Film of the Book: In a Lonely Place

Directed by Nicholas Ray (1950)

From the review of the book by Dorothy B. Hughes:

Our narrator, Dix Steele, has moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, where he plans to write a mystery novel. Or at least that’s what he told his uncle, who has grudgingly agreed to pay him a small allowance for a year while he tries his hand at writing. He tells the same tale to Brub Nicolai, a wartime buddy with whom he renews his friendship, and Brub’s new wife, Sylvia. But Dix has a dark secret – he likes to strangle young women. And Brub has a new career, as a police detective…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

When doing a Film of the Book comparison, I normally comment on what stays the same and what changes have been made. Here that’s simpler than usual – here’s a comprehensive list of all the things in the movie that are true to the book:

1. The L.A. setting

2. A handful of the characters’ names

3. A strangling

And here’s what’s different:

1. Everything else!

Humphrey Bogart as Dix Steele

In the book, Dix is a loner, newly arrived in L.A. and with no circle of friends, who is pretending to write a mystery novel so his uncle will give him an allowance. In the film, Dix is a hugely successful screenwriter, a celebrity, and has a wide circle of friends, enemies and acquaintances, all in the movie business. In the book, he’s outwardly respectable and law-abiding. In the film, he has long had a violent streak and has a charge sheet of previous complaints against him as long as his arm. In the book, there has been a series of murders, none of whom have any apparent connection to Dix. In the film, there is only one, of a girl who works on the periphery of the film business and is known to Dix. There is nothing to connect movie Dix to book Dix other than his name and the fact that he was in the vicinity of a murder.

Gloria Grahame as Laurel

Then there’s Laurel. In my review of the book, I described her as “a beautiful dame, a sultry, sexy feline in female form. Is she a femme fatale? Or is she destined to be another victim? Is she a temptress, a loose woman, or a forerunner of the sexually liberated women about to hit the scene?” Well! In the film, she’s sweet, lovely, sensibly clad at all times, pure, loving and faithful, and positively refuses to be sultry – exactly the kind of girl you hope your son will bring home one day. There’s no pretence at all that she’s a femme fatale (though she is described as such in the movie’s advertising).

True love…

So really to compare the two is almost redundant. They have to be seen as entirely separate and judged accordingly. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, however – it’s excellent! But I did wonder why they had bothered to connect it to the book at all, given the massive changes they made. It can’t have been to attract an audience via the book’s popularity. No offence to the author, but Bogart’s star quality meant he was perfectly capable of filling seats all by himself. Did they start out meaning to stick to the book, and then drift away from it? There’s a bit in the film that struck me as amusing, when Dix’s agent is having a go at him for not sticking to the story of the book Dix is adapting for the screen, to which Dix replies that that was because the book was trash! I felt for poor Ms Hughes when she saw that bit for the first time!

Cuddling? Or strangling?

The film is more about the love affair between Dix and Laurel, and how the police’s suspicion of Dix’s involvement in the murder affects that. Bogart turns in a great performance, one of his best, I felt, and Gloria Grahame is excellent as Laurel, falling madly in love with Dix but gradually growing to fear him. In the book, which is told in the first person from inside Dix’s head, it’s clear from the beginning that Dix is a murderer, but the film leaves that in doubt till the end, using the more usual third person perspective of movies. By halfway through, when it became obvious just how much they’d changed it, I realised it wasn’t at all certain that Dix would turn out to be the murderer in the film! So the suspense doesn’t come from Dix’s increased paranoia, as it does in the book. Here, it’s more about Laurel’s fear, which might be justified or might be paranoid, and the viewer’s own uncertainty over Dix’s guilt or innocence. The book gives Dix a motivation for his behaviour – not one that entirely convinced me, but it was there nevertheless. The film suggests he has always been violent, but gets away with it due to his celebrity.

Robert Warwick’s drunk again!

There is an excellent supporting cast of actors none of whom were well known to me, but who may have been familiar faces to contemporary audiences. From my perspective, there wasn’t a weak performance among them. Stand-outs for me were Robert Warwick as an ageing ham actor, constantly drunk and spouting quotes from Shakespeare and the like; and a young Martha Stewart playing Mildred, the murder victim, as a starry-eyed ingenue bedazzled by celebrity and the glamour of the movie industry.

Martha Stewart as Mildred – the (first?) victim!

I also enjoyed the small role of Ruth Warren as Effie the maid, vacuum cleaner in one hand, cigarette in the other, who brings a touch of humour into the general darkness.

Ruth Warren as Effie the maid

While the book is a study of the mind of a killer and of paranoia, the film is more a study of the mores of the movie industry, and of legitimate fear. It certainly deserves its reputation as a noir classic, and I’m glad that reading the book led me to watch it, even if the connections between them don’t go far beyond the title.

★ ★ ★ ★

A reasonably easy decision this time – although both are recommended, the book is good while the film is great, so…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…


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37 thoughts on “Film of the Book: In a Lonely Place

  1. I love that poster! I wasn’t expecting the film to come out on top. So often it’s the other way round for me. Do you think Lauren’s portrayal was a product of the Hays Code or just another abandoning of the book’s characterisation?

    Liked by 2 people

    • These old film posters really were works of art! I think for me noir usually works better on film than on the page, partly because I just love all those all old Hollywood stars. No, in this case, I think it was just a decision to change the emphasis of the suspense element away from whether the murderer would be caught to putting the woman in danger, so they decided to change the woman into someone more vulnerable. And it definitely worked as far as the film was concerned!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this is one of those cases where it almost would have helped if the book and film had different names, as they’re so different, FictionFan. I happen to be one of those annoying, pedantic purists who think that the film shouldn’t deviate from the book. So, for me, if you’re going to do an adaptation, tell the story that’s in the book. That said, though, I know others don’t agree with me. If you judge the film by its own merits, though, you can see how good a film it is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think with me it depends on how much I love the book. If it’s a favourite, then I get really annoyed when the film is different, but if I’m not too bothered about the book I don’t mind if they change it to make it work better in the different art form. But this one was changed so much that really if the characters hadn’t had the same names as in the book I doubt that it would have been recognisable as being the same thing! And that seemed very odd!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I must be the only person alive who hasn’t read the book or seen the film, so I’ll have to go totally on your impressions. They sound intriguing, though I do wonder why they’re so different. Was there some copyright issue preventing one from mirroring the other, or was that just typical for back in the day?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, well, until a few weeks ago I hadn’t read the book or seen the film either! I really don’t understand why they changed it so much, or why they used the title for something that was so different from the book. I don’t think it could have been anything to do with copyright because they did give the author billing for it. And yes, I think it was quite commonplace in that era for them to make changes, partly because it’s much harder to do first person perspectives in film and partly because they liked to suit their story to the expectations people had for the stars, if that makes sense. But I think this is the one that has been changed most of all the films that I’ve seen! Still great, though!


  4. So glad you made this comparison! It makes sense that the film would deviate since the film’s direction was probably more palatable. But if made nowadays, they would probably stick with the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it was fairly common in that era I think, for the films to be different from the books, but I must say this one was so different that it was hard to really see why they hadn’t just given it a different name! I suspect part of it would have been that it would have been hard to have had sympathy with Bogart if he had been more like the Dix in the book


  5. This is one of those cases where they should say the film is “inspired by” the book rather than based on it. There are so many older films I’ve never seen, but should!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Ok firstly – wow didn’t recognize Martha Stewart there – unless we are talking about a different Martha Stewart? I’m thinking of the famous book, homemaker, etc.

    I laughed at that mention of the book being crappy and the screenwriter not being able to stick to it – wink wink! Hopefully they warned the author of that beforehand…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I believe it is the same Martha Stewart! I don’t really know her from her later career, because I don’t think the homemaker stuff she did really crossed over here to the UK. But I believe she started out life as a Hollywood starlet, and I must say I thought she played the role really well here. Haha, yes, I thought that that must have been a horrid slap in the face for the poor author – very cruel!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. They do say that the two are completely different forms of art, but it sounds like they took that to extreme here. But I find myself tired of this trope. Are there any books/films about a woman who goes around strangling young men? I’m drawing a blank…..

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, usually I can see why a director has made changes, to add in more fast-paced action, or to play to the star’s strengths or something along those lines. But I must say I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film before that had so little to do with the book that it claimed to be based on! If they had changed the characters’ names I don’t think many people would have recognised it as supposedly being the same story. Haha, but do women go around strangling young men in real life! Not often enough, probably…;)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved the film—a true classic. And while I haven’t yet read the book, I forgive the filmmakers. Unlike Margot, I’m not a purist. I’m partial to an ekphrasis: when one form of art inspires another. Thanks FF.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think for me it depends on how much I love the book. If it’s an absolute favourite, like Austen, I get really annoyed if a director messes with it too much. But if I’m less committed to the book, then I’m always quite interested to see what changes the film makes and whether I think they make it work better in that format or not. My favourite, Hitchcock, was notorious for taking the basic idea of a story and turning it into something completely different! But even he usually stuck to the original plot a little bit more than this one does…!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This sounds brilliant, I shall watch for sure and probably read too from your review. I do like it when creatives inspire each other in different art forms, I’m tempted to do the same as you and read and watch together!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I always like it when both the book and the film are good, but different enough so that you don’t feel that you’re just getting exactly the same story. In this one they’re so different that reading the book doesn’t even count as a spoiler for the film! If you do get around to reading and/or watching, I hope you have fun!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t seen the film either, which surprised me because I used to watch all these old Hollywood classics when they were on TV when I was a kid, and Humphrey Bogart was always one of my favourites! Yes, I don’t remember ever watching another adaptation which was quite so different from the book. If it hadn’t had the same name I don’t know if I would even have realised that they were supposed to be the same story!

      Liked by 1 person

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