Showing posts with label Dorothy B. Hughes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dorothy B. Hughes. Show all posts

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

In a Lonely Place
by Dorothy B. Hughes
New York Review of Books 
Paperback ISBN: 9781681371474
224 pages

"Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place..." — Dorothy B. Hughes

The 1950 film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes novel In a Lonely Place is one of the most celebrated entries into the film noir canon. Bolstered by Nicholas Ray’s direction and Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame’s excellent performances, In a Lonely Place (1950) is a tense and ultimately terrifying story of a writer’s downward spiral. Bogart plays Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter working on his next adaptation. He hasn’t had a hit movie in a long time and the pressure from his agent Mel (Art Smith) and his own internal pressure as an artist is starting to get to him. When hat check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart, no not that one, the other one) is brutally murdered, Dix becomes a suspect having been the last one to see her alive. On the case is Dix’s war buddy Brub (Frank Lovejoy) and Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid). While the investigation is happening, Dix starts to fall for his neighbor, actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Their romance is plagued with the tension caused by the investigation, Dix’s manic fits of creativity, his need for control and the threat of violence that lays under the surface. The situation is volatile and Laurel is in constant danger. Is Dix really the murderer? Or is he just falling apart with the suspicion hanging over his head?

The film noir adaptation is so vastly different from Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel that reading the book and watching the movie will make you feel like you just experienced parallel universes. The novel is narrated in the third person omniscient point of view. However, the narrator never strays from Dix giving the reader the perspective of the serial killer. And yes, he is a serial killer. It’s known from the very beginning of the novel that Dix Steele is a former airman who fought during WWII. He found an opportunity to live in his friend Mel Terriss’ (not his agent like in the movie) apartment. Mel’s absence is explained away by Dix as him having traveled to Rio de Janeiro for a job but the reader knows something is up. Dix has been killing one woman a month. He stalks vulnerable young women at night, lures them to an isolated spot and strangles them. The book goes into detail about how Dix hunts his prey but spares us the bloody details of the actual crimes.

The irony is that Dix’s war buddy Brub is a police detective investigating the string of murders. Dix is pretends to be a crime writer and this affords him access to particulars of the investigation. The pretense is that Dix needs material for his work but really Dix is gaining knowledge on how best to get away with future crimes. Brub’s wife Sylvia is one of the most important characters in the story. In the film, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) is a minor character, one who frets over her husband’s work and triggers one of Dix’s outbursts when she reveals something she wasn’t supposed to. In the novel however, she is the first person to suspect Dix and works diligently to lure him in, study him, gather materials for the case. She’s more effective as a detective than her actual detective husband Brub. The film did this character dirty!

(Jeff Donnell as Sylvia and Gloria Graham as Laurel)

The Brub character is the polar opposite of Dix. He feels that his war experience has led him to want to help people. He’s devoted to his work and is for the most part a gentleman (except for his overt lust for other women including Laurel Gray). Dix is a sociopath whose war experience may have given him a taste for blood. He’s also incredibly lonely and isolated which is really key to his character and to the title of the story. Dix spends a lot of time doing solitary things: driving, hanging out at the beach, stalking his prey, etc. In the movie, Dix is a hardworking screenwriter. In the novel, Dix pretends to write but really doesn’t want to work at all. He doesn’t understand why he can’t live off a trust like his friend Mel or why his rich uncle Fergus won’t give him more money. When actress Laurel Gray comes into his life, he begins to imagine what it would be like to have a long-term relationship with a woman he doesn’t hunt and kill. She reminds him of a long lost love and the calmer days before his killing spree.

Laurel Gray is probably the best represented in the film. Gloria Grahame captures Laurel’s ambivalence about the movie business, her attraction to Dix and her growing suspicion of Dix. In the movie, she’s much more a victim of domestic violence. She suffers as Dix becomes more and more controlling. In the novel, she’s not in love with Dix at all. She recognizes that they’re both similar in their selfishness but that they are meant to be together for a good time not a long time. She says to him:

“I knew you from the first time I looked at you just like you knew me. Because we’re just alike. We’re out to get it, and we don’t care how we get it."

Laurel and Sylvia are both objects of Dix’ lust and are both key to his downfall. I really enjoyed how Dorothy B. Hughes approached the psyche of her serial killer protagonist and the women in his orb. Laurel and Sylvia are the heroes in the novel. As they slowly draw away from Dix, we feel the tension and know that something big is about to happen. The authorities are only effective once both women have done the work on their end. Otherwise Dix might have kept going.

Dorothy B. Hughes was a fantastic writer. I enjoyed how she describes the fog, the beach, Dix’s isolation and loneliness and how the reader has to pick up on subtle clues outside of Dix’s point of view. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Why hide this beautiful creature under the blanket of your indifference?" 
"There was a save delight in being a lone wolf. It wasn't happiness.. He was a lone wolf; he didn't have to account to anyone nor did he intend to." 
"She was greedy and callous and a bitch, but she was fire and a man needed fire." 
"This was the beginning of something good. So good that he was enjoying its immediacy without thought, without plan. She was beside him, that was enough. He had needed her for so long a time. He had always needed her. It was a dream. A dream he had not dared dream, a woman like this."

I highly recommend reading In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. If you’re worried it will ruin the movie for you, don’t! The two stories are so different. There is no way they could have stayed true to the novel and pleased both Columbia Pictures and the Production Code Administration. Both can be thoroughly enjoyed as two separate art forms.

Have you read In a Lonely Place? What are your thoughts on how the changes they made from the movie?

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