What initially struck me about In A Lonely Place, which I saw for the first time in our last class, in relation to the other Ray films we have seen so far, is the fact that we now have an older man as our primary source of identification and inquiry. In Rebel Without a Cause, They Live by Night and Knock on Any Door, we had a young man as our central protagonist, and he was often set up in relation or contrast to an older man, a father or mentor figure who performed his job to varying degrees of success.
The interesting part of this dynamic which focuses on the younger man is that it tends to create a sort of microcosm for the relationship of the young man to the world as a whole; the older man comes to stand for dominant, authoritative society as a whole, along with its decrees and expectations. For example, Jim reels against his impotent, emasculated father as one particular example of an entire type of masculinity he wishes to reform, or at the very least, to not witness in his own home. Jim rejects the idea that men as a whole can or should act like his father, who is hen-pecked and talked-over and beaten down by his overbearing wife. Or even TW and Chickamaw in Night, jail-fled criminals who admittedly don’t stand for dominant society per say, yet who represent a major element of the adult male world of crime and violence, a fast life spent on the run and an accompanying masculinity, which Bowie is trying to extricate himself from.
But In A Lonely Place focuses instead on the older man, the one who might still be struggling, like these boys, between the type of masculinity and human values he himself wants to embody and the ones society is telling him to, but who is not doing so during his formative years. Thus his struggle is quieter than the younger boys’, and yet also more intense, for it has lived under pressures and trials and efforts and disappointments for much longer. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Dix Steele is the most violent main male character we have seen in Ray so far, though he is not involved in a “life of crime” like Bowie or Nick were. Dix leads a respectable life as a Hollywood screenwriter and his history of violence and fighting seems to be somehow more accepted by society, seen as a more excusable manifestation of masculinity, than Nick’s life, for example. Is violence acceptable in a man if it is limited to the bravado of street fighting in response to the slightest insult or macho confrontation?? Or if it involves breaking your girlfriend’s nose when she upsets you?? Somehow these acts of violence, which are seemingly always excused in Dix (and Humphrey Bogart?), appear rather more acceptable because they are linked the masculine traits of pride, power, and control.
Fortunately, ultimately Laurel protests against such violence and refuses to stay with Dix. However, many people encouraged her to tough it out or to passively wait until a solution presented itself, and it was almost too late: Dix nearly strangles her to death, just like poor Mildred, another female victim of male possession and aggression. And it is seemingly only chance that saves Laurel’s life, for the ringing telephone (ironically calling to deliver Dix’s innocent verdict) is what snaps him out of whatever has taken possession of him as he squeezes her neck. In A Lonely Place makes a point to show its star’s efforts at contrition, silent and tongue-in-cheek though they may be: Dix pays a (black) man to deliver flowers to the murdered Mildred and sends enough money to pay for a new paint job on the UCLA jock’s car, singed “Squirrel.” And yet, all of these are mere gestures, achieved through meaningless money and requiring very little apology and even less self-change on Dix’ part. Flowers can’t save Mildred and money can’t fix that boy’s injuries.
What I did really like about the adaptation from Hughes’ novel to Ray’s film, which was pointed out in Dana Polan’s BFI book, is the fact that Bogart’s Dix is not a serial killer. At first, this change made me upset, for I liked the close link between the reader and the distorted mind of a psychopath in Hughes’ novel. And yet, the implications of this change are much more far-reaching: instead of presenting a lone killer, who may or may not signal a larger condition within society or within men and masculinity at this time, Ray explicitly shows male violence and the capacity to kill (especially women) to be a component of masculinity as a whole. It is not only Dix who gets into stupid skirmishes over petty insults, but also the men who instigate the fights. For instance, the husband driving the car at the start of the movie, who insults Dix and threatens to fight him just because his wife talked to him! Or even Junior, who in a way has it coming, in his disrespectful “new generation” approach to human relations. Even if Dix is shown to respond in a more extreme, and more actually violent way, his inclinations are clearly shared by many of the men around him. The only non-violent men we see are definitely older: the always-drunk Shakespeare-quoting thespian and the almost-dried-up agent, both past their active, impassioned male primes. So we can wonder, were they once violent too? Will Dix grow out of his violence?? Of course, that is all too simple; I would refute such generalizations and the claim that all young men are violent. Indeed, if Ray has taught us anything about masculinity, it is that it is always ambiguous, multiple and contradictory, often combing active and sensitive notions within a single person. And yet, there is still the jealous boyfriend who murdered Mildred, a man who remains anonymous and thus stands for all (possible) men, for the all-too-ready-impulse to hurt and kill which lurks in Dix and other men.