Narration in Nicholas Ray’s Noir “In A Lonely Place” (1950)
To continue the MacGuffin’s discussion of film noir, I’m looking in detail at Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950), a classic picture with a couple of cracking performances from Humphrey Bogart and Martha Stewart and a drunk man who recites Shakespeare.
In the apartment of Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), when she is first unnerved by the bang of a shoe hitting the floor, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) hugs her borrowed copy of Althea Bruce all the tighter. After all, she is only lured to the building in the first place by an appealing narrative of a different sort. When she meets Dix, she is made to feel ‘real important,’ and the attraction of being able to tell Aunt Cora that ‘I told the story to the screenwriter’ is simply too strong to resist. As she begins to question why Dix has brought her back to his house (and the truthfulness of his design becomes flimsily suspect), she literally clings to the solidarity of Althea Bruce, to the firmness of the form of the book. She fears trickery, as Dix’s suggestion of (a small piece of) screen fame threatens to fall to the floor as quickly as his shoes. Mildred worries, for a moment, that her newfound ability to tell a tale is a sham, and that Dix only offers her this opportunity to get her into bed. The craft of story telling is at stake here, as well as the agency that comes from such narrating.
Of course, this scene in In A Lonely Place is uniquely poised in Nicholas Ray’s own retelling of Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel with the same title: for the other characters, all the ambiguity that surrounds the part Dix played in Mildred’s death stems from this meeting, from the undeniable fact that the pair go home together. Only two scenes later, the audience hears suspicion in Captain Lochner’s (Carl Benton Reid) voice: he thinks the decision to bring Mildred back home is a ‘rather eccentric thing to do’; throughout the film, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) suffers attrition from doubt, finally announcing to Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell) her belief that ‘There is something strange about Dix,’ demanding to be convinced by her absent lover that Lochner’s intuition is wrong. It is perhaps fair to suggest that most audience members do not suspect Dix as the murderer: they notice, for example, the lack of enthusiasm in his voice, as he changes the subject—raised by Mildred—as to whether he is ‘going steady’ with anyone. Though she cannot see his face, he nonetheless reveals that he is trying to make her leave with the nervousness of his eyes. It is as if he cannot even keep eye contact with a woman out of sight: his gaze moves briefly from pointing towards frame right to frame left before ducking down to his shoes (which he perhaps wishes he had kept on) and back up to its original position. He only looks up to her face when his suggestion of parting company is accepted with an enthusiastic (though slightly disappointed) ‘That’s alright.’
As Dix cheekily gestures her out of the door as quickly as possible, again without her seeing, he makes clear his desire to be separate from this woman. The non-diegetic strings also seem to will Mildred out of the house: her steps fall in time to the staccato notes, played at an allegro tempo. And yet the more relaxed and lulling wind instruments create a tone that suggests she is content. Furthermore, as she is stepping back into the courtyard, the instruments combine at a slightly slower tempo to produce a major-keyed mellifluous tune that leads the audience to believe that, while the evening did not quite go to any plan, both characters are happy. The fade-out that ends the scene marks Dix’s retiring to bed and gives no indication that a crucial moment in the narrative occurs. It is the behaviour of Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), rather than Dix, that brings the serenity of suggested sleep to an end: the replacement of non-diegetic with exclusively diegetic sound begins with the harsh buzz of a doorbell.
While the viewer may believe that the saxophone-heavy jazz band that begins with the fade-in is part of the non-diegetic soundtrack, she soon sees that it exists within the filmic world, when Dix brings it to an end by switching off his record player. Ray, here, may intend to trick the viewer, making her expect a sound to be non-diegetic before revealing it to be the opposite. This play with the soundscape allows a broader comment to be made with subtlety: the suspicion of Dix having committed the murder comes only from the characters within the film itself. The tone of the scene before (accompanied and generated by a harmonious soundtrack), is punctured by unseen actions—between the fade-out and fade-in—that take place within the film. With the seriousness of suspicion as the source of the scene (there is no other reason why Brub would visit Dix so early), it feels only fitting that the pragmatic question ‘who killed Mildred?’ does not allow room for non-essential elements. This particular morning is no time for music that sits outside the reality of murder.
The switch to a solely diegetic soundtrack comes to enact, at this moment, the different possibilities of interpretation afforded to the characters within the film and the audience watching it. While the viewer sees plainly that, in this instance, Dix cannot get away from Mildred fast enough, Brub is allowed no such luxury. Similarly, Lochner only has a hefty file of past offences and a suspicious set of circumstances from which to begin. Even Laurel gets nothing more than a fragment: the audience can only be sure that she hears Mildred’s dramatic ‘Help! Help!’ Ray employs a form of dramatic irony (as the audience does not see the murder itself, though they do see the last moment of interaction between Dix and Mildred) which produces related though not identical questions from characters and viewers. While Brub wonders whether Dix killed Mildred, the audience, unconvinced that he did, asks a slightly different question: they are left wondering, especially when watching the film again, whether or not he could have done so. Ray’s (and Edmund North’s) treatment of Hughes’s novel transforms a relatively simple detective story, in which Dix does commit a murder, into a subtle psychological study and an investigation of possibility. The scene in Dix’s apartment with Mildred becomes crucial, then, not as a fertile ground for clues that help to make sense of an answer already given, but instead because it allows the viewer to probe whether there is a method in Dix’s madness.
In other words, the scene allows the audience to see whether they think other outcomes could be possible: they are invited to wonder if, in a different set of circumstances, Ray’s Dix—a character distinct from his counterpart in Hughes’s novel—could actually murder Mildred. Indeed, the scene feels particularly loaded with stories left untold and choices not taken. Notice that Mildred briefly misconstrues Dix’s removal of his shoes as sinister preparation for flirtatious engagement. While the audience sees Dix seated and carrying out the action, Ray cuts back to Mildred before the first shoe hits the floor. In a close shot, the focus is on Mildred’s face, which at first turns abruptly, startled by the unexpected noise, before easing into quizzicalness with a slight scrunching of her eyebrows. As a result, with this perspective, cause and effect are visually separated for the viewer and there is a heightened sense that, in fact, like Mildred, she does not yet understand Dix’s motives.