Domestic disturbance

Pictured: Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray).  While it would be a bit of a stretch to say that In A Lonely Place is “about” abuse, it seems to me one of the only classical Hollywood films to deal in any real way with the experience of living in fear of a violent intimate partner.  The first half of the movie sets up an engrossing but somewhat conventional noir plot in which Bogart’s character Dix Steele—a Hollywood screenwriter sick of churning out hack work for the studios—becomes the prime suspect in the investigation of the murder of a coat check girl; the second half, in which Dix becomes romantically involved with his neighbor Laurel (Grahame), and she becomes increasingly terrified about running afoul of his temper, is nothing short of stress-inducing.  By the end of the film Dix has been cleared of the charge of murder, but (as Laurel says) it’s too late; he’s already revealed himself to be guilty of a pervasively violent nature (we repeatedly see him picking fights with strangers, and we learn that he has a history of assaulting women).  As Dana Polan has written, "In A Lonely Place shows a violence installed within the heart of dominant culture, ready to break out at any moment." 

One of the most quietly upsetting moments in the film occurs when Dix lashes out at his longtime agent, Mel (Art Lippman), slapping him across the face in the middle of a celebratory engagement party gone awry.  Usually when Bogart hits someone in a movie it’s heroic: here it’s awkward and embarrassing and sad, almost too unbearable to watch.  Mel (pictured above) is a character who enables Dix’s abusive behavior throughout the film, makes excuses for him, and tries to encourage Laurel to excuse it, too, in a cringe-inducing speech late in the film.  (“He has to explode sometimes…always violent!  It’s as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head.  He’s Dix Steele, and if you want him, you’ve got to take it all—the bad with the good.  I’ve taken it for twenty years.”)  Mel represents one of the most heartbreaking things about the film: its depiction of how and why people justify and tolerate the behavior of abusive friends and lovers.  He also goes so far as to suggest that Dix’s violent edge is the thing that attracted Laurel to him in the first place: “you knew he was dynamite!”  Just one scene later Mel is the victim of one of Dix’s “explosions.”  In A Lonely Place is a reminder that the enduring appeal of film noir doesn’t really have to do with solving crimes; it has to do with the confrontation—agonized, troubling, stressful—with a violence that is nearly always domestic.  


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