we viewed the world.  A brilliant work of meta-fiction, In a Lonely Place meditates on film as an industry bent on manufacturing (and perpetuating) certain cultural narratives.  Though film is meant to represent reality and, thus, be mimetic, the Hollywood picture, Ray argues, often deceptively manipulates or exaggerates it.  In a Lonely Place represents an exercise in demystification as it dispels some of Tinseltown’s most enduring and prevalent myths, particularly that of the criminal, the hero, and- our most beloved-the happy ending.

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The Myth of the Criminal

As In A Lonely Place progresses, Hollywood’s prevailing stories will indeed influence how Lochner and police locate possible suspects for investigation.  In detective fiction and horror movies, the murderer often outwardly looks like a deranged lunatic, a maniac who gains sick pleasure from inflicting pain on his victims; however, it is often the most ruthless killers who, in real life, appear the most normal.  This powerful myth of the “criminal” as a certain type of person infiltrates legal proceedings when Dix is accused of Mildred’s murder.  Dix, a screenwriter who admits to having killed dozens of people in “pictures,” finds himself ensnared by a fiction of his own creation: the language of murder mystery.  He can certainly be cast the part of a killer; Lochner initially suspects him because his long history of violence and run-ins with the law.  The police further investigate him, rather than Mildred’s boyfriend (the more logical suspect), for the central reason that Dix looks like a killer: he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the war and is infamous around Hollywood for his volatile, ill-temper.

Lochner’s logic for pursuing Dix as a prime suspect, then, rests on the fallacious premise of a universal “type” of criminal.  During questioning at the station, he vocalizes his astonishment at Dix’s lack of emotional response: “You’re told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon murdered, dumped from a moving car and what’s your reaction?  Shock?  Horror?  Sympathy?  No, just petulance at being questioned, a couple of feeble jokes. It’s puzzling, Mr. Steele.”  Tall and upright, Lochner menacingly hovers over Dix, who appears disinterested as he casually lays back in his chair.  Lochner may personify justice as a detective but he interrogates Dix for no other reason than that Dix suits the profile and was coincidentally with Mildred around the time of her murder.  His choice of nouns- shock, horror, sympathy-characterize a range of appropriate human reactions, none of which Dix displays at hearing the news.  This introduces an ideal (and ultimately false) portrait of normalcy which supposes all “normal” people will cope with grief in the exact same way.  Dix’s apparent indifference immediately implicates him because, according to Lochner, only a sick man, a cold-blooded killer, could appear so dispassionate and composed after being told a young woman was slaughtered.  The dramatic irony, of course, is that we know Dix can be a rather sensitive and vulnerable man despite his inclination for violence; soon after he leaves the office, he sends his condolences to Mildred’s family by mailing an anonymous bouquet of flowers.

Troubled and complex, Dix illuminates Ray’s lifelong interest in the outsider:

If there is a single image that sums up Nicholas Ray’s view of the human condition, it is that of the hunt…Where other directors have consistently explored the figure of the predator, Ray’s sympathies and interests have been, more often, with the prey.  Ray’s people are unstable, insecure, scared by their surroundings, or carrying within themselves the seeds of their own destruction” (Ebert).

If the film industry (here personified by the police and Lochner, who perpetuate its belief in a universal “type” of criminal) acts as hunter, Dix is the hunted.  But what is remarkable about In a Lonely Place is the blurring of that once clear distinction: Dix, who disseminates many of Hollywood’s driving myths as a screenwriter, is rendered another helpless viewer, disempowered by a stream of stereotypic description.  Lochner and law enforcement target him because his unpredictable fits of anger typecast him as a potential killer.  Later, his wisecrack response only intensifies their suspicion: “Well I grant you the jokes could’ve been better but I don’t see why the rest should worry you…that is unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion.”  Dix’s clever reply eerily foreshadows what is to come, considering Lochner will persecute him precisely for a “lack of emotion,” or breach of acceptable, supposedly normal behavior.  From the beginning of the interrogation, there exists an ominous sense that things are closing in: with every step, the intimidating and predatory Lochner literally corners Dix while he figuratively traps him in a frame for a crime (we later discover) he did not commit.

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Dix as Criminalized for Being Particular

Because Dix violates standard types, his world criminalizes him and will ultimately demonize him as other.  Dix defies simple definition, thus he must be articulated through universal abstractions like that of the criminal.  While speaking to Lochner, Brub tellingly admits: “It’s hard to tell what Dix feels about anything.  None of us could ever figure him out.”  This complete and utter inscrutability serves to bring him under law enforcement’s watchful suspicion.  His eccentric and rather odd behavior renders him inaccessible to the other characters, who feel uneasy at encountering someone they cannot readily understand.  This discomfort results, not from Dix’s actual status as a murderer, but from his outward failure to conform.  By being fiercely individual and particular, Dix threatens to dismantle the film industry’s fragile belief in “types” of people, which provides the very foundation of society itself.  “How would you feel if some joker like me told you that the girl you took home last night was murdered?” Lochner asks Brub.  “I’d come apart at the seams,” he replies.  “Yeah,” Lochner confirms, “most innocent men do.”  Lochner uses Brub as a reference point, a grounds for comparing Dix to the norm.  He, however, finds Dix wanting because, unlike Brub, Dix never shows a glimpse of emotion and is for the most part reserved.  Lochner’s hypothetical questioning suggests the criminal can be found by measuring and judging him against others, a strategy which rests on the erroneous assumption that any two individuals will be exactly alike.  While the word “most” proves he is gauging Dix against an overly broad idea of majority instances, it equally reveals his reliance on statistics as undependable and logically flawed, seeing as there will always be exceptions to every rule.  Lochner accuses Dix of murder and aggressively pursues him simply because he is different from most, which implies that-in much the same way that to have leftist leanings during the McCarthy era made one a traitorous commie-to be individual in the uneasy world of film noir was to be considered a criminal.

Lochner and the other characters continually misunderstand Dix’s peculiar behavior as a sign of his pathological urge to kill.  In the hauntingly disturbing scene where Dix reenacts Mildred’s murder, Sylvia argues he is a “sick man” because he seems to enjoy watching Brub almost choke her.  While Brub and Sylvia pretend to be the perpetrator and victim, Dix acts as the figurative director: “Now, you’re driving up the canyon, your left hand is on the wheel.  She’s telling you she did nothing wrong; you pretend to believe her.  You put your right arm around her neck.  You get to a lonely place in the road and you begin to squeeze.  You’re an ex GI, you know judo, you know how to kill a person without using your hands.  You’re driving the car and you’re strangling her.  You don’t see her bulging eyes or protruding tongue.  You love her and she’s deceived you.  You hate her patronizing attitude, she looks down at you.  She’s impressed with celebrities, she wants to get rid of you.”  Dix’s reconstruction reflects his own insecurities, particularly his fear of abandonment and betrayal.  Indeed, these lines foreshadow the concluding scenes between him and Laurel.  Nevertheless, his words also reflect his intuitive powers to reveal the motives of the actual murderer, the jealous Kessler, who killed Mildred after she broke a date to spend the evening with Dix.  What Sylvia perceives as evidence of his lust to kill is actually proof of a rare gift for perception and exceptional intelligence.  In real life, In a Lonely Place argues, the killer isn’t always the anti-social weirdo who eats lunch by himself- sometimes he’s the handsome jock who lives right next door.

Both an object of fear and source of fascination, Dix’s bizarre antics command the attention of others throughout the film.  Brub, Laurel, Sylvia, the police: all his friends and lovers obsessively preoccupy themselves with figuring him out.  But as Sylvia’s assessment of Steele demonstrates, their perception of him is often inaccurate.  The world’s persistent misreading of Dix and his role in the murder speaks to the limitations of film and, ultimately, of perception.  If film is a series of images that reproduce the empirical reality of everyday objects, perception is a kind of film: it processes concrete, material stimuli to construct a comprehensible image of the world. Sylvia creates an “image” of Dix which, because it is shown to be false, serves to expose the natural artifice of all images.  Like our own naturally limited perceptions, movies are fabricated: they are not real.

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The Outsider &  the New Hero

Though Hollywood usually portrays its hero as the perfect embodiment of his society’s ideals, In a Lonely Place suggests the new hero is actually an outsider.  Dix’s glitzy, status-conscious Los Angeles essentially views him as a forbidding threat because he revolts against their materialistic culture.  In the very opening scene while Dix and friends dine at an exclusive Hollywood hot spot, Mel tries to persuade him to adapt an inane bestseller for the screen; however, his firm refusal (“I won’t work on something I don’t like”) reveals he will not compromise his artistic vision for commercial success.  This poses a stark contrast to other members of the film industry like the director whom Dix disdainfully calls a “popcorn salesman” for shamelessly making and remaking the same picture for twenty years.  While most other Hollywood insiders have no integrity or respect for the art form, Dix is unwilling to write any script that does not reflect who he is as an artist and individual.  Visual elements confirm his position as outsider.  Whereas Mel and Lloyd wear light tan suits, Dix dresses himself in a black blazer and quirky bow tie, which suggests he is but a reluctant member of this Hollywood culture.  Dix exists in a merciless and highly competitive world where a person’s value is determined by the number of hits he has at the box office.  If someone fails to produce a hit every x-amount of years, the film machine inevitably spits him out: he is “washed-up” or of little consequence to the Hollywood A-list.  Dix cares little for these superficial indications of success and is thus rendered a misfit in this glittery world of celebrity and scandal.

Dix’s exclusion from his surroundings reveals more about the state of his culture than it does about his own moral character.  Greedy and avaricious, selfish and success-obsessed, the post-war film industry seemed to have lost sight of the higher ideals of the New Deal era:

In the 1940s Hollywood could no longer invest its male heroes with triumphant New Deals values of self-denial and social responsibility…Instead, male heroes acted as solitary repositories of ideals that appeared to have been lost in society at large.  This called forth a new type of male image, the stoic, isolated, often misunderstood male, whose personal code of ethics existed precariously in a corrupt, greedy, and violent world” (Smedley 152).

Dix fits this profile of the new hero to the tee.  In the same opening scene, he violently confronts Junior, a major studio head, after he insults Charlie, a dear friend and washed up actor (much like himself).  A true champion of the underdog, Dix despises meanness and pettiness and will go to great lengths to protect a friend’s dignity.  “What’s the matter with you?” he scowls insulted, “don’t you shake hands with an actor?”  The simple act of shaking hands reflects a profound recognition of someone else’s humanity, which suggests Junior’s refusal to shake Charlie’s hand is more than just a rude gesture: it is a smug expression of superiority.  Dix will not partake in his peers’ snobbish pretension and treats Charlie warmly and jovially despite his status as a Hollywood nobody.  When Dix asks Junior to recall the vital part Charlie had in making him millions, he replies, with an air of condescension, that “pop made a star out of a drunkard.”  His malicious attempts at humiliating Charlie send Dix over the edge, provoking him to violence in front of the whole restaurant.  This seems a rather normal occurrence as his old flame Fran says, almost unsurprised: “There goes Dix again.”  Hot-tempered and uncontrollably confrontational, Dix begins as at odds with his world, which no longer shares in his noble values of integrity and honor.

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The Myth of the Happy Ending

In a Lonely Place not only undermines the misconception of a certain type of man as hero and criminal, it unravels one of our most cherished Hollywood myths- the myth that romantic love is possible.  Ray masterfully constructs a romance narrative only to have it collapse on itself. Though Dix truly loves Laurel, his bad temper increases his propensity for violence and, by the end of the film, sentences him eternally to that “lonely place” in the road.

What disintegrates their relationship?  Sure, there’s the fact that Dix is suspected of murder for most of the film.  But it’s mostly the fact that the investigation surrounding him feeds Laurel’s anxieties about disturbing dimensions of his character.  This atmosphere of suspicion infects their once blissful love affair, promising it will end in disaster.

Dix and Laurel’s ill-fated fling suggests Ray has significant doubts about love’s redemptive power.  Surely, Laurel loves Dix, but she cannot reform him: he is a tormented soul who’s too outraged, too out of step with his world.  Instead, love is depicted as a beautiful but fleeting thing, easily transformable into its opposite: hate, or worse, fear.  Laurel seems to recognize long-term love’s impossibility early on: before Dix, she has a reputation for leaving men and repeats, in a sort of symbolic refrain, that it “wouldn’t have worked” when talking about her past relationship to Baker.  Though movies generally provide a hopeful, even naive, portrait of romance, Laurel and Dix cannot “work” and never get their giddy happily-ever-after: only irreversible realizations about each other that culminate in a poignant break up.

But the question remains: why end the film this way?  I would argue Ray tragically dooms their romance to challenge Hollywood’s claim to a universal “type” of love.  Facing unprecedented numbers of divorce, 1950s America could no longer take seriously the belief in the Hollywood happy ending:

By the end of the 1940s the American public was jaded, and it was getting harder for Hollywood to sustain many of its driving myths, one of the most important of which had had to do with the miracles of love and romance.  In the wake of many hasty wartime marriages, there was now a new American phenomenon of divorce.  A happy marriage and family were not the only possible outcome for lovers” (McClure).

To the disenchanted post-war audience, the stereotypic myth of love as everlasting now seemed hopelessly unrealistic.  Viewers were no longer content with unicorns and lollipops, with gorgeous couples prancing off into the sunset- they wanted to see faithful depictions of their lives as they actually were.  In a Lonely Place resounds as a rallying cry against such fairy tale “happy endings.”  Though most Hollywood films, even today, refuse to acknowledge sadness and the staggering reality of divorce, Ray’s masterpiece gives voice to the millions of other “possible outcomes for lovers.” 

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