Film

When Classic Hollywood Attempted to Deal with Sexual Violence

In a Lonely Place isn’t so much a straightforward thriller as it is a poignant psychological study of a person and a milieu, veiled as an atmospheric noir.

<em>In A Lonely Place</em> (1950), USA, directed by Nicholas Ray (photo courtesy Photofest)
In A Lonely Place (1950), USA, directed by Nicholas Ray (photo courtesy Photofest)

Considering the accusations that rang out in all corners of film industry after the Harvey Weinstein case, Hollywood has rarely represented its rampant chauvinism, or the sexual abuse within its own industry, on the big screen. Based on the eponymous novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), which plays in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA’s) program, What Price Hollywood, was an early outlier, and remains eerily pertinent (the program looks at portrayals of sexual politics onscreen, and accompanies a poster exhibition on the theme). Ray, who directed such classics as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean; Johnny Guitar (1954); and On a Dangerous Ground (1951), was no stranger to depicting explosive rebels. In a Lonely Place, however, takes the archetype of a mercurial misanthropic misfit even further.

Hollywood archetypal bad-boy Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a brooding, sharp-witted alcoholic screenwriter, who has seen more glamorous days, and too often resorts to fist fights. Then one day he discovers that his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), matches his sardonic temperament, tit-for-tat. Laurel is a beauty, but it’s her smarts and cutting quickness that attract Dixon. When she says she’s noticed him because she likes his face, he tries to kiss her. “I said I liked it,” she stops him, “I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.” When he presses her for a date the same night they first speak, she admonishes him, “I don’t like to be rushed.” To all this Dixon acquiesces demurely, and they fall in love.

And yet, the demimonde in which Dixon operates is awash in more troubling sexual innuendos. The script by Andrew Colt, from an adaptation by Edmund Roth, does a fine job of dropping small hints that reveal Dixon’s laissez-faire sexual politics. When one day Dixon asks a young coat-check girl to come over to his place and summarize a book for him, he casually takes off his shoes and puts on a robe after they get to his place. His every gesture and word alerts the young woman to the possibility of a lurking danger. Dixon himself plays on this possibility: He keeps joking he’s no aggressor, and the girl eventually leaves his place having drunk a ginger-ale spiked with nothing but lemon. Except then tragedy strikes, and Dixon is investigated for the girl’s murder. He is innocent, of course — we know it — but do others, and does Laurel?

Bogart is perfect as Dixon, a man whose intelligence doesn’t belie his roughness. His blasé reception of the woman’s death shows a man whose profession as crime writer has habituated him to stories of violence, but is nevertheless troublingly dismissive, in a way that lingers in the mind. In the end, In a Lonely Place isn’t so much a straightforward thriller as it is a poignant psychological study of a person and a milieu, veiled as an atmospheric noir. Particularly in today’s context, the real tension comes from Dixon’s violent streak. His tendency to blow up, to dominate, to be suave but patronizing — all this is part of his DNA. It’s also part of the ecosystem, so much that, when suddenly doubting Dixon’s innocence, his agent says, “I’ll have to get you a lawyer, maybe get you into Mexico.” Here is then the willingness of one pal to cover up for another’s crime reflective of the larger network of favors that powerful men like Weinstein put in place.

Dixon’s tragedy cuts deep because, in some sense, it is of his own making. Equipped with intelligence and a genuine talent, he is nevertheless happy to play the part of a jaded bully, and to make slight of the offenses leveled at him; at least until he realizes that others truly do suspect he’s capable of a real crime. Could it be that he never noticed how they viewed him? Or was it convenient, perhaps even attractive, to play along? Now Dixon feels corned, partly by the reputation he has worked so hard to build, and so he lashes out.

It’s doubtful that Ray thought of his film as a straightforward cautionary tale. It wouldn’t be nearly as frightening. Instead, we are drawn into Dixon’s consternation — and Laurel’s — precisely because he doesn’t understand why everyone got so riled up in the first place. What is a man to do, after all? It’s an ominously familiar refrain. The eloquence of Ray’s cinematographer, Burnett Guffey — the way he catches in close-up, and in her deliberate, increasingly stifled movements, Laurel’s growing despair — plays out like a psychological horror. Laurel falls out of love as desperately as she fell into it, but somewhere in her subconscious a voice whispers that Dixon isn’t a man to spurn. It’s this insinuation — a mere hint of violence, in a place permeated by it, and by taciturn acquiescence — that keeps In a Lonely Place such a painful, and riveting, film to watch.

In a Lonely Place is screening at the Museum of Modern Art’s What Price Hollywood series on April 12 and 19.

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