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In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes


This is the second time I've read In a Lonely Place. The first time was because I loved the famous film noir adaptation so much and was curious about its source, and I was astonished at how different the movie was from the book -- starting with the fact that in the book the protagonist, Dixon "Dix" Steele, is a serial killer of women, whereas in the movie he's just a tormented guy with a violent streak who is a suspect in the murder of one girl. The novel struck me as a tour de force in its first-person depiction of a psychotic personality. This second reading was because I'm working my way through the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus, and this time I was able to identify some of the strands that the film-makers took hold of as they transformed the crime novel into a personal story about how the Hollywood Dream Factory crushes dreams. In the book Dix claims to be a writer, and in the movie he really is one -- a bona fide artiste, in fact, who detests Hollywood's focus on selling popcorn. The novel also does have a love affair between Dix and his neighbor, Laurel Gray, who has dabbled in acting in both the book and the movie, but who primarily seems to be looking for a man she can love. In the movie, Laurel leaves Dix because she's afraid of his violent temper, although she still loves him.

Having now watched the movie again since re-reading the book, it's interesting how the book is changing my view of the movie. I've always loved the tragic romanticism of the movie: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." The novel is if anything anti-romantic. Compare Hughes' description of the end of Laurel's love for Dix: "He knew but he did not admit. It might have been a week. It might have been a day or two, or perhaps there was no time. But the restlessness was coming into her. She could not be content too long to be bound within the confines of his dream. It might have been the way her shoulders moved to a dance orchestra over the radio. It might have been the small frown as they sat again for dinner in the living room. It could have been her evasion to his questions about her hours of that particular day. Or the way in which she stood in the doorway, looking out into the night." The transition is more dramatic in the film, more dreamlike in the novel.

But perhaps more importantly the two main female characters, Laurel and Sylvia (the wife of Dix's best friend, Brub, who is also the detective investigating the murders, in a clever touch from the novel) are both stronger characters in the book. This is debatable when it comes to Laurel, who, as Curtis Hanson points out in a featurette on the DVD I have, basically becomes the point-of-view character in the second part of the film. We go from sympathizing with the tormented Dix to fearing for Laurel, as his paranoid anger transfers to her. That's a very powerful switch, but the novel never portrays Laurel as a woman-in-peril. Instead she's ahead of the game, knows Dix is trouble, and teams up with Brub and Sylvia, who also recognizes immediately that Dix is a psycho. Laurel is an ambivalent character in the book -- she clearly has gold-digger tendencies -- but she's been around the block enough to know that Dix can't be trusted. Sylvia is a severely reduced character in the film, although I'll give the film-makers credit for beefing up the role of the housemaid, Effie, and creating an interesting masseuse/confidante for Laurel who may be a lesbian and who recognizes Dix as a disaster in the making.

Like the other two books in the LOA omnibus, this one has a pretty blunt take on sex and sexuality. Dix is a rapist as well as a murderer, whereas the film explicitly says that the murder of Mildred Atkinson is not a sex crime. Dix and Laurel have a torrid sexual affair. This is hinted at in the movie, with some suggestive shots of Gloria Grahame in the shower, naked in bed under the covers, and getting a massage, but the novel makes no bones about it. Dix relishes the physical intimacy and yearns for it when he loses it. As in the film, there's a suggestion that the sexual fling reduces the tensions inside of him, and he stops his predation on women while he's with Laurel. It's also interesting that in the novel Dix is shown to be very fashion conscious. ("He dressed in the suit he liked best; he didn't wear it often. It was distinctive, a British wool, gray with a faint overplaid of lighter gray, a touch of dim red.") He's always very precise about what clothes he's wearing, and he frequently notes what other people are wearing and judges them for it. I'm not sure whether that's just Hughes indulging her own interests, or whether we're supposed to read anything into it.

The main thing about the novel is the way Hughes captures Dix's psychosis, the ebb and flow of his frantic emotions, the tides of his self-confidence, his constant scanning of the people around him to try to read their thoughts and reactions. Dix is constantly pretending, constantly preening about his awareness of what's happening and his ability to control how other people perceive him. (Is *that* part of the fashion consciousness?) When he's feeling good, the world is his oyster and there's a kind of romanticism akin to the movie, but when he's feeling out of control, his paranoia turns the world into a giant closet full of monsters. Hughes' great triumph is her ability to capture the way his mood swings and flows, unhinged from everything but his own deranged caprice. Dix is almost a textbook case of hysteria, and that may be Hughes' secret joke/irony: the murderous misogynist with the classic feminine dis-ease. He's so nervous and twitchy he reminded me of an AE van Vogt character: "He felt Sylvia cringe at Laurel's use of the word dick for detective. He didn't see it; he saw nothing. His mind was knotted too tightly, so tightly the room was a blur. He steadied himself against the table."

Hughes is perhaps a little too obvious at times in pointing out the variety of lonely places in her story, but it's still a potent metaphor for psychological isolation, post-war social alienation, romantic abandonment, and even the kind of dark coastal gully or suburban cul-de-sac where someone might get away with murder. It's a remarkable novel that was turned into a remarkable movie that's about something completely different.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 5th, 2016 11:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. I'm enjoying your reviews from this works: I should look them up.
Nov. 6th, 2016 01:50 am (UTC)
This Library of America omnibus seems extraordinarily strong so far, but I'm sure it would be hard (and expensive) to track down in Oz. Dunno about the individual novels.

Edited at 2016-11-06 01:50 am (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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