Narration in Nicholas Ray’s Noir “In A Lonely Place” (1950)

The second thump also occurs while Mildred is on screen, though this time she is positioned in a medium shot. She stands in the centre of the frame, engulfed by the space around her. Lonely, she is dwarfed by the strikingly black railings that enclose the space. These bars contrast with the relatively high-key lighting within the room and seem to block Mildred’s escape, as well as her understanding. Later, though, when she has finished her work, she seems more receptive to other outcomes. Perhaps inspired by the ‘powerful story’ of love that she has just recounted, she perches on the corner of Dix’s desk and takes a large gulp of her ‘horse’s neck.’ (This gesture does not, in itself, feel suggestive: after all, it is a stuffy night and she has been talking vigorously for some time.) Her left hand stands arched, tense with expectation. When she places her glass down, she gently caresses its rim, simultaneously beginning to apologise for acting ‘stupidly’ about Dix’s shoes and robe. She speaks slowly and quietly, in contrast to the galloping tones of her narration. She seems pleased that it is still quite early, and the audience begins to suspect that she may not want to leave so soon. There is only a hint of this possibility, though, and, anyway, despite what are perhaps her best efforts at seduction, Dix loses interest in the situation.

The audience notices, then, that Mildred is excited by the prospect of stories. Indeed, she is almost constantly surrounded by them. Ultimately, she herself becomes a newspaper headline when murdered, and the audience’s first view of her is when she is reading a novel. In her work environment, the front of house at Paul’s, her posture looks unnatural: she holds her spine erect, not allowing her back to touch the chair. She feels on show, but, as she sits ready for duty, primed to hand out the next box of souvenir matches, she instead falls into the background. Her self-imposed starchy professionalism only succeeds in making her dress drape straight down, mirroring the empty coats and jackets hung up around her. The way she handles her book brings to mind a child only recently taught how to read: the action looks like an effort. Statuesque, she sits delicately holding the bottom corners of the cover, arms outstretched, not leaning on the chair’s armrests, as if willing to sacrifice physical comfort to get the text in the best position to ingest it. When she does move from this position, there is a mechanical quality to her actions: when asked for her book, she comes to life, leaning forward towards the camera at an oblique angle, while simultaneously closing the novel, providing her response and ending it with an unselfconsciously slow blink. This gesture, her third in as many seconds, falls just before the cut and renders her more like a doll than a child. She is in danger of becoming a pretty part of the furniture: her large and shining eyes are counterpointed by a multitude of inanimate objects—her glistening earrings and strikingly white buttons, as well as the more delicate and less luminous studs in her chair.

By the time she reaches Dix’s apartment, though, Mildred can barely sit down with excitement. As she herself changes from reader to writer, from a receiver to a creator of narratives, she bellows a declaration: ‘It must be wonderful to be a writer!’ She demonstrates a desire not only to tell the story of Althea Bruce to the best of her ability, but also to be part of a story of her choosing. Look again at the moment when she begins to suspect that Dix is moving her away from the narrative that lured her there. She takes a stand against deviation from it. Just after the moment when she drops her book, when she is in her most vulnerable framing, enclosed by the railings, she walks tentatively towards the camera—and the exit—eventually establishing a two shot in which she vies with Dix for control. The two are not separated by a series of cuts between shot and reaction shot: instead, ambivalence is lent to the spatial configuration through careful positioning. Dix faces away from the camera, occupying the foreground, though not overwhelming the frame. Mildred becomes here explicitly the object of two gazes: that of the audience and that of Dix. (‘Explicitly’ is needed above because Dix is also the object of two gazes, though the weight of expectation presses on Mildred.) She is nonetheless raised slightly, looking down at Dix, literally given the higher ground. She still hugs her novel, an emblem of her resistance and of the narrative she wishes to tell. The space is limited, as the iron railings extend across the frame, enclosing Mildred so that, while she is raised, she also has her back against the wall.

From her position, she attempts to take a moral stance against any ‘pretence.’ She addresses Dix formally, beginning with ‘Mr. Steele’ and continuing with a regular, if slightly hurried, cadence. Crucially, her mispronunciation of ‘Althea’, which Dix cannot help but correct, undermines her own seriousness. She nonetheless rebuts the power of Dix’s correction with a glance. If she has been lured to his apartment, then her eyes suggest that she wants out. In a break in her speech, she turns her head towards frame right. Her eyes linger on Dix for a moment, before rolling in the same direction as her head. She looks briefly out of the frame, towards the gap in the railings that leads to the exit. While she has shown that she can maintain eye contact, she chooses to look away. The gesture demonstrates, despite facing in towards the room, that she understands the local topography of Dix’s apartment. She knows where the exits are and she knows how to use them. Furthermore, it shows that she feels no need to be a part of Dix’s narrative.

As she revels in her own story—the retelling of Althea Bruce—Mildred seems almost, despite occasional moments of ineptitude, to have the entire film under her control. Notice that, when she begins to narrate, the non-diegetic strings unobtrusively fall silent. If later they come back and usher her out, at this moment they are content to listen. The fizz of her ginger ale crescendos to its loudest when she mentions Althea’s house ‘right smack on the ocean’: it is as if her drink, which just happens to be poured then, reveals Mildred’s imagination, paralleling the ocean’s surf that she is describing. After a cut, when she turns into the room and begins to describe a lifeguard who ‘looked like a bronze Apollo,’ she gazes out beyond the walls, as if at the beach he watches over, attempting to stand tall with a statuesque elegance worthy of Greek mythology. The camera draws quickly back, overwhelmed, perhaps, by her enthusiasm, though it does so smoothly and politely enough not to interrupt her. Ray allows Mildred to gaze, in this set-up, directly down the barrel of the camera. In the act of narration, she is given a powerful sense of agency: not only does she look directly at Dix but, because of the use of a point-of-view shot, she also directly stares at and talks to the audience.

Here, Mildred’s sense of her own power is intimately entwined with narration. Later, as she walks into the shadows that surround Dix’s apartment complex, Mildred may be wondering what could have been—and indeed what lies ahead. It is a disturbing irony to witness her move from the ultimate agency of narration to the confinement of being an absent part of a story told: the audience last sees Mildred face down, trapped in a frame within the frame, condemned to rest silently between the white borders of a police photograph.

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When he isn't busy writing about film, for his own blog as well as for the MacGuffin, Mark is currently studying English literature at Oxford University.

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