October 11, 2017


We first meet Dix Steele, the star of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 Hollywood noir In a Lonely Place, as he pulls his car up to a stoplight on a dark Los Angeles street. From the vehicle next to him, a blonde woman addresses him by name—she seems to know him, but Dix isn’t having it. When she tells Dix that she starred in the last picture he wrote, the screenwriter replies tartly, “I make it a point never to see pictures I write.” Because Dix is played by Humphrey Bogart, the line comes across with a wry charm, but because he’s played by late-career Bogie, it’s weighted with a certain weariness, a curdled idealism that has fully given way to cynicism. From the driver’s seat, the actress’s husband tells Dix to stop talking to his wife, which in short order, leads to Dix insulting him, the man challenging Dix to a fight, and when Dix, eager for a confrontation, gets out of his car, the man driving away.

In this brief opening scene, then, we get Dix’s character in a nutshell: intelligent, quick-witted, isolated, prone to violence. As the movie continues and these qualities become amplified, the filmmakers drop hints about the reasons for Dix’s current state of mind. We soon learn, for example, that he was once a successful screenwriter, but hasn’t “written a hit since before the war.” His essential integrity, which makes him loath to take on artistically dubious, commercial assignments, seems to be the culprit, and it’s one that keeps him in a state of bitter inactivity until the confluence of a new project (an adaptation of a trashy novel), along with the introduction of a new woman into his life, (Laurel Gray, a glamorous bit actress played by Gloria Grahame), restore his professional and personal vitality.

Ray and his screenwriters, Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, take a rather essentialist view of Dix’s character. Their interest is not so much in exploring the reasons for their character’s fractured psychology as it is in presenting the drama that results from it. Although Dix was an officer in World War II, an experience that presumably had a dramatic effect on his psyche, we learn from his former wartime-charge-turned-LA-police-detective, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), that “he’s always been like that.” Brub also defends Dix against his own wife’s complaints, telling her that “there’s nothing the matter with [Dix’s] mind except that it’s superior.” With a vaguely Nietzschean framing of Bogart’s character, we’re invited to see his penchant for violence as an essential part of who he is, a flaw in his character that hints at a strength. Dix’s intellectual superiority and extreme sense of integrity have warped him, making him an antiheroic figure whose penchant for dangerous behavior is nervously excused by those around him—until suddenly it isn’t.

There’s nothing superior, though, about the character on which Bogart’s portrayal is based. That’s because Dorothy B. Hughes, author of the 1947 novel version of the story, doesn’t usually focus on exceptional individuals. Instead, throughout her career, she has always been deeply attuned to the social circumstances in which her characters find themselves. This penchant for everyman narratives reached its pinnacle in her masterful final novel, 1963’s The Expendable Man, where main character Hugh Densmore’s natural generosity—along with the fact of his black skin—leads to his arrest as the chief suspect in a murder he didn’t commit. Because of the tricky nature of her project, it’s imperative that Hughes have her protagonist be of unimpeachable character, and so she makes Densmore a hard-working medical intern from a well-off family. Sixteen years before The Expendable Man, though, she created a protagonist that is in many ways the opposite of Hugh Densmore, but is in other ways just as ordinary.

Unlike Bogart’s version, Hughes’s Dix Steele is not a successful man—he’s not anywhere remotely near the road to success. In fact, it’s largely Dix’s sense of having grown up poor and not having the same opportunities as other men that drives his actions. Settling in Los Angeles after the war, Dix, who has always gotten by through attaching himself to—and manipulating—rich acquaintances, lives in a borrowed flat, where he simmers with resentment and tells everyone he meets that he’s working on a novel that he actually has no intention of writing.

Even though we don’t learn much about Dix’s war years in the film, they play a central role in the book. For Hughes’s Dix, his days flying planes in World War II were the only time he truly felt alive. Since returning, nothing has been the same for him. “He’d liked flying at night,” Hughes tells us. “He’d missed it after the war. . . . He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild. It wasn’t often he could capture any part of that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky.”

Although she writes in the third person, Hughes continually lets us in on Dix’s thoughts in a way that isn’t possible in a film. This leads to an uncomfortable identification with the character that takes on a decidedly sinister cast when we learn that there is a serial killer loose in Los Angeles, targeting woman. Because we follow along with Dix while he stalks women, we’re hipped to the fact that he might be the killer, but then Hughes continually pulls us away at the moment of potential revelation. Part of this narrative manipulation is the standard procedure of any mystery novel—keeping the reader in the dark—but, in her skilled deployment of point-of-view throughout her career, Hughes has always been after something more than simple plot contrivances.

In The Expendable Man, for example, Hughes withholds the fact of Hugh Densmore’s race for some fifty pages, allowing the presumptive white reader to align her viewpoint with that young man as Densmore views everyone with an odd suspicion during a car trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix. By the time of Hughes’s revelation, the reader has shared enough of the protagonist’s frightening existence that even if the reader’s own circumstances differ from those of Densmore, it is too late to extricate herself emotionally.

Similarly, as we get more and more tied up in the mind of Dix Steele, we see how the strategic gaps in Hughes’s narration not only withhold information from the reader, but mirror the blind spots in Dix’s own mind. While Hughes strongly suggests that Dix is the killer, she never gives us enough information to know for sure. For example, Hughes will note that Dix “read every line of every story in the morning paper” about the killer, but refuses to give us any information about his reaction. Or Dix will suddenly worry about the traceability of tire marks, but Hughes will always leave these remarks in the realm of the impersonal, generalized musings that don’t relate to any specific situation. These mental gaps, this sudden haziness in Dix’s memory, suggest that even he doesn’t know if he’s the killer or not, and are what allow him to carry on with his daily life.

This psychological insight is coupled with another one: that Dix’s sense of emasculation at his position in the postwar world both necessitates his possession of women and leads him to a violent hatred of women when they don’t live up to his fantasies. Although he takes up with a woman during the course of the novel and pins his hopes for his future on their relationship, she quickly pulls away from him both because he is too poor and too possessive. In the end, he can only conclude, in deep bitterness, “There wasn’t any girl worth getting upset over. They were all alike, cheats, liars, whores.”

That his violent feelings are specifically directed against women differentiates Hughes’s Dix from his movie counterpart. The latter is an equal opportunity assaulter, as revealed in a terrifying scene two-thirds of the way through the film in which he nearly beats a motorist to death with a rock. That this violence eventually turns against Laurel is understandable since she’s the person he’s around, but the film is more interested in positing Dix’s violence as a free-floating force rather than one that’s specifically female-directed. Film Dix, too, unlike his literary counterpart, stops short of murder, but we’re led to understand that he’s a man who is clearly capable of killing.

In the end, then, Hughes and Ray give us two very different conceptions of this disaffected postwar specimen. Whether you find the man who childhood poverty and the war has turned into a vicious woman-hater or the one whose natural character leads him to murderous levels of assault to be the more terrifying may be a question of personal disposition. Either way, Hughes and Ray have both conjured extraordinarily vivid spectacles of misplaced violence. In so doing, they prove definitively that the same source material can serve two different visions with equal, startling effectiveness.

Andrew Schenker is a New York–based writer and an MFA candidate at Bennington College.