As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

In a Lonely Place

Posted by Hedwig on July 22, 2009

Inspired by this great video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz and Kim Morgen, I recently re-watched In a Lonely Place with the boyfriend, who’d never seen it. I loved it, even more than the first time, for all the reasons mentioned in the essay, and had to wipe away a tear or two by the end.

The boyfriend, however, was lukewarm. This made me think, since his two main points of criticism made quite a bit of sense. First of all, he deplored that Gloria Grahame’s Laurel Gray, who starts out the film as a self-possessed, assertive woman who knows exactly what she wants (and doesn’t want), turns into a loving, subservient pillow-fluffer overnight, whose happiness depends entirely on the mood of her man, and who is scared of him to boot. His second problem with the film was that he had a hard time empathizing with Dixon Steele, because of his violent temper.

See why I love him?

Anyway, while I think it’s great that my guy likes strong, independent women and abhors mindless violence (outside of video games and karate class, that is), this leads me to the following question: why doesn’t Laurel lose my sympathy? And why doesn’t Dixon? Aside from the fact he’s played by Bogie, of course.

Lauren is easy, so let’s start there: it’s scary, to lose yourself in a relationship. It’s been more than a year, and I’m still not quite use to thinking about myself as part of a couple. It scares me that I’ve changed, in both good and bad ways: I write less, I’ve become quite a bit mellower, my hair’s much longer… It scares me how easy and unnoticeably it happened, and that I have become a less interesting individual because of how much of myself is now invested in a bond with someone else.

At the same time, to quote Kim, it’s perfectly normal to long for love, “the kind that causes characters to throw that ‘Baby I don’t care’ caution to the wind” – or even just the kind that makes this avowed feminist enjoy preparing lunch sandwiches for her guy in the morning. Laurel becomes a less interesting character when she becomes Dixon’s girlfriend, but the fact that she falls so hard is especially interesting because she started out so strong-willed. He captures her imagination, and it’s through her eyes that we fall for him.

This is exactly, in my eyes, what makes this film so alluring – and disturbing. Dixon Steele IS a very troubled guy, someone women (and men) should probably stay away from, someone mercurial and dangerous. It’s not hidden in the slightest: he almost gets into a fight right off the bat, and he’s the one provoking it. But he provokes him with such witty lines and smart quips and the guy he provokes is so obviously an asshole that it stacks the deck. Then, when he gets to the club, we understand that he’s a talented screenwriter who’s unwilling to sell out and be a “popcorn salesman”. Furthermore, while he does get into an actual fight here, the fact that it is for a noble cause – the defense of a drunk actor – and that, again, the other party is clearly not a nice guy, makes sure that we stay on Dixon’s side.

We fall for him. Like Laurel, we start off just liking his face, but then we fall in love and we start making excuses for his temper. If it’d been just another silly blonde like the coat-check girl fawning over him, we might’ve had our doubts. But because Laurel, who seems so level-headed, loves him, it gives us permission to love him too, overlooking that “he’s exciting because he isn’t quite normal.” Like her, we get more and more scared of him, let doubts enter our mind… but he never entirely loses our sympathy, because he never entirely loses her love. In effect (if you want to draw it into hyperbole, and take an analogy entirely too far), the movie puts you in in the shoes of a battered wife, forever making excuses.

I suppose that’s my argument: the two problems the boyfriend had are linked. You need to empathize with Laurel to be able to sympathize with Dixon. I don’t think the ability to do so is divided along gender lines. But it might just say something about how you see love – and how much you’re willing to overlook for it.


One Response to “In a Lonely Place”

  1. This is a wonderful and deeply personal take on a classic film, Hedwig. As I finished reading your piece, I wondered to myself if I had ever read a perspective on In a Lonely Place by a member of the fairer sex before. It makes me want to apologize for the world being so askew.

    Bogart is the one about whom everyone writes and talks so much, while Grahame’s Laurel is comparatively unremarked upon. He’s clearly the protagonist, and she admittedly does become a “less interesting” characters once she falls for him, but Nicholas Ray’s focus reminds one of his They Live By Night, which also featured an abnormal couple of sorts discovering one another, and also On Dangerous Ground. In each film the feminine embrace and aura inform the course the male protagonist travels. And unlike in many noirs, these women are not merely a sexual idee fixe; the characters are presented as fully three-dimensional beings whose presence ostensibly does nothing but good for the man.

    It is scary to think that Bogart’s Dixon Steele is the least changed by the woman, especially as their relationship superficially seems the strongest and most traditional in its gender-based dichotomy. Which is partly explained by the sad reality–that Steele is one of the most disturbed noir protagonists one could find. Bogart is sensational in that role; his ability to brush aside the heroics of his good guys and find the hero in his bad guys was never better utilized here, because we see both “hero” and “villain” in one devastating portrait.

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