Unraveling The Tangled Dualities of Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place The Fatalistic Noir as Confessional

Written Into a Corner: The Screenwriter as Harbinger of His Own Destruction

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

The immortal lines above, the ones you’ll most often see referenced in any piece on In a Lonely Place, are not uttered by Dix in melodramatic voice-over as they would be in any other Hollywood film of the time, but spoken by Dix soon after he nearly killed a man in front of Laurel. He says the lines and asks if she likes them to which she replies, “What is it?” With a disoriented look on his face, as if momentarily unsure why he spoke them, Dix replies, “I want to put it in the script. I don’t know quite where.” Laurel, following Dix’s lead, meekly adds “The farewell note?”

The exchange happens right at the transition from the second to third act and with nearly 30 minutes left in the film, Ray foreshadowing the inevitably tragic end of their affair and the film. But this moment and Dix’s profession as a screenwriter play into the proceedings in more complicated ways than simple foreshadowing. In this scene, Dix is both the fully involved tragic protagonist and the observer of his own film’s action, just as Ray is the director off-screen and present on-screen with Bogart as his symbolic avatar, both versions simultaneously struggling with a confounding yet passionate love with their wife and lead actress, one on celluloid, the other in the world.

These dualities are not merely playful postmodernism (a philosophy that wasn’t widely present in cinema until the French New Wave filmmakers, who understandably held Ray’s work in high esteem, popularized it seven or eight years after In a Lonely Place), but the result of careful constructs that allow the director to creatively explore the internal struggles of both his leads, the parallels between Bogart’s fictional relationship with Grahme and his own nonfiction one with her, as well as his film’s own relationship with popular films of the time, its genre, and Dix’s knowledge of its tropes and clichés. With those immortal lines, which he spits out almost as a non-sequitur, there is a vibrant collision between the off-screen and on, the fictional and the real. There is the distinct sense that Dix is a three-dimensional, living, feeling character who is being fed the very lines he has just come up with for his own script and in doing so is writing the end to both the screenplay he is working on and the film in which he is unknowingly partaking.

Laurel’s initial response to the lines is one of confusion, yet she quickly realizes where they belong - the farewell note. Both Dix and Laurel (and perhaps Ray and Grahme) foresee their own demise, yet within the confines of the film, it is Dix who sets it in motion, not by action per se, but internally through his writing. He treads a thin line between his own realness and fictionality, the very nature of his character in every way becoming increasingly unstable throughout the film. It doubles back on this dialogue later, returning to it in the film’s final scene, this time spoken by Laurel who pines, “I lived a few weeks while he loved me” as Dix walks off for the last time. The importance of the transference of tragedy from Dix, who comes up with the lines, to Laurel, who says them within the context of the film, cannot be overlooked. It is as if Ray and Dix share in the creation of those beautifully catastrophic lines and foreseeing the inevitable end (with Grahme for Ray and Laurel for Dix), leave her with the perfect farewell. It is rare that such an achingly personal and confessional moment from the life of an artist works so seamlessly in a piece of art, but this is surely one the high marks of it in cinema.

Dix’s duality as screenwriter and character, both constructer and construct, comes into play in a several other key scenes as well, the most effective and powerful of which arriving when Dix describes a possible theory of how the murder went down to a friend and his wife at dinner. The friend in question is an old military buddy, Brub, who also happens to be one of the detective assigned to the case. Hoping the whole thing is a misunderstanding at first, Brub invites Dix over to dinner to help smooth things over as well as get a little more information from Dix without his supervisor’s oversight. Brub admits to the suspect’s strange nature, even telling his boss that no one in their platoon really knew what to make of Dix, but that they all thought he was a good commander. The meal begins immediately with talk of the case when Dix takes control of the conversation, telling Brub that he and his boss don’t see enough whodunits and, referring to screenwriters, jokes that, “We solve every murder in less than two hours.” He goes on to say, “You have to have enough imagination to visualize the crime,” and proceeds to set up a reenactment.

Dix sets up two seats side-by-side, giving Brub the role of the driver/killer and Sylvia, Brub’s wife, the role of the victim. He positions himself directly across from them, readying himself to write, direct, and view the very murder of which he is accused, creating fiction within the fiction. The sequence begins casually enough, with Brub and Sylvia being more curious than anything else as Dix explains why the murder must have happened in the car. He then leans in and slowly begins setting the scene with a tale of jealousy and revenge, having Brub put his arm around Sylvia’s neck. She responds with a playful smirk, mistaking Dix’s own smile as purely innocent. He continues describing the scene, getting himself increasingly worked up as he tells Brub to squeeze harder and harder, going into more grizzly details as Brub’s fists and arm begin to tighten. Ray cuts back to Dix, whose face is now brightly lit, enhancing the deranged look in his eyes as he grunts, “Harder, squeeze harder” with a violent sexuality overtaking his voice.

Sylvia cries out for Brub to stop once he actually begins to hurt her, and exchanges glances with Dix as if he were the one assaulting her. The three converse afterward, buying into Dix’s description of the crime until he caps it off with a smirk as he says, “I’ve killed dozens of people… in pictures” but goes on to say he could never do it since his “artistic temperament wouldn’t permit it.” This scene again brings Dix’s multiple dualities to the surface — his bruteness and clever playfulness and his being a screenwriter and a character caught amidst the very tropes he himself writes. Much like the infamous lines he uttered to Laurel, the scene again presents Dix as self-aware about his own fictionality, attempting to control the encroaching reality of his situation by ascribing it traits of the typical Hollywood noir.

In doing so Ray is not merely toying with self-referentiality but further delving into the psychic splits that render Dix such a fascinating, tragic character. In being a screenwriter, Dix is by his nature divorced from reality, more of a distant observer of his surroundings than an active participant in it. In his recreation of the murder, we see Dix not excited by the prospect of murder, but by the power in re-creating it from his own imagination. His strangeness comes not merely from a moody nature, but because he is in a constant flux between the real world and fictional ones. This scene is such a wonderful example of Dix’s many dualities that Ray returns to it in a key scene later in the film.

Following the road rage scene described above, wherein Dix nearly killed a motorist he ran off the road, he stops further down the road once he has seemingly calmed down. Shot from the same camera angle as when Brub and Sylvia re-enacted the murder, Dix puts his arm around Laurel and brings her in close. For a brief moment, Laurel and the audience imagine Dix as both the potential murderer of Mildred and simply a potential murderer. In this doubling, as with the “I lived a few weeks while she loved me” lines, scenes created by Dix within a fictional construct — the first for his screenplay, this one to explain how the murder could have happened — come to fruition. The inner demons that Dix explores in his own writing and imagination are made external and turn against him as his screenwriting is inextricably intertwined with his own self-destructive tendencies.

There are other scenes that convey this idea, but the most crucial is a moment that is, for a change, surprisingly tender and forgiving toward Dix. He’s in the kitchen cutting up a grapefruit when Laurel comes in and teases him for straightening out the curve in the grapefruit knife. The two gently banter before Laurel mentions Dix’s script and how much she liked the love scene. Dix replies with an amusing yet touching retort:

“Well that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit. You sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we’re in love.”

Again here is Dix simultaneously partaking in and commenting on the scene he is, aloof in his observation yet present in his true feelings of love towards Laurel. Earlier in the film, a character asks him if he’s a mind reader, to which he replies, “Most writers like to think they are.” It’s a witty line at the time but it foreshadows the depth to which Dix will become aware of his own fictionality and the audience aware of the guiding hand of Ray behind the scenes.

These collisions between the fictional world and the real world within which they are constructed make In a Lonely Place all the more richly detailed and emotionally engaging. Where post-modern elements of so many films these days are present for little other reason than sheer cleverness, trickery or comic effect, Ray uses them to fuse his own emotional pain and wounded masculinity with that of his character. He and Dix are one and the same as reality is reflected in the film and the film, in turn, is reflected in reality. This duality along with the various dualities of Dix’s character all work to create an emotional terrain that can be traversed in a number of ways, all rewarding. The film is still a masterpiece if viewed purely on the surface as a fatalistic noir, but when its layers are peeled back, revealing the sheer amount of thought, creativity, pain, and suffering that went into nearly every frame, it’s becomes clear why In a Lonely Place deserves its place among the greatest films of all time.

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