In a Disturbing Place

Dylan Hintz
Major Film Directors
Dr. Johnson

In a Disturbing Place

Humphrey Bogart’s character of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is described in one scene as both a “genius” and “a sick man”. The violence-prone screenwriter’s suspected murder of a young woman is a “Macguffin” for the plot, which is really about discerning whether he is an abnormal psychopath or just an out-of-the-box minded genius. Ray’s film shows how the two types of psyches can be disturbingly woven together in a dangerous closeness that can divide an audience into two groups: those who believe him to be brilliant and those who believe him to be insane. The scene mentioned consists of Dix, invited over to dinner by his police friend Brub and his wife Sylvia, as they go over his imagined particulars of the crime he has been suspected of committing. By the end of the party, he has proven his genius to Brub, but only so much as he has proven his insanity to Sylvia. This portrayal of juxtaposed mentalities concretely represent’s Robin Wood’s decreed function of art, which he believes is to disturb and awaken the viewer to a new attitude towards life. Ray uses techniques of mise-en-scene and editing primarily to convey how the situation goes from humorous discussion to menacing psychological involvement on the parts of all three characters, placing the contexts of madness and brilliance together in a new light for the audience members.

The location of the scene itself is rather bland. Steele and his hosts sit at what appears to be any normal dinner table. Through the mise-en-scene of the opening shot a few things can be assessed: the people he is playing guest to are normal folk, that the table has been arranged in a simple and traditional style, and that a fourth place was set just in case Dix managed to bring a guest. Within this shot there is nothing quite abrupt. The form is riddled with normalcy. Causing the disturbance is the content and its relation to that form. Ray enters from a previous scene just as Brub says “Why you couldn’t have dumped her just a hundred feet further up the canyon I’ll never know.” At this point it is clear to see that polite dinner conversation has no boundary between the two characters, placing abnormality in conflict with the ordinary table dressings.

Much like how this tone of conversation catches the attention of the audience, Brub’s wife Sylvia sits down and begins to listen, her attentiveness framed by Ray in a way that feels naively voyeuristic. Composed of a medium close up, Sylvia listens in as the discussion’s dialogue cuts visually away from the two ramblers, keeping the audio and matching it to her quiet intrigue. Her hand dangles in mid air, a movement of contemplation, and her eyes are pinned on the discussion at hand, obviously absorbed into the weirdness of the talk. It is here that the division between genius and sick gains a prominence in the theme. When cutting back and forth, it is shown that Brub has an intellectual interest in Dix’s dissemination of the murder, while Sylvia has a morbid intrigue in his playful tone. At this point in the scene, every shot of Dix and Brub exclaims method, and every shot of Sylvia decries madness.

Dix moves the couple from the dinner table into the living area to discuss his own envisioned portrayal of the murder being committed. Ray sets this shot up as if Dix, sitting before them and calling out blocking, is a director of sorts. Sylvia and Brub sit next to each other, the players in his game. Ray’s use editing then shows them enthralled by Dix’s direction. The overlay of Dix’s monologue around the shots of Brub pretending to strangle Sylvia, initiates one of the more disturbing scenes of the film. Bogart’s performance is almost too passionate as he derives a tone of pleasure from the character’s spoken visualization of the murder. His players are fixated on his description, their eye lines matching over to Dix, even as Brub’s arm begins to tighten around Sylvia’s neck. There is a metaphysical double-entendre at work here, as the viewer feels the tension of the description along with the characters themselves, who have become both audience and cast. This is an artistic move that subjects the viewer deeper into the attitude of the scene through a form of second-hand participation.

Cementing this feeling of dread is a recurring shot of Dix narrating his crime. The first time the shot is shown the lighting is minimal, but still bright enough to illuminate his whole face. The second time it has become darker and even more deeply swallowed in shadow. Dix has become a menacingly brilliant figure, capable of manipulating not only an idea, but the reactions of the people experiencing it with only dark words and a devil’s glare. At the end of the “scene” within the scene, Dix stands above them, discussing his standards of “artistic temperament” and how that relates to his innocence, depicted by Ray through a low-angle to high-angle pair of shots, as Dix in all of his worldly genius speaks downwards in an educational and superior tone to Brub and Sylvia. Dix leaves his audience confused but thoroughly intrigued, just as Ray leaves his viewers.

Nicholas Ray’s artistic choices, though simple at first glance, are the key components in taking a dark-themed conversation in a normal setting and placing it into a sequence of incredibly dark form. Through this scene, it is clear that the artistic statement of In a Lonely Place could be that madness is a close neighbor to genius.

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In a Disturbing Place by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.