“You're told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What's your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No - just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele.”
Even while the opening credits roll, as we watch his eyes darting about uneasily in the car mirror. we can sense something off about Dixon “Dix” Steele, the moody screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart. To say he is fitfully temperamental is a mild understatement. The only thing delicate about this artist’s sensibilities is the hair trigger to set him off on unleash the rage locked within.
Witness his angry outburst after an encounter at a traffic light with the car next to him goes sour. Road rage may be a modern invention, but Dix Steele is clearly the prototype for that trend. Though such pop psychology terms are never used, it is clear he is a man with an unchecked Id. please, someone check his Id. He shows little self restraint in this or in any of his impulses.
This applies not only to bursts of anger, but to other areas. He is stormy and petulant, yes, but also driven by his desires and pleasures. When he likes something or someone, he will say so, and reach out to take it. His lustful advances toward neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham) are initially rebuffed because he is over-eager, and she (rightly) doesn’t want to be rushed into things.
And at back of all this selfish behavior is a vastly inflated view of himself. He looks down at his fellow filmmakers as “popcorn salesmen” like the original hipster, dead set against all sellouts and mercenary entertainers. His idea of his work is arrogantly superior- the noble artist performing before peasants - if they enjoy it, he’s obviously compromised his art.
It is easy to see in this story and character an introspective aspect from the film’s mastermind, director Nicholas Ray. Though the story is not his original work, but rather an adaptation by Andrew Solt (and others) from book by Dorothy B. Hughes, it’s clear he felt the portrait he was painting is his own, and that in the story he saw reflections of himself, and that he was using the film to work out his own demons. Indeed, as has been described in greater detail elsewhere, his own brief marriage to Gloria Graham was disintegrating during the making of the film (though their professional and artistic relationship seems not to have impacted the results seen on celluloid here).
The ironic, destructive twist that is Dixon Steele’s undoing is that his most gaping flaw is simultaneously the thing about him that attracts people to him. His agent Mel Lippmann, charmingly embodied by Art Smith, practically says as much, when he explains to Laurel how he has managed to stick with the volatile writer for so many years. “You knew he was dynamite - he has to explode sometimes! Years ago, I tried to make him go and see a psychiatrist. I thought he'd kill me! Always violent. Well it's as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head. He's Dix Steele. And if you want him, you've gotta take it all, the good with the bad. I've taken it for 20 years and I'd do it again.”
Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), the police officer tasked by Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) has a similar impression of Steele from their time together in the army when Dix was his commanding officer. When Lochner points to Steele’s violent history, Nicolai tries to brush it aside by declaring what a good soldier he was and how well-respected and liked he was by his comrades-in-arms.
The inciting incident that set the plot rolling begins innocently enough when Steele invites Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart - and no, it’s not that one), a naive hat-check girl, to his apartment to describe to him the plot of a book he is supposed to be adapting. There is a scene when a now-established performer with whom he had a previous relationship ribs him about his real intentions in inviting girls to read for him, “Remember how I used to read to you?”
To which he replies, “Since then, I’ve learned to read by myself” Ah, if only he had... After he tires of Mildred and her humorously fangirl-ish outline of the book’s plot, he pays her off and sends her out into the night to find her own way home. The next morning she turns up dead on an abandoned stretch of highway, strangled and tossed from a moving car.
As the last person seen with her, and given his history of temperamental problems and constant bouts of violent brawling with strangers, he is pinned as the likely suspect in the case. Remembering his neighbor Laurel Grey (Gloria Graham) had witnessed him seeing off the girl, he calls on her to supply his alibi. Though the two had not yet known each other, their meeting at police headquarters has the odd effect of sparking a mutual interest between the two that quickly develops into full-on romance and eventual talk of engagement and marriage.
What does he see in her that draws him when so many others simply repulsed or disgusted him with their shallowness? Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in her. Oh, not the violent behavior, certainly, but there is the same definite driven independence and self-imposed isolation from the world he looks down on. Even her initial rebuffs to his advances only increase his attraction to her. Though the only mention of a “Lonely Place” mentioned in the script is during Dix’s description of the possible scene of Mildred’s murder, this seems to be the real loneliness implied by the film’s title - separation from humanity. For a few weeks, these two lonely ones find an escape from it in each other.
But as they grow together, spending hours upon hours working on his screenplay, she as his muse, secretary, maid, cook, and lover all in one, and he as the sun around whom her whole world orbits, eventually, inevitably, she begins to see the beast that growls menacingly just beneath his exterior, and the glimpses she catches of it in rampant action frightens her. Though initially dismissive of the police theories of his guilt in the Mildred Atkinson case, seeing him lash out at another driver after a near-miss while driving together, and observing how very nearly he came to killing the man in his blind rage, not because of the accident, but merely at the things the man called him, makes her begin to rethink her future with Dix Steele.
She is not the only one close to him who begins to see the dangerous monster growing inside him. Brub Nicolai also begins to see the danger too, when, upon inviting Steele to dinner, he and his wife both find themselves discomfited by the eager interest he takes in placing himself in the murderer’s shoes to explore how he must have thought and acted and executed the killing. And even his Agent, Mel Lippemann, who was so forgiving of his roughness in the past finds his cool attitude toward being accused of murder, and the way he almost relishes making others feel uncomfortable about him by it, unsettling. There is an interesting scene in which Dix takes a perverse pleasure in refusing to deny his guilt to Mel, playfully teasing him about it even when he begins to express his concern at this attitude.
But though the solution of the crime is only concluded near the end of the film, and though the persistent presence of the police and the hovering suspicions over Steele’s own head do not disappear until then, the relevance of the question, “did he do it” is not essential to the core of the story, nor is its solution any less incidental than Anna’s disappearance in L’Avventura. Indeed, Antonioni could easily have taken notes from this film for his 1960 tale.
Rather, the point seems to be, much like in Matthew 5, when Jesus declares that it is not enough simply to avoid murdering someone, but that simply being angry at one’s brother is cause for judgement. Though Steele has not actually killed anyone, he has committed murder a thousand times in his heart, and the film’s focus is on how that anger, that mental act of murder brings about his own destruction and downfall, and robs him of his one great chance of happiness with Laurel Grey.
The vivid portrait the filmmakers create of the painful, agonizing affects of this destruction both on Steele himself, and on all the people in his wake is clutching and frighteningly realistic. That there is nuance to the character only makes the deadliness of his flaws more terrifying. He shows remorse, and sorrow, even repentance at times (as when, in a moment of reflection, he orders white roses to be sent to the deceased Mildred), but he keeps allowing his wrathful, jealous pride control his action and lashes out continually, obliterating all connections with fellow human beings. An ill-tempered strike at Mel, breaking his glasses and cutting his cheek, is particularly heart-breaking in its finality, despite Mel’s assurances they are still ok.
When, in the aftermath of their climactic row in the film’s waning moments, a scene that punctuates the finality of the split between Dix and Laurel, she answers a phone call from the police who are calling to let them know he is no longer suspect in the murder, as the actual killer has confessed and committed suicide. Laurel’s reply is devastating, “ Yesterday, this would've meant so much to us. Now it doesn't matter... it doesn't matter at all.”
But is it true? One can’t help thinking that though their separation leaves them both once again isolated in the titular “Lonely Place,” both characters are better off with a breakup now than if they had endured years together in an abusive, soul-crushing relationship. Though Laurel feels painfully the words she quotes back to Dix from his script, “ I lived a few weeks while you loved me,” her goodbye has shades of a relief she may not fully feel for long afterwards, but which nonetheless is real and completely justified.
George Anthiel’s score and Burnett Guffey’s keen cinematography perfectly frame all this heart-rending tale in all its beauty and agony, the rage, the sorrow, and even the moments of humor all woven together into a coherent and relatable, if operatically grand dramatic presentation. Supporting players populate the story with great variety and entertaining personalities. Jeff Donnell is lovely and appealing as Brub Nocolai’s wife Sylvia, Steven Geray is amusing and wry as Paul, the owner of the restaurant Steele and his circle frequent, and Robert Warwick is perfectly pitched as the washed-up alcoholic Shakespearean thespian friend, Charles Waterman.
If you haven’t seen this essential (if gloriously atypical) noir, you’re due to seek it out and take a gander.
***** out of 5