Monday, September 26, 2011

Book to Movie: In a Lonely Place

A few weeks ago I took another look at Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In a Lonely Place (1950). As I watched, it began to rankle that the central character, Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with an explosive temper, is consistently praised as a great guy by most who know him. Even the ex-girlfriend whose nose he once broke is still a friend (she never pressed charges), and it's well known that he's had scrapes with the law more than once for his loutish dust-ups. His friends remain steadfast even after he is named prime suspect in the killing of a young hat-check girl who was last seen with him. Dix's harsh treatment of his new girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), is mostly excused because, as a murder suspect, he's under great stress. For example, there's the night...

Lovejoy, Donnell, Bogart, Grahame - this party is about to break up...
Steele becomes pointlessly enraged with Laurel at a cookout and gets behind the wheel of his car, taking her on a hair-raising ride. His recklessness causes an accident and when the other driver confronts him, Dix’s temper blows and he begins viciously beating the man. Even after Laurel intercedes (saving the other man’s life?), Dix seems to feel justified in his violent attack because the other driver called him names.

Dix refers to his own “artistic” temperament and, according to one supporting character, “…he’s a writer, people like that have a right to be temperamental.” A long-time associate comments, “…he has a right to explode sometimes, it’s as much a part of him as his eyes…” His former Army buddy (Frank Lovejoy) observes, “he’s an exciting guy” with “a superior mind.”  This is a man who challenges a stranger to a fist fight within the first five minutes of the film and punches out another man minutes later.

Because I had questions about this point, which seemed incongruous, I became curious about the changes that might've occurred as the story made its way from page to screen and decided to read the novel on which In a Lonely Place was based.

I was in for a few surprises.

In a Lonely Place was first published in 1947, penned by prominent mystery/crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes. It was her eleventh novel and two of her previous books had already been made into films – The Fallen Sparrow and Ride the Pink Horse. Interestingly, the author’s first published work was a book of poetry. She was also a literary critic.

While many of the book's elements were retained, both  its plot and themes are significantly different from the film.

The book:

Dix Steele, not long back from WWII, is staying in Los Angeles in the swank but borrowed garden court apartment of an old Princeton pal. He contacts war buddy Brub Nicolai of the locally prominent Nicolai family, now married and a detective with the LAPD. Both men had dropped out of elite colleges to enlist in the war and flew together in Europe where they became close friends.

Dix has no profession, he’s been drifting since the war, but says he’s writing a mystery novel. He originally devised this story so the very wealthy uncle who raised him would subsidize him for a year or so while he wrote. Dix, unlike his uncle, has no interest in hard work but developed a taste for the good life at Princeton and as a high-living ace flyer during the war.

Brub, along with most of the LAPD, is focused on a sensational case involving the rape/strangulations of young women in West L.A. Brub is afraid for his own lovely blonde wife, Sylvia; the couple lives in Santa Monica near the beach.

Dix, who is handsome, charming and polished, is attractive to women and knows it. When he catches sight of one of his garden court neighbors, a knockout named Laurel Gray, he is smitten and pursues her on the spot. Young but savvy Laurel is a fledgling actress just out of a miserable marriage to a wealthy man. She and Dix soon become involved.

Grahame (the ex-Mrs. Ray), Bogart and Ray on the set
The movie:

Dix Steele, a screenwriter who “hasn’t had a hit in ten years,” is known for his intransigence about the writing assignments he will accept - as well as his violent temper. He comes under police scrutiny when a young hat-check girl is murdered after a visit to his apartment. Dix’s old Army buddy, strictly middle-class Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an LAPD detective, takes Dix in to the station for questioning the morning after the girl’s murder.

Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), Dix’s new neighbor, steps in as a witness on his behalf, but Dix remains the #1 suspect. Eventually, Laurel and Dix become romantically involved. In the meantime, Dix’s peculiar behavior one evening at the Nicolai home disturbs Brub’s wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell). Brub scoffs.

Dix has other friends, all Hollywood types, who attest that he’s a stand-up guy despite his volatile temper. Dix explodes several times in the course of the film and even those close to him (Brub, Sylvia, Laurel) become suspicious of his connection to the murder.  But Dix is innocent; the slain young woman’s boyfriend eventually confesses.

The novel takes a less circuitous route in identifying the murderer, in this case a serial killer:

Written as a third person narrative, the book presents the story entirely from the viewpoint of Dix Steele. And from its early pages there is no doubt that Dix is a killer. By the end of the book it develops that he has not only raped and strangled women in Los Angeles but also on the East Coast and in Europe...and that he has also killed a wealthy college pal and appropriated his home, his belongings and his charge accounts.

These facts emerge slowly as the story unfolds and Dix, a stealthy character (though not nearly as clever as he thinks) but lacking an overtly nasty temperament, does not become a suspect until toward the end of the book. It is Brub’s wife, Sylvia, quiet and observant, who notices that something is awry in the man. Later, Laurel, who becomes aware of Dix’s inconsistencies and mood swings, comes to believe that Dix is the killer and confides her suspicions to Brub and Sylvia. Dix finally begins to unravel, certain from one moment to the next that either the police are closing in on him or that he’s outsmarted everyone again.

As with the movie, the book does not depict murder, though Dix’s stalking of his victims is detailed. In a Lonely Place is an extremely well-written and well-plotted page-turner. Hughes’ description of Dix through his internal dialogue is credible and absorbing. The writer provides no explanation for Dix’s deeper motives though, through his agitated thoughts, it comes out that he profoundly resented being raised by a wealthy but stingy uncle who insisted his nephew adopt his own intense work ethic. We know from his behavior that Dix has no desire to work but has a sense of entitlement. We discover that at Princeton Dix attached himself as a toady to a rich crowd so that he could pass as one of them. From Dix’s reactions to certain intrusive sounds it seems that though he enjoyed the excitement of flying in combat, something of the experience rattled him.  And finally, it develops that he continues to be a fixated on “Brucie,” the woman he loved during the war.

It’s fair to say that the story of a rapist/murderer told from the killer's point of view might not have appealed to filmmakers (not to mention censors) in 1950. And, though he was not an actor afraid of playing flawed characters, it’s doubtful Bogart, whose own company produced, was inclined to portray a serial killer/rapist at age 51. So it's understandable that changes were made. But what of Dix’s onscreen character? Though he does offer jaded charm and dry wit, he is just barely sympathetic. Perhaps emphasis on the devotion of his friends was meant to cue the required amount of audience acceptance. And perhaps the mores of mid-century America allowed the brutish acts of a man otherwise labeled "good" to be tolerated.

I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me...
By the last act of Nick Ray’s film Laurel has become convinced of Dix’s guilt and is terrified of him. As the murder investigation wears on Dix has grown more unpredictable and paranoid; when he discovers that Laurel has plans to slip away, he snaps. He very nearly does kill her - she is virtually saved by the bell, a ringing telephone that brings news of Dix's exoneration. The relationship has, of course, just been demolished. It's worth noting that Laurel's lament that had the call come a day earlier it would've "meant the world" to the two of them implies that their romance would've survived had Dix kept his abusive antics just short of attempted murder...

The back story on In a Lonely Place is that the film was originally going to end with Dix actually murdering Laurel in that scene. However, Ray, who was involved with the script (along with Andrew Solt), wasn't satisfied and made the change.

Today Nicholas Ray's rendering of In a Lonely Place, noteworthy among many things for its intimations on Hollywood during the blacklist era, is a standard of early '50s noir. Gloria Grahame's dazzling turn as Laurel Gray stands as one of her finest performances. And, early in the 21st century, writer Dorothy B. Hughes gained renewed interest with the reissue of some of her best work. She is now compared to the great icons of mystery/crime fiction and one contemporary writer of the genre has proclaimed that Hughes "puts Chandler to shame."

Dorothy B. Hughes


  1. Thanks for providing the fascinating background.

    "Ride the Pink Horse" is the same sort of absorbing read that you describe "In a Lonely Place" as being. The film version is also fine. You get what you start with, even with the changes.

  2. Eve , great post on one of my favorite Nick ray films/ I don't know if you knew that Nick and Gloria were "On The Rocks" during the shooting and Nick was worried that if it got out Gloria might be replaced,.It got so bad that Nick moved in to his office.

  3. “…he’s a writer, people like that have a right to be temperamental.” A long-time associate comments
    With that philosophy we could all go on a violent streak and be forgiven.
    According to Patrick McGilligan in his bio on Nick Ray, Bogart actually "relished" wanting to play Dix as a cold blooded killer but the censors would not allow it to happen as you write. It is always interesting to see how the source novel differs from the movie, and the many reasons why. The novel by Dorothy L. Hughes sounds like a good read worth hunting down.


  4. I have never read the book but.. I really enjoyed watching the film, A Lonely Place. It is very interesting watching Bogart character, go from very charming to very unlikeable. I think Grahame, also pulls off a difficult role, when she is torn between love and terror. It is too bad they never worked together in another film.

  5. Hi Caftan Woman - I'm planning to read as much of Dorothy B. Hughes as is available. "In a Lonely Place" is first-rate.

    Paul - Yes, I've read that they split during filming and that he slept on the set, etc., to keep it quiet. I've also read about the final straw in their break-up - Hollywood Babylon!!!

    John - I'm laughing, because I thought the same thing about 'being a writer' - it's OK to throw a tantrum if you're a writer! It would have been interesting if Bogart's Dix had been a serial the book, however, Dix is very successful at gaining the trust of young women because of his looks, charm and polish - plus he's in his 20s, so he seems like a "catch."

    Dawn - The book is obviously VERY different, but extremely good. I think Bogart gives one of his best performances in the film version as does Gloria Grahame. She was born for noir, wasn't she?

  6. I'm not the biggest Bogey fan, but this is one I really admire him in and Gloria Grahame was perfection. It's amazing how many stories there are behind, in between and during the story. I guess that's why we are always fascinated. I totally enjoyed your post - informative and full of the stuff that dreams are made of (oops - wrong book/film!).

  7. (Eve, my company left early!) I've been looking forward to this article and am not disappointed! What an incredible difference between the book and the movie. They really are, in essence, totally different stories. Same characters, some of the same events, but wow what a difference!

    The movie is a marvel of film noir, and probably would not have been if it stuck to the novel faithfully. It seems too dsiturbing and the main character has no redeeming qualities, which usually shows up in the star role of a film noir. Also because of this, I think Ray's decision about the ending fit the noir genre better than that of the novel. After your description, I'm dying to read it. I hope the library has it!

    I couldn't help but think about why Dix was considered acceptable in the movie ("Perhaps emphasis on the devotion of his friends was meant to cue audience acceptance. And perhaps the mores of mid-century America allowed the brutish acts of a man otherwise labeled 'good' to be tolerated.") I have another reason I believe audiences accepted Dix -- because it was Bogart. If the part had been played by an unknown actor, I would imagine the character would not have had any empathy from the audience. But because it was Bogart, and everybody loves him, we could overlook the obvious pathological nature of Dix. Just an opinion, but I know that's true of me.

    One of your best articles, Eve. I hope I do as well with my novel to film articles!

  8. FlickChick - One of the things I like so much about Bogart's performance in "In a Lonely Place" is his willingness to go as far as he did into Dix's very dark side (my other favorite dark character of his is Dobbs in "Sierra Madre"). Gloria Grahame was a perfect foil for the sort of troubled male character that Dix Steele was. Apparently Ginger Rogers was first choice for the role of Laurel, but Ray had his soon-to-be ex-wife in mind. He was so right.

    Becky - For me, the fact that it was Bogart portraying Dix didn't do much toward making him likeable. You could almost say that "the emphasis on the devotion of his friends" was a cue to remind the audience that it was Bogart they were watching and he, of course, is a great guy.

    I do think that behavior like Dix's (in the movie) was more likely to pass - or be confused with - machismo in that era than it is today - and be tolerated (especially if acted out by a 'great guy'/Bogart).

    I hope you have a chance to read the Hughes book, Becky, it is far better than my description. Though the killer is revealed early on, there is so much that is unknown and only gradually revealed that a high level of suspense/tension is maintained 'til the end.

  9. Really enjoyed reading this. Reminded me I need to watch In a Lonely Place again soon.

  10. Great post. The book sounds fascinating, and I appreciate your comparison between book and movie. I haven't seen the film in many years, but I was so turned off by Bogart's character that I was surprised at how well-regarded the film is. I need to watch it again; perhaps age/maturity will give me a new perspective.

  11. Meredith - I hope you have a chance to see "In a Lonely Place" again soon. Would be interested in your take.

    Film Boy - I think "In a Lonely Place" is very well made and contains some excellent performances. I like it. Still think there's a plot disconnect between who Dix Steele is and how he's described by other characters in the film, tho. The book is great.

  12. I haven't seen "In a Lonely Place", but in this clip Bogart comes off like the date from hell. Actually, Bogart was a master at finding the sympathetic side in a hard bitten character - this Dix guy comes off like a psycho, so if Bogie manages to pull it off with this character, it's quite an accomplishment. I've always found Gloria Grahame fascinating to watch - I agree, she is probably the ultimate film noir actress. I'd like to see this film - I'm not sure how I've missed it.

  13. MB - Bogart is excellent as Dix, an extremely precarious character ...would be interested in your take on "In a Lonely Place."

  14. Thanks for the background on the novel. I've never read it, but now I want to read Dorothy B. Hughes. Also so interesting to compare a novel with the movie. Great post.

  15. Jacqueline - Happy to recommend a fine writer...I'll be reading more Dorothy B. Hughes myself.

  16. Eve, I loved your in-depth post about the differences between the novel and film versions of IN A LONELY PLACE! When I came across Dorothy B. Hughes' THE FALLEN SPARROW, I was hooked on her books instantly, and I've been tracking down more of her work ever since.

    That said, I must confess that I haven't had a chance to actually read IN A LONELY PLACE, and now I'm even more interested in reading it! But ironically, I've had a hard time getting through Nicholas Ray's film version -- not because it isn't a brilliant film noir (which it most certainly is!), but because unfortunately I've known people like the movie version of Dix, who can be charming and poignant one minute and physically and verbally violent the next. As a result, the film really hits close to home for me -- maybe too close. Eve, consider it a compliment to you that your post brought out such strong emotions in me! :-)

    And Eve, thanks a million for your positive comments over at TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED about my blog post about my favorite Dorothy Hughes novel-turned-film, THE FALLEN SPARROW! :-) If anyone else reading this is interested, here's the link: