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'In a Lonely Place' and the Performative Signature

Despite his various successes as a writer and a lover, Bogart's Dixon Steele fails to attain the recognition he insists he deserves.


In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Year: 1950
Release date: 2016-05-10

The skeptic need not accept psychological interpretations of handwriting in order to grant that the signature is a special, performative manner of writing. Writing in general may or may not reveal aspects of our personality, of who we are, but the signature is a declaration of how we want to be perceived, a pronouncement on whom it is we want to be. Think of your hesitation to sign on to something in which you do not believe or your eagerness to sign something that documents an achievement of which you are proud. A signature is more than a mere form of writing; it does something, it performs an act.

When I sign my name, I confer a bit of my authority to the thing I sign; I endorse its contents. I declare my allegiance to whatever the document represents. Or I commit myself in some manner to whatever power is represented by that paper. When I sign a birthday card, I do more than simply clarify that I am indeed the sender. I make an offering of my name and since my name stands in a metonymic relation to my very being, since my name ‘names’ me, is a placeholder for whatever I represent to myself and others, then in offering my signature, I offer up myself.

A signature demands appraisal. After all, it is a representation of the self; indeed it stands proxy for our volition, for our very presence. Think of graffiti or names carved into trees. These signatures declaim, sometimes literally, that so-and-so “was here”. In this sense, a signature is an act of minor defiance against our finitude. Our signatures represent all about us that we hope will survive our mortal existence, all that will stand unscathed amidst the wreckage of our lives. Of all the traces we leave behind on this earth, the signature is at once the most deliberate and the most immediate.

In an early scene of In a Lonely Place (a mere two minutes into the film), a screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart arrives at the entrance to a restaurant where some children have stationed themselves. One young boy holds a preposterously large camera with which he takes photographs of the people arriving for dinner. It quickly becomes clear that we are in Hollywood, and this is a regular haunt for actors, directors, producers, and writers working to bring entertainment to the silver screen.

Another boy is perched atop a short brick wall. He asks the screenwriter if he can have an autograph to which Bogart’s character inquires: “Who am I?” The boy confesses that he does not know and a sarcastic girl seated below dismissively grunts: “Don’t bother, he’s nobody.” The man agrees. “She’s right,” he says with an air of nonchalance as he begins to inscribe the autograph book. He seems to take no umbrage to the remark but his self-deprecation doesn’t seem entirely genuine, either.

We then see the page from his point of view and we are introduced in this manner to the name of the main character of the film: Dixon Steele. The name itself is an almost laughably overloaded signifier. We are never told that it's a pseudonym, but it sounds for all the world as though it must be. The surname connotes the hard, implacable nature of this determined and contumacious character.

The word “steel” derives from Proto-German and is related to the word “stakhla”, meaning, “standing firm”. Throughout the film we see the screenwriter standing on a sense of principle even when there is, in actuality, no principle at stake. He insists he is justified in all circumstances, that he is right even while being utterly at fault. He justifies random acts of violence and fits of pique insofar as he is a man “to be reckoned with”, that he stands out among the phonies that surround him.

Although he will soon be accused of murdering a young woman who visits his home, Steele’s confidence, his sense of unassuaged defiance remains unchecked. He never panics and indeed seems almost amused by the suspicions of the authorities, going so far as to reconstruct (employing his writerly imagination) the poor girl’s murder in such gruesome and telling detail that even his close friend is visibly shaken. Indeed, the friend is more than shaken; he is made complicit in the murderous fantasy.

As he follows Steel’s instructions in acting out the crime, he mindlessly hurts his wife, who stands in for the victim. The contradictory dichotomy of Steele’s nature is thus revealed. What seemed like steadfast bravery and self-assurance turns out to be a sort of emotional torpor, an inability to empathize, a willingness to forgo human sympathy by embracing the cold intricacies of plot. Steele believes he is exercising his own volition, but the other characters begin to realize that he is simply and involuntarily playing out his own underlying neurosis.

One doesn’t require much Freudian insight to unpack his given name, Dixon. The other characters reinforce its phallic undertones by continually referring to him by the diminutive “Dix”. The film buttresses Steele’s masculinity at every turn. He is quick to fight and always comes out the winner. He is obviously successful with women as we learn in an early scene where a former conquest assures him that he was not nice “to her” but he was nonetheless “pretty nice”. But this outsized masculinity casts a pall over Steele’s attempts to redeem himself as a writer and as a man.

Those with whom he brawls are hardly ever truly combatants. They are simply people he assaults, sometimes maliciously. In only one case does the adversary even fight back. For all his sexual prowess, Steele is hopelessly alone. He clings desperately to the woman that alibis him for the murder, convinced she will be the conduit for his salvation. He repeatedly attempts to connect with her, to bridge the emotional chasm he has placed between himself and all others, but ultimately to no avail -- precisely because he cannot allow anyone to reveal the lie of his impermeability.

But there is more to the autograph scene than just the revelation of the main character’s name. After acceding to the notion that he was "no one", another man arrives at the restaurant and Steele introduces him as “someone” insofar as he is a famous director. Steele’s seemingly glib assertion makes us aware of the fact that while we might know the names of many directors, screenwriters often go unrecognized. This forces us to reflect on that act of signing once again. We watch from Steele’s point of view as he signs his autograph into the young man’s book. After completing his name, Steele inscribes an exclamation point. We see him draw the long stem in a downward stroke and the camera cuts away just before he places the dot beneath it.

Many signatures feature seemingly superfluous strokes and signifiers. Underlines, periods, stars, smiley faces, and other flourishes are not necessary to the communication of the name itself. Rather, they stage the name; they anticipate and thus enact the reception of the signature. If the signature itself is performative, if its inscription is a means of doing something, then these superfluities are a manifestation of the anticipated, hoped-for reaction. They are an attempt by the writer to foreclose unacceptable interpretations of the signature by framing the manner in which we receive it. An underline sets the signature on a stage; it demands attention. Periods are emphatic; they suggest that the persona of the signature will not be budged. Stars and smiley faces connote whimsy.

Steele’s concluding exclamation mark strikes one as an act of desperation. In a Hollywood economy where the writer is utterly necessary to the machinations of the industry and yet virtually invisible to the public, Steele finds himself thirsting for recognition. He is a “nobody” while a director is “somebody” and yet this “somebody” can only attain fame on the back of a “nobody”, through the unnoticed genius of the pencil-pushing, nearly anonymous writer. A period at the end of a signature insists upon the authority of its author; an exclamation point is a petulant demand to be seen, to be noticed at long last.

This justifies Steele’s otherwise inexplicable willingness to play cat and mouse with the officers investigating the murder. He attains no real advantage from sharing his theories about the young woman’s demise, particularly in light of the demonic fervor with which he expresses those theories. But in spinning his imaginative tale of her last moments, Steele has a captive audience. He can gauge the impression he makes on his interlocutors. He is seen.

Of course, his most exigent performance is reserved for the woman he pursues (played by Gloria Grahame). She comes to his rescue by providing him an alibi, but he quickly turns her from agent to a passive audience for his physical and verbal effusions. Grahame, her face rendered impassive through plastic surgery, becomes the perfect empty screen onto which he can project his fantasies of loving acceptance and fawning admiration. Ultimately he treats her as yet another blank page on which he can write his signature, another space to fill with the marker of his presence, another declaration that he indeed “was here”.

In the end, his relationship with her doesn't fall victim to the violence of his nature, but rather it crumbles because she couldn’t continue to exist under the stultifying encumbrance of his signature. Despite his various successes as a writer and a lover, Dixon Steele fails to attain the recognition he insists he deserves. That exclamation mark attempts to enact commanding authority, but in the end reveals itself as a marker of churlish disappointment.

* * *

The Criterion Collection DVD includes several impressive extras ranging from a compelling audio commentary by film scholar Dana Polan, excerpts from a documentary about the director Nicholas Ray, an interview with Grahame biographer Vincent Curio, to a radio adaptation of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which the film is loosely based.

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