A Lonely Place: Gender Relations and Hybridization of In a Lonely Place

 

By Michael Potterton

 

Keywords: gender relations, hybrid, noir, psychoanalysis, screwball, theory

 

 

Film noir and screwball comedies form opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to style, themes, and mood within classical-era cinema. Noir films exhibit dark themes and disturbing violence. Characters are often cold, malicious, and duplicitous. Screwballs, on the other hand, possess a much more light-hearted tone. Filled with humor, bizarre situations, and clever innuendo, screwballs bring us characters that are warm, endearing, and vociferous.

Recognizing this situation, what might we learn if we were to examine a film marketed and historicized as a film noir as genre hybrid instead? The film I suggest for such a study is Nicholas Ray’s film noir adaptation of In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950).

 Seemingly a typical noir, the film’s use of some of the main features of noir seem peculiar, often to the point where they become blatantly humorous. 

Referencing common tropes within film noir and screwball, I will attempt to plot out how In a Lonely Place ends up in such a “lonely place” among genre films. Building upon points initially made by Dana Polan, I will examine how the film draws from the tropes of both genres to form a genre hybrid that complicates classical Hollywood representations of gender hierarchies and offers up new forms of desire for the spectator by challenging the classical “male gaze” that is at the heart of both film noir and screwball.

While typically seen as noir, this film has a history of genre hybridity and confusion. In his British Film Institute reader, Polan gives a detailed analysis of In a Lonely Place, acknowledging the elements of the screwball genre present. Polan observes, “While not ignoring the bleakness of its unhappy ending or the downbeat tone of its concern for murder, one could, without too much perversity or too much distortion of the facts, argue that In a Lonely Place bears as much connection to screwball comedy as to film noir.”

 The textual portion of Polan’s analysis focuses upon the love relationship between the two main characters, leading him to ask, “…is it a love story or a thriller?”

 The way in which the two central characters approach their love with caution and wit, claims Polan, is reminiscent of the screwball. Even the ultimate loss of their love is not entirely unlike a screwball. He points out that when two characters finally fall for each other in these comedies, it is always through some miraculous ending coming about when all hope is lost.

 True love, then, is not invulnerable, and much of what prevents In a Lonely Place from being a true screwball is the lack of the miraculous ending.

With the genre hybridity that Polan examines, there must then be a way in which the elements of film noir and screwball comedy interact. If these polarized genres can come together in a way that confuses so many, some feature common to the two, yet operating differently in each, would have to work paradigmatically throughout the film. Indeed, if one accepts that In a Lonely Place is a genre hybrid, the question then becomes: How does one examine the interaction and functionality of the genres in this film?

The answer, it seems, lies in the two genres’ common investment in challenging (and normalizing) gender roles. Each genre includes female characters that take over and direct narrative development, putting the male protagonists into gender peril. In a film noir, the dangerous femme fatale typically attempts to steal narrative agency from the male protagonist through seductive means. In Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Teresa De Lauretis comments on women’s role in films noir by claiming “…she may resist confinement in that symbolic space by disturbing it, perverting it, making trouble, seeking to exceed the boundary – visually as well as narratively – as in film noir.”

 De Lauretis acknowledges that in a noir, the main female character sets herself against the protagonist’s gaze, and therefore the structure of her role in the film. She “exceeds her boundaries” by trying to become the active character pushing the narrative forward. Yet, the calm and collected noir protagonist must inevitably contain the femme fatale often by killing her, as in Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), or imprisoning her such as Sam Spade does to Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941).

  On the other hand, in a screwball comedy like Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938), the lead girl gains narrative agency through her own heterosexual desires. David Shumway, in “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage” argues: “What distinguishes screwball comedies from dyadic narrative forms is that the woman is never merely an item of exchange between two men; she is also presented as a desiring subject.”

 In screwball, the heroines are not immediately recognized by their male counterparts as worthy of the desirable quality of the femme fatale. Rather, the women of screwball exert a certain amount of control in attempting to gain this quality. The screwball heroine will not simply flaunt her femininity, but take on an active role in gaining the qualities required for her to be loved by her man. Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby initially comes off as annoying in her attempts to draw the gaze of David Huxley. Only when she is in physical danger of being attacked by a leopard or falling from museum rafters will the passive Huxley take up narrative agency and contain the renegade female: this time through marriage.

Gender functionality typically found in a screwball leaks into In a Lonely Place and affects it in a way beyond creating witty romance. But this leaking creates a problem: gender hierarchies that are challenged and resolved through classic noir techniques such as introducing and punishing the femme fatale can no longer be resolved through such generic techniques. Instead, characters of In a Lonely Place must engage in screwball techniques to address and resolve gender hierarchies. 

In his work, Polan points out that while the narrative is focalized on Dix, it often diverges from him, providing shots of others talking about him, or reacting to his actions. To further this point, Polan references the opening shot of Dix driving, his face seen in the rearview mirror: “…we have here a point of view that is simultaneously first and third person. But as the credits run, cuts intercede and the camera moves back away from the car … The film has quickly become even less his point of view…”

 From the opening shot, the film diverges from other noirs of its kind. Double Indemnity is told completely through the protagonist Walter Neff’s own narration. In The Maltese Falcon, only one short segment in which an unknown assailant kills his partner is not shown from Spade’s perspective. The establishing shot of In a Lonely Place immediately signs to the audience that they will be looking through Dix’s eyes, while concurrently deviating and observing his actions. 

At the start, this sets Dix up as being susceptible to a loss of narrative agency. This third-person perspective combined with his point-of-view shot shows from the onset that Dix is not the only character whose activity can control the narrative. Unlike Dix’s fellow noir protagonists, just as the camera pulls away, Dix will slip towards the objectivity and observation. This is the same objectification inevitable to that of a screwball hero like Huxley, whose narrative agency is constantly stolen by the persistent Susan.

The film’s incorporation of screwball is evident in an early scene when Dix invites a young waitress and aspiring actress, Mildred Atkinson, to his house so that she can relate to him the narrative of a novel that he does not want to read but has been asked by his agent to adapt for the screen. Initially, Mildred is depicted exactly as Laura Mulvey suggests women in classical Hollywood films typically are: as the object of a male gaze. Mulvey claims in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 

 

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

 

The spectator is made to take Dix’s perspective through over-the-shoulder and point-of-view shots, as he stares at Mildred, who rambles on about a book that neither Dix nor the spectator is made to care about. The nature of Mildred’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” is heightened in a point-of-view shot where Mildred stares directly into the camera (Dix’s eyes). This is the scene’s ultimate establishment of the spectator/subject/object relationship. Dix becomes the surrogate of the spectator’s gaze, which is directed at Mildred. To further emphasize her as an object to be looked at rather than subject to be engaged, none of what she says is registered as significant to the scene development. All of her thoughts are rendered as trivial.

However, the male subject/female object dynamic comes to a screeching halt immediately after the shot. Dix tells Mildred to keep talking while he walks into his room to escape her rambling. He then comments on Mildred’s poor grammar, reminding the audience that she has just mispronounced three words and names from the book she is describing. Dix then looks out his bedroom window and sees – in a similar fashion to Neff’s first vision of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity – Laurel Gray, standing upon a balcony opposite from Dix’s apartment. He gazes upon her for a moment before moving back to the living room to quieten Mildred. Once Dix reenters the living room, no more over-the-shoulder or point-of-view shots allow the audience to experience surrogate spectatorship with Mildred as the object of his gaze. Rather, he signals to her that he no longer cares about the book or her summary of it and he forces her to leave. At this point, it is made evident to the audience that Mildred’s constant talking has turned Dix off, causing him to discontinue any erotic fantasy towards her.

Here, the film evokes the Huxley character from Bringing Up Baby. In Huxley’s early encounters with Susan, any desire he may want to place upon her is discarded due to his sheer annoyance with her. She is told that their constant fights mean that he has a fixation on her. When confronting Huxley about this she simply says, “Do you know why you’re following me? You’re a fixation.” This is reminiscent of the way Mildred mispronounces words from Dix’s book. Both Mildred and Susan attempt to draw the male protagonist’s gaze and desire by being entertaining to him, which inevitably ends in failure. 

Dix’s embodiment of Huxley’s disinterested male lead is matched by a parallel development of his character into a cool and in control noir lead such as Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon. When he gazes up at Laurel, his desire is immediate and he recognizes the kind of woman with whom he should be sharing his living (and bed) room. This experience of a “tutorial” in desire is described in Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Zizek explains that, “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.”

 Zizek uses the example of the film Possessed (Bernhardt, 1947) to illustrate how a film within a film signifies its ability to subject the spectator to certain desires. A working-class girl walks up to a slow-moving train and peers in through the windows. The windows, Zizek claims, “reproduce the magic of the screen.”

 She peers through the windows and what she sees are the upper class enjoying a lifestyle foreign to her. As she is enraptured by the images, the screen tells her that this is the life that she should desire, but does not have.

The window that Dix looks through to see Laurel is akin to the screen that Zizek is referencing. The “screen” presents to him the femme fatale and he instantly desires her. This desire does not come solely from her beauty, but from her likeness to a noir character. Upon this realization, it becomes evident to Dix (and the spectator) that Mildred (our screwball gal) must be cast aside so that Dix may continue with his desired role. Upon meeting Laurel for the first time, Dix’s desire for her continues despite the fact that she seems to have no intention of being with him. Now clearly fulfilling the role of a noir leading man, Dix is drawn in by her lack of interest. He says that she’s not “coy, or cute, or corny” like other girls. These, of course, just so happen to be the characteristics of Mildred. 

When Dix and Laurel finally do form a romantic bond, Dix reverts back to a more passive role, akin to the leading man of screwball. This, in turn, forces Laurel to take up an active role within the narrative. Ultimately, Dix turns to total apathy, giving up any narrative agency. Dix is consumed by his work, hardly paying attention to Laurel. He spends day and night in front of his typewriter working, leaving Laurel to take care of both him and his house.

Laurel’s narrative actions sway between two poles – the noir femme fatale and the screwball heroine – in her attempt to reengage Dix as an agent of his own destiny (and the film’s narrative). In the most distinctive combination of the two genres, Laurel struggles to gain Dix’s attention, which is exclusively focused upon his writing. She first acts silly, telling him that he is going to a beauty pageant and that she only wants him for his money, while, like the femme fatale, seductively coming closer to him, kissing him from behind. Having no effect, Dix gives generic, agreeable answers. She then gets close to him and asks the question, “What’s my first name?” This question is what awakens Dix from his trance. He shows a temporary reentrance into his role as male lead through his immediate playful actions with Laurel. 

The film, up until this point, is completely confused with how it presents the drive of heterosexual desire. The film begins with Dix stereotypically gazing upon the waitress Mildred until her allure is replaced by Laurel’s initial mystique. But he once again loses interest in his object of desire once he and Laurel are together. The underlying complexities of this character confusion are made evident through a comparison to generic dynamics at play within the film. As seen in Double Indemnity, the noir aspect of In a Lonely Place early on establishes the active male/passive female dynamic, which the remainder of the film works to maintain. Yet, the screwball aspect of In a Lonely Place, as in Bringing Up Baby, struggles to bring about that dynamic within the narrative. In a Lonely Place has to deal with a finicky male protagonist and his female counterpart who tries, but does not know how, to reestablish the gender hierarchy required for the model of heterosexual desire advanced by classical Hollywood narratives. 

It is for this reason that Laurel’s question is so important. By asking this question, Laurel presents herself in a vulnerable state. She ceases to use humor or sexuality to be the active controller of the narrative, and instead establishes herself as the female character who is in need of a strong male protagonist capable of naming her – producing her into being. 

The film discovers that the male protagonist will maintain the gender hierarchy when his female counterpart is in need of him. In noirs like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, the femme fatale is able to seduce the male character by placing her problems upon him, causing him to fall for her by trying to solve these problems. Similarly, in Bringing Up Baby, Huxley only becomes an active character when Susan ceases to be so because she needs the help of an active male character. Upon the realization of this, the strongest connection between genres, Dix becomes the active male protagonist and surrogate for the spectator’s gaze and desires. The film is able to attempt a darker turn from here on out, and delve further into the noir genre because it is no longer confused by the character’s actions mixing with that of the screwball comedy. Yet this common ground between the two is hardly stable.

This genre transformation presents a clear danger to Laurel. If the film is to turn completely towards noir, then Laurel will inevitably fall into the femme fatale role. This becomes all the clearer upon the revelation that Dix is a sadist. Following the discovery of the connection of the genres by the female protagonist being in peril, any challenge to his narrative agency will be met with violence. Before he kisses Laurel he has to rough her up, playfully tickling her after she tells him what to do. Even then, he must further establish that she will only do what he tells her before he can show his affection.

Dix’s sadism makes it impossible for a screwball-noir connection to remain in the film and so the narrative collapses. Laurel realizes she is in peril and so tries to leave. Dix is a sadist who can only love Laurel in this hybrid if she is in peril. When she takes an active stance by escaping, Dix both succumbs to his sadistic tendencies and tries to reestablish the gender hierarchy by putting Laurel in physical distress. He loses control and strangles her, nearly to death. This excessive act of sadistic love is also his attempted punishment of the femme fatale, and so leaves no room for the miraculous ending of the screwball. Despite the revelation that Dix is freed of murder charges, his violence shows that he is still in the wrong. And so the film ends with Dix walking away, being observed by another character just as the film established would occur in the opening shot. The lovers split and the femme fatale is left as the unpunished subject to the audience’s gaze…..

In a Lonely Place is a highly confusing film because, as a noir, it takes up scenes that are silly enough to remind the viewer of a screwball comedy. Yet the film has a difficult time establishing the gender hierarchy that the noir genre tries to enforce. It mixes and matches elements of both genres since they both incorporate female characters breaking this hierarchy, whether the reason is to control the narrative or to attempt to reestablish the hierarchy itself. Only upon the discovery of the middle ground that both genres can stand on, will the film try to break out of the confusion and reestablish gender relations normative to the noir genre. Yet the damage is done and the narrative collapses, leaving an ending that lacks the catharsis of either genre, certainly a lonely place for a film of the classical Hollywood era.

 

i Based on the novel, In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy Hughes.

ii Dana Polan, In a Lonely Place (London: British Film Institute, 1993) 16. Print.

iii Ibid. 62.

iv Ibid. 18.

v Teresa De Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,                

      1984) 139. Print.

vi David R. Shumway, “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying

      Marriage,” Cinema Journal, 30 (1991), 401–02. Print.

vii Dana Polan, In a Lonely Place (London: British Film Institute, 1993) 38. Print.

viii Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film and Theory (2000) 487. Print.

ix Slavoj Zizek, perf. The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema, dir. Sophie Fiennes, Microcinema 

      International, 2006. DVD-ROM.

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