Passive and Active Skepticism in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” –King Lear (I, iv, 238)
In a Lonely Place (1950), while often characterized as a film noir,1 also has the emotional intensity, the sense of intimacy, the tenderness in its treatment of very flawed characters, and the psychological complexity that one associates with a film by Nicholas Ray. It presents as well an intense focus on romantic love, or at least on the possibility of romantic love, that in standard noirs would be a matter of obsessive attachment to, or mostly submission to, a murderous femme fatale, and so a relationship contaminated by an underlying struggle for power. The movie is modest in scale and seems offered as material for reflection; as if it poses a question rather than just narrates and resolves a story. There is much more conversation than action, heightening its more reflective aspects.
It is reflective in another sense too, and I will come to that in a moment. There are two intertwining narrative threads in the plot. In the main plot, a bitter, apparently burned-out Hollywood script writer, Dixon Steel (Humphrey Bogart), is accidentally connected with a murder victim, one Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a hat-check girl from his favorite restaurant, whom he had asked home after work to tell him the plot of a popular book he has been asked to adapt for the screen. Since Dix was the last person known to have seen Mildred alive, and since he has a long record of fights, attacks on others, even perhaps domestic abuse, the police figure him for a violent character and suspect him of the murder. (As in many noirs, one has to pause often in plot summaries. This last bit—that Dix has been “known for violence”—may not be what it seems. As Victor Perkins points out, the police captain in charge of the investigation, Captain Lochner (Karl Benton Reid), is shown recounting, very slowly and solemnly for dictation, almost comically so (as if his belief in what he is saying is comical), the list of Dix’s scrapes, but he is clearly reading from press clippings, not from police records.2 (Any movie audience could be expected to know all about press agents and their problematic relation to the truth.3) But Dix has an alibi. One Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham, still Ray’s wife at the time), an unemployed starlet, is a new neighbor of Dix’s and had happened to come home at the same time as Dix and Mildred (a spectacular entrance, close to the femme fatale appearances that doom so many noir heroes; it won’t take long before we learn she has suspicious past, with “gold digger” associations). She swears that she also saw Mildred leave Dix’s apartment, alone. (Another interruption: it is of some importance that this claim is not supported by what the viewer is allowed to see. All we see of what Laurel sees is that Dix has partially disrobed, is in a dressing gown, alone in his apartment after midnight with a young woman, and we surmise that she must have heard Mildred loudly yelling twice for help.4 (Mildred is enthusiastically acting out a part from the book, but Laurel does not know this, does not mention the screaming for “help” to the police, she never asks Dix about it, and we never hear this lacuna explained from her point of view.) We do not of course know that she has not seen this, but we are given no confirmation. Moreover, later, when people are trying hard to convince her that Dix did do it, she never replies resolutely, “Look, I saw her leave alone.” And by the end of the film she is clearly convinced that he could have done it, which has to mean that she did not see Mildred leave alone.5
Dix and Laurel fall in love, and immediately Dix can write again. His own life now has a “plot,” with love at the center, and he can write himself and Laurel into it. (This also suggests, at the reflective level again, that they may be trapped by Hollywood expectations, by Dix’s “script” for them too. Lauren’s main function in their relationship is as the transcriber of his words. As we shall see, the last lines of the movie, her lines, are from Dix’s script.) But from the beginning of their romance, the police put a lot of pressure on Dix, plant a lot of doubts in Laurel’s mind, and that, and what Dix (rightly) regards as several violations of his trust, and the exhibition of his own terrible temper, doom their relationship.6 At the end of the film, after their nearly violent break-up (Dix appears to be intent on strangling her until the phone rings), they learn that the real murderer has been caught and that Dix is in the clear. Laurel says that this news would have meant everything had they heard about it they day before, but now it is too late, again as if they are typical film noir victims of mere chance.7
In this, the major plot, it is obvious that the question the characters are struggling with, and so the one addressed to us, as viewers, is something like “what do we really know when we claim to understand someone, or to understand their ‘character’ or ‘true self’ or who they really are, especially to the extent necessary (whatever extent that is) to trust someone, and so expose oneself to possible betrayal?”8 Or: what is the right way to acknowledge and live out the implications of realizing that we will very likely never be in a position to resolve such issues? Everyone—Laurel, Dix’s agent, Mel (Art Smith), Dix’s improbably named army buddy, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who is also the police detective working the Mildred murder case, Brub’s very conventional and suspicious, even hostile wife, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell), and Captain Lochner—they all want to know whether Dix is capable of murder. The usual tropes and figures come to mind: they want to know what is “inside” him, want to know the real, if hidden, Dix. The issue is naturally most important to Laurel, since she is in an intimate relation of trust with Dix; exposed to him, to his supposed instability, and to his potential violence, as it were. As we shall see though, once she allows the question of whether this trust and faith are justified to arise, the possibility of answering it immediately changes, as her relation to Dix just thereby changes; he notes the change, is wounded, he changes, and then, and only then, does he begin to evince what could be, and are taken to be, indications that he really is “capable of murder.” The movie, in other words, introduces us to a reflection on one dimension of the philosophical problem of “skepticism about other minds,” but in a distinctly practical register (perhaps the only appropriate register, as we shall see). In the modern period (and it seems to be an exclusively modern problem) the most general form of the issue is: how do I know that other apparently human beings are actually human beings (at least are human beings like me), and not automata, and so forth, and the most common focus for the discussion is the experience of pain and its relation to pain behavior. That is: I only see, know, can be sure of, another’s expressions, presumably of pain. How do I know the other experiences what I experience when I experience pain? But our inability to enter and “have” another’s experience or in some other way know what they experience in the way I experience what I do, gives rise to many forms of doubt or skepticism, most famously in cases like Othello’s, and is certainly at issue in this film.9
There is an interconnected subplot too, and that suggests that other level of reflectiveness mentioned earlier. This concerns the “Hollywood plot.” Dix, we are told, “hasn’t written anything good since before the war,” now some time back. His own reason for this, which we are invited to share and sympathize with (up to a point), is that this is because of his integrity, his refusal to churn out the schlock that Hollywood requires.10 We are several times shown Dix befriending an alcoholic actor friend, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warrick), clearly a Shakespearean actor of the “old school,” genuinely trained as an actor, familiar with the classics, who later actually recites Shakespeare’s “When in disgrace in fortune and men’s eyes” sonnet. This seems to suggest that there was a time when movies aspired to something real and honest, whereas they are now made by what Dix calls “popcorn salesmen.” Everything we see of the movie industry, often from what seems to be Dix’s point of view, is of a soulless mass culture machine, geared to the “Mildred Atkinson tastes” of the public.11 There are many other “internal” references to the industry in the Ray film itself. I mean not in the plot but in what can be taken as references by Ray to himself in Dix (the apartment complex is the one Ray lived in when he came to Hollywood), to Bogart and Bogart’s reputation, to studio heads and so forth.12 But if the problem in the film is sincerity and trust, the problem of the film (as a film) is very similar. Dix wants everyone to know that Hollywood films are false, dishonest, pandering and in that sense “insincere.” So if the former problem concerns what it would mean, how it would be possible, to know someone well enough to trust him or her, to trust not just that they are honest but that their own (sincere) “presentation of themselves” is not itself a self-deceived fantasy, is reliable, this latter concerns what it is for a film (or a work of art) to be “genuine” too, to prove Dix’s skepticism about the movies wrong. This was partly at issue in the “interruptions” above; feeling sufficiently assured that the “formula plots” we are apparently invited to invoke are inadequate, that the film has rejected such satisfactions, would invite us to closer attention; something that is itself, at the outset, an act of faith by the viewer, based on some sort of trust.
There is a visual embodiment of both levels of reflection in the opening credits. This first thing we see are Dix’s eyes in the car’s rear-view mirror, and so the problem of both our knowing him (the eyes being windows to the soul), and his knowledge of himself, or anyone’s knowledge of themselves, is introduced. (It is probably deliberate and important that at no point in the opening shot does Dix look at himself in the mirror or even check the mirror. If though, as this avoidance might indicate, he knows himself poorly, then his remaining “true to himself” and all his clinging to fiercely held ideals of integrity will carry a different weight in what follows.) But we are also at this point not just watching Dix in the movie; the credits are rolling by, so we are also attending to the movie, not what it represents. (We are in effect seeing a movie screen (the mirror) within a movie screen.)13 And since the movie is itself, or presents itself as, a mirror to the events, “reflecting” them (not just their visibility but their meaning) realistically, the question of the film’s reflective honesty or genuineness is also at issue, perhaps problematically at issue if the same doubts about what the film (any film, implicitly) “purports to be” can be raised as about Dix’s self-knowledge.
Clip 1: Opening
At this point I will need to introduce some philosophical apparatus in order to develop what has been introduced. Given the framework already presented (skepticism, other minds, genuineness, fraudulence, revelation, acknowledgement), it should come as no surprise that the approach I will take up is Stanley Cavell’s discussion of the problem of skepticism in The Claim of Reason, and his own use of his approach in essays like “Knowing and Acknowledging” and “The Avoidance of Love” in Must We mean What We Say? And “Othello and the Stake of the Other,” originally the closing discussion in The Claim of Reason and reprinted in Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). I am interested in Cavell because he provides a different approach to, and an often perspicuous vocabulary for, discussing a Hegelian idea that many have found either opaque or dangerously illiberal or both (in Hegel and also in Cavell’s source, Wittgenstein): that what it is to know oneself as a subject is wrongly conceived at the outset if understood as some sort of particularly intimate relation between a thinker or an agent and itself, as something essentially “inner” and directed to a particular kind of object. (Both Hegel and Wittgenstein stage their dissatisfactions in terms of re-thinking something like the logic of “inner and outer” in philosophical psychology. And so for both, an implication of this re-thinking is that “knowing” another can be nothing like the fantasy of looking “inside” them, or telepathically gaining insight into “what they experience.” And for both, this is because it is the wrong model for the person himself, for his own self-knowledge.14) Cavell goes so far as to say the whole notion of a knowledge of others is wrongly framed. The struggle with attempting to understand others requires something other than a special sort of propositional knowledge; it requires instead a certain “acknowledgement” of them, as he puts it. The context in which doubt about what I take to know of another arises is often, in Cavell’s discussion, a particularly intimate one; a great deal is at stake in the burden of such doubt and in what is achieved if it can be alleviated. With so much at stake, one manner of self-protection—an unavoidable consideration—is to ensure that each is as exposed as the other, as much at risk, even if no stable form of reassurance about this is ever available. (This is certainly the case in the movie; there is a great deal at stake in Laurel’s knowing “what Dix is really capable of”; there is a great deal at stake for Dix in whether Laurel can be trusted, what it “means” that she had been the kept girlfriend of a real estate tycoon.) This means for Cavell that such an attempt to know something about another is inseparable from what he calls “taking up an attitude” towards that other.
I understand what he is trying to say in the following way. (And here I will stray a bit from his own formulations, will not be so concerned with global skepticism about the human/non-human distinction, and will try to put his points in my own words.) First, that any intimate involvement with others inevitably involves a struggle of some sort, ideally a mutual struggle, to understand each other. This also means that the struggle is necessarily dynamic. That is, knowing each other is not a matter of episodic, punctuated inspections or momentary revelations, but always a struggle over time to understand and be understood, where what is to understand and to be understood is itself at least somewhat unstable, itself changing over time. Secondly, in the context of one’s involvement with another, thinking one knows what, say, another would do in some situation simply amounts to a matter of whether one can trust the other to do this or that. Knowing that another will stay loyal in some crisis is, in a practical context, counting on them to stay loyal. (Counting on them is what it is to know them; the former is not based on the latter.) Wanting to know whether another loves me is determining what I can expect, count on, from the other. One makes it true (even if not in some wholly self-constituting way) that the other is loved by what one does, not by registering a feeling. Hence the link between knowing and taking up an attitude, and any such taking up of an attitude is an acknowledgement of the other in some way or another, an expression of a resolution of confidence that such and such is the case, or not. So such attempts at acknowledgement are of a sort that can also fail. Ray’s film is about such a failure, and while it is certainly not King Lear or Othello (the scale of the film is much smaller, more intimate), there is much to be learned from it as to why such a failure is a failure.
I do not mean to say that Ray’s film in some way exemplifies or supports Cavell’s analysis, but that we cannot really understand what that analysis amounts to until we see the issues “alive” in an appropriately complex dramatic or literary context. I take his own work on literature and film to be guides to how that “realization” (to use Hegel’s word) is to be understood.15 In Cavell’s terms, what we see in the film are characters trying to understand what others mean by what they say and do, all under the pressure of a great deal of uncertainty, and the pressure of unavoidable, immanent decisions, and where the stakes in getting matters right or wrong are quite high. This attempt, as Cavell explains it, involves not trying to understand what is literally said, but what is meant by a character’s saying what is said, what he or she means, not simply “what is meant,” or what she meant by doing what she did or did not do.16 (An obvious example in the film: the police must ask what it means that, when Dix learns of Mildred’s death, he remains flippant, cracking-wise, and apparently indifferent.) This will involve quite a complex activity, though still everyday and familiar, of interpretation, assessment and, especially, evaluation (rendering ourselves intelligible to each other is inseparable from the way we render ourselves answerable, accountable, to each other),17 all of which is made even more difficult when the characters are in intimate relations of dependence, exposed emotionally to each other. In those cases, the question must also involve issues like: what did he mean by saying that to me, then (or doing that, then) and when I have a great stake in his meaning one thing and not another, in his understanding me one way, rather than the other. (The skepticism involved is what Cavell calls a “motivated” skepticism, and we will hear more about it shortly.) If all of this is so, the task of investigating what it is to understand another, another’s meaning and deeds, will need to be carried out in some context where the complexity of such factors can be constantly visible and bear on the issues in a credible way. Simple and contrived philosophical “thought experiments” are not going to do the job.18
And as viewers of filmed drama, all of these issues of what is involved in understanding others are in play for us as well, with a fundamental difference that needs to be worked out: we are not exposed in any way to those whom we are trying to understand, and the characters in the drama cannot do anything to make themselves available to us. We cannot struggle together to be understood.19 However, if what was said above about the nature of the problem of subjects who are “other to each other” and find that otherness unsatisfying and even disturbing is correct, then, in watching the film, we can be said to have come to understand something (if we have) about that in some way not reformulable in an argument or in a more familiar philosophical justification (or not all that well, as in what I am going to say discursively about the film). Something like the compellingness of the narrative will have illuminated something in a way again much closer to having understood someone, than it is to having proved something.20
What I need from Cavell in order to address these issues in the film are three major claims, mostly worked out in The Claim of Reason, but present almost everywhere else in his corpus. The first is directly related to what was just mentioned: the nature of the problem. For Cavell claims that skepticism about other minds is really not skepticism but “tragedy,” and, as he says, “there is no human alternative to the possibility of tragedy” (The Claim of Reason, 453).21 He establishes this somewhat indirectly, by arguing that such a putative skepticism about other minds cannot at all be made to parallel traditional skepticism about the external world, which, at one major level, can clearly be at least initially formulated as a problem about knowledge.22 For one thing, the latter cannot be lived out as a form of life; we leave it, like Hume, in the philosopher’s study, and treat the world, as we must if we are to avoid injury, as full of real, spatio-temporally located objects. But we do have to live out and live with a kind of deep, irremediable uncertainty that we will ever know what we think we need to know in order to deal with other human beings, as well as with a kind of uncertainty about just what would ease our anxiety about this situation (a fact that immediately calls into question whether our frustration at the otherness of the other can be understood as product in our finitude in trying to know). We take it as intuitively obvious that each of us occupies an absolutely superior position with regard to our own mindedness, i.e., “what it is like to be me.” So we are then tempted to think that overcoming skepticism about other minds would be knowing the other’s mindedness by occupying just that sort of a superior position with respect to her mindedness (by “having” it). It is very unclear what this could be, though.
If I imagine myself with extraordinary telepathic powers, so that I can begin to see and feel things exactly as you do, then either this is incoherent (for you don’t experience the world as me having those experiences as mine, as I would, with such powers) or, the whole difference or separateness between me and you vanishes (like Cavell’s Corsican brothers example in “Knowing and Acknowledging,” one of whom simply has every and only every experience the other has). In that case, we do not have someone knowing another’s mind, but the simple collapse of the separateness of persons altogether. We have just one mind, perhaps in this fanciful example, in two bodies; not one mind knowing another. So, Cavell says, what we have in this concern with knowing others is not frustration at the limitations of knowledge (an assumption that implies there is some limitation that can be overcome, and we have just seen what the fantasy of overcoming it would amount to), but unavoidable, constant disappointment with what we do have available from the other, disappointment with what is available (all that is available), once we have disabused ourselves of the fantasy of “breaking into” the other’s world.23 However, once we have given up that fantasy, the idea that what we are left with is “insufficient,” or a frustrating result of an in principle overcomeable finitude, can no longer get a grip.24
Second, with this established, Cavell can introduce an analysis of what is motivating our concern with the other’s knowability (once it can be established that the problem cannot be an epistemological or even philosophical problem), suggesting that our enacting our inability to break into the other’s world is motivated by (“means”) an anxiety that others will be able to break into ours (and so a defense against that) or a fantasy of inexpressiveness about ourselves which insures our unknowability to them, itself a reassuring response to an anxiety about being revealed, available to others’ gazes. So, “[t]he block to my vision of the other is not the other’s body, but my incapacity or unwillingness to interpret or judge it accurately, to draw the right connections” (The Claim of Reason, 368). And “…the alternative to my acknowledgement of the other is not my ignorance of him but my avoidance of him, call it my denial of him” (The Claim of Reason, 389).
This last point already introduces the third and most important contribution of the book, the differences between, and especially the complementarity and inseparability, of what Cavell calls active and passive skepticism about other minds. The first, active skepticism, just reiterates what we have mostly been focusing on: how can I know another, the true nature of that other’s (supposedly) inner life. The latter though is a concern, or an anxiety about whether I am ever truly known (“as I really am”) by an other. And the two modalities are interconnected.25 If we assume, as we should given Cavell’s concerns, a domestic, or intimate, or dialogic situation of self and other, where the question is not what “any self” (a human sciences researcher, say) can claim to know about anyone at all, but the everyday struggle to make ourselves intelligible to each other, then in claiming to know something about you, and in claiming this to you, I of course risk being misunderstood. I need to make sure that I am being understood, not just that my words are intelligible. This requires some effort; it does not just happen. And it comes with emotional risks. And it is often just in those cases where I am trying to convey to someone what I take it I have learned about her, I feel myself badly misunderstood. Feelings are hurt; friendships can fracture. Likewise, in hearing from others what they take themselves to have understood about me, I want to reserve some special authority to acknowledge or reject such claims; I am not just an object to be inspected and reported on.
And the connection is deeper. Insofar as I strive to understand something about another, I must be willing to make it possible for that other (or even any other) to understand me, or I will not be understood, in the sense just discussed; or, better, in Cavell’s way of seeing it, I will have not been able to say what I mean. And in so far as I want to understand myself, I cannot claim that my own understanding is inexpressible, cannot be understood by others. (If that is so, then famously, I can’t be said to have expressed what I mean either.26) But this also involves accepting that I have to struggle to make my own putative self-understanding available for others, subjecting to some extent the question of what I mean to say to another’s view of what saying that would mean.
And just by considering something like the common neighborhood these concepts inhabit, it is clear that such a claim to authority and rejection of a claim can often also be a version of defensive protectiveness against an unpleasant truth (too close to be easily or effectively distinguished), just as the putative claim about me can be motivated, directly or in a self-deceived way, by hostility and an urge to wound. It can be this and also be true, of course, but our question is what the other meant by saying what she did. Moreover, the situation is even more difficult if set out, as an intentional task, to get the other to see things as I do.
But then the responses you produce in the other are apt to be directed to the wrong thing, to the part you have enacted, not to yourself. It is as an alternative to the wish to produce the response in the other that I claimed you must let yourself matter to the other. (The Claim of Reason, 383)27
This leaves us with three complicated levels of complexity. This dynamical picture, especially this link between active and passive skepticism,28 means that the struggle to understand another must also be a struggle to be understood, and a mutual struggle against suspicions of insincerity, mere seduction, manipulation, simple misunderstanding. But there is a second level of difficulty when we realize that in many contexts sincerity resolves none of the major anxieties, and this because a sincere avowal by an other may be an expression of self-deceit. In some cases I am called on to understand the other better than she understands herself; called on to admit that another may have understood me better than I understand myself.29 And third, this struggle goes on over time, at no point in which can there be any resolution once and for all of what provoked the anxiety and uncertainty. Sometimes my very attempt to question another’s self-representation alters what one might have understood about such a person before any such interrogation or expression of skepticism. (As we shall see, this certainly happens in the film. Dix’s being Dix, one might say, changes a great deal under the pressure of everyone’s doubts about him. In returning to the film, we shall also return to the question of what it would mean to, as Cavell puts it, “let yourself matter.”)
Let us say that the issue of anyone’s knowledge of any other is dialectical; not a matter of a subject knowing, or confirming in some way in the face of doubts, its knowledge of an object. Moreover our understanding of such an other subject is often available to us only in terms relevant to that subject’s relation to us. It could even be that what we think we understand of another is a result of that subject’s acknowledgement of or engagement with, an “us” that was not genuinely or honestly made available for acknowledgement, and this can “distort” the “results.” In this and several other senses, acknowledging and being acknowledged are inseparable elements of inter-subjectivity, and so subject to these dialectical gymnastics.30
In the terms presented by Nicholas Ray’s film, the major issue for the police, and for Dix’s friend Brub, Brub’s wife Sylvia, Laurel, and Dix’s agent Mel, is understanding Dix’s “temper and potential violence,” and, just as Cavell would have it, that issue cannot be isolated as a mere report or a matter even of knowledge. There would be something bizarre about simply “recording” the fact that another “tended to violence.” Always? In any circumstance? In what circumstance and why? That is an assessment, a judgment in the normative sense, with consequences for conduct, but it is also not something “seen” or, that is, “provable.” And there is a good deal of emphasis by Ray on the extremely limited bases for any such judgment, unavoidable as it is. Lochner seems to suspect Dix because Dix is flippant and did not call a taxi for Mildred. Laurel stands up for Dix, perhaps lies for him, because she “likes his face.” Brub invokes the cliché that artistic geniuses do not and cannot behave like the rest of us. Sylvia thinks, on the basis of the vividness of Dix’s imagination, her “college education,” and Dix’s unusual behavior, that he can be classified as psychologically “abnormal.” And this is an issue for the viewers as well, complicated even more for us by the fact that this is Humphrey Bogart, and I think it is fair to say that we, or most viewers, accept the early indications of his violent tendencies as marks of Bogart’s toughness, integrity and unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. As the movie goes on, however, those early explanations become less and less credible, and the questions about the meaning of Dix’s conduct become much more complicated, as if we are being called to some account for our own early “acceptance” of the incidents.
This all has something to do with the ease, one might say, of a straightforward reading of the plot. Ray is clearly aware of this and is somehow referring to rather than invoking this expectation. A man, a war veteran, with a hair-trigger temper is suspected of murder. A woman saves him with an alibi of sorts; she is probably lying, because she is immediately infatuated with him, as is he with her. Their love suffers from the continued police scrutiny and her growing doubts about Dix. These doubts prove justified. He seems eventually to snap and attacks her. But, thanks to a lucky phone call, he does not injure her, and they learn “too late” that he has been cleared.
The hold of such a reading can be very strong, and I believe it is connected with a kind of default hermeneutic in understanding other people: that when someone does something startling or dramatic or hitherto unexpected or objectionable (violently beating a motorist after an accident, say) we are justified in saying: we now know he is the type who would do such things. In one sense this is a trivial and obvious tautology; he did it. In another sense, it is profoundly misleading, and is under sustained attack in this film. (If the phone call had occurred before the beach scene, Dix would not have been such a type? Someone can be such a type without ever expressing his type?) The same doubt is being cast on the typological explanations mentioned above. That is, this appeal has something to do with the deeply misleading and just as deeply entrenched reliance on ex ante elements like fully transparent, determinate intentions, character traits, dispositions, and the like, in the explanation of actions, and, by contrast, what is actually the essentially retrospective or belated nature of self-knowledge and the knowledge of others unavoidably linked to such self-knowledge.31
Here is a montage of the first two episodes in the film of Dix’s violence. After these, the near fight in the street at the beginning, and the bar fight, the turning point of the movie occurs at a beach picnic, and the character and meaning of “the violence” change dramatically.
Clip 2. First two episodes of violence
These first scenes raise no suspicions about Dix/Bogart (they are “in character” for a Bogart character),32 but everything changes with most important scene in the movie, a friendly beach picnic the Nikolais had arranged with Dix and Laurel. Laurel had been called in to Lochner’s office for more questioning, or more pressure, since Lochner suspects she is lying about the alibi. At the interview she learns that Brub’s dinner for his friend Dix had also been part of the investigation, a confidence we hear Brub had explicitly asked Lochner not to reveal. (Again, exposure, betrayal of intimacy, as a strategy in a struggle for control of the agenda is made visible.) Laurel does not tell Dix about the added interview, nor about the minor but still significant betrayal by Brub of his friendship. She thus enters into a collusion with the Nicolais, and from here on, Dix’s violence is a reaction, each of the next three times, to his learning of such a betrayal; actions by people he trusts, trying to find out something about him without asking him, or to act in a way that is hidden from him, indicating a distrust of his honesty and a certain objectification of the object of their study.33 This attitude towards Dix arrogates a certain position of superior power to those who adopt it, and part of what Dix’s violence means, intends, is a rejection of such power, something not ever understood or even considered by Lochner or the Nicolais or Laurel. And it is hard to exaggerate the importance of Sylvia’s revelation. It is the pivot on which everything in the film turns. It leads to the car accident, the fight, a catastrophic collapse of Laurel’s trust in Dix, her panic, her attempted flight, and Dix’s paranoid reaction to all that, and eventually to the irrelevance of Dix being cleared.
Clip 3. Beach and Road Rage
We are prepared for the intensity of these reactions by a scene in which Dix’s vulnerability, his fear of “letting himself be known,” in Cavell’s words, is painfully visible. The extent of his need to be known and loved (to finally escape his “lonely place”), the extent to which he is not theatricalizing the self he presents to Laurel, and so the palpable fear of the exposure and rejection of himself as he understands himself, all amount to the extent to which he is enraged at finding himself treated in such a third- and not second-person way, let us say.34 Here is the scene, as much against the Bogart type, especially at the beginning, as one will see. You will also see a kind of anticipatory, defensive, somewhat scary reaction to his own fear, an ominous foreshadowing. (Call it the “murderousness of love.”) Watch the positions of his hands and listen to the foreboding undercurrent in the music. I think that part of what is so intense about Dix’s speech in this love scene is that the viewer senses how deep is his hope that someone will finally be able to tell him who he is, that his loneliness has not been a matter of his being always by himself but that, being alone, there was nothing for him to be, or be with, at all. (This is connected with the fact that Dix now switches to a kind of overheated movie-script language, elevating and formalizing his address.) I would guess that for most viewers it is only on a second viewing that we sense the great imbalance in the scene, how silent Laurel is, how less desperate. Compare what you hear here from Dix with what is on her side: “I’m interested.”
So what appears to be this desperate desire to be loved is dangerously close to a massive fear—great to the point of implied violence—that he will be intimately known, unguarded. His gesture of tenderness is also, at the same time, murderous. It is also oddly photographed for a love scene, with him standing and her sitting, something that may signal that Dix believes he is in charge, running the show, however vulnerable. It turns out to be an ironic pose.
Clip 4. Dix’s vulnerability
Compare this now with the scene near the end when Dix learns that Laurel had been planning to flee and begins to attack her. The position of his hands clearly couples both scenes.
Clip 5. The attack
And throughout these developments, the meta-movie issues reappear as well. At a dinner with the Nicolais, as they discuss the case, Dix stages a reenactment for them, and assumes the role of film director, setting up the set, positioning the actors, explaining their motivations, and indicating how easily we can be made to believe the “truth” of dramatic representations, how vulnerable we are to the conventions of screenwriters. (We have already seen and will see throughout, the reliance of characters on clichés, stereotypes, hasty, stock generalizations for interpretation, and this scene dramatizes how powerfully “movie logic” can fill the role once played by traditional roles, social hierarchies, natural order, and so forth.) The continuity of this scene with the opening credits is established by lighting, which highlights Dix’s eyes, just as they were in the mirror. While we may be surprised at the effectiveness of Dix’s direction, the scene ends with a nice irony. The person who most confuses image with reality (is most susceptible to the confusion) is the “average” middle-class Brub, who, it turns out, begins actually to strangle his wife. Ray seems both to be indentifying with Dix’s talent, and so identifying his movie with powerful scenes like this, and keeping some ironic distance. Dix begins to look positively insane in the scene, although there is an unmistakable pleasure on his part in theatrically terrifying Sylvia, perhaps having sensed her suspicions of him. Ray seems to be playing along with Dix, garishly highlighting his “insane” eyes.
Clip 6. Dix’s staging the scene
I have said that Sylvia’s betrayal of a confidence is the central dramatic explosion in the film’s narrative. Afterwards, everything in Dix’s relation to his friends and to Laurel changes, and because of that everything about the attempt “to understand Dix,” especially by Laurel, has to change as well. That which results from trying to know someone is a function of what one allows of oneself to be known (often based on a fragile and self-deceived sense of what there is to be known), and that this dialectic is inseparable from issues of control and fear of exposure, is prominently on view from now on in the film. When Laurel says that “we” didn’t want to upset you, so we kept the meeting with Lochner from you, we should feel a chill of betrayal. Up to this point, what has Dix done to deserve this infantilizing, disloyal treatment? He had counted on them believing him and in him; that is, he trusted them, and they had been false. They were all reserving judgment on whether he could be guilty of murder. The “Dix” we see from here on in relation to these intimates can hardly be called “the true Dix coming out,” however genuinely dangerous he has become. (Nothing in anything we have seen or heard about suggests the nearly homicidal rages he is now subject to. Does this prove that the suspicions were correct? That he “was capable of murder”?)
But Sylvia does not initiate everything; the spark she provides finds pretty combustible material. Everyone agrees that Dix is “not normal,” that he has an aura of unpredictability and a sometimes violent refusal to compromise that attracts attention and erotic interest. (Mel, who loves him most and perhaps best, explains that you just have to take all this on if you want closeness to Dix.) Laurel’s first contact with him after all, is as a murder suspect, and she must be harboring doubts and anxieties that are easily brought to active life. Those doubts are very near the surface and after the road rage incident, are uncontrollably present. When she visits Sylvia after the fateful picnic (another act of disloyalty; Dix had insisted that people stop talking about him behind his back), she admires their cozy house and says that this is what she wants, domesticity and kids; normalcy. Laurel? With Dix? We have heard none of this before and it rings completely false. She is already trying to escape, and concocting self-deluded fantasies about herself to justify it. We have also already seen that Sylvia and Brub have “converted” sexual passion into marital or domesticated love by means of several normalizing strategies. Sylvia gets to be the smart one, for example, Brub the “average one.” Nothing about their domestic situation makes them look appealing as the “future” of Dix and Laurel. Marriage, the bedrock, foundational bourgeois institution, the contract to love and so the heart of the system that maintains that all the humans passions can be contracted into submission and control, thus assumes a kind of metonymic role for the social order, and greatly elevates the stakes in the issue of whether Dix and Laurel will, or can, marry. Take as a single example the suppressed hostility and self-deceit on view in this picture of marriage.35
Clip 7. Brub and Sylvia
And similar doubts about Laurel had been suggested throughout the film, and we learn, in the restaurant scene when Dix hits Mel, that he too has been thinking all along of what appears to have been something close to concubinage between Laurel and the real estate tycoon, “Baker.” In one of the strangest scenes in the film, the point seems to be to reveal to us Laurel’s “secret life” in the past; how little available for Dix she had really been. In the scene, the relation with her masseuse, Martha, seems “coded” for a lesbian relationship. She calls Laurel “angel,” the tone of the conversation is of a jilted lover’s and is aimed clearly at “breaking up” Laurel and Dix, and she says later, “I’m all you have.” (In fact Ray has obviously set up a clear parallel love-match in each of the two cases, two same-sex friendships, between Mel and Dix, and between Martha and Laurel, that are more stable, perhaps even deeper and more intimate than the heterosexual love affair, although both are also based on some very implausible, fatalistic conviction that the loved one, Dix or Laurel, has a fixed nature that must be wholly and uncompromisingly accepted in love.) 36
Both of them, in other words, Dix and Laurel, have created, in all sincerity, a fantasy of intimacy and love (a Hollywood fantasy, one might say) that most viewers have largely bought into, and both of them are subject to intense panic and retreat and even violence when that fragile fantasy begins to collapse. Of course, to make things even more complex, as complex as they are, it is not unheard of for human beings to formulate for themselves some ideal goal, and invest so heavily in its achievement and what they expect from it, that they insure that they cannot achieve it. Practical contradictions like this are the natural home of “real” contradictions. Some of the intensity and overwrought investment in what they expect from being in love is framed by the fact that both live “inside” the movie world and its fantasies. Some of this resonates with Cavell’s themes in another, even deeper way. If it is true that Dix and Laurel have jointly formulated a kind of goal that insures they will fail, then that failure means they have also achieved a form of self-protection, and can in that sense (Cavell’s “avoidance” sense) be said to have intended to fail. That an agent can be doomed, can doom himself, by what he does to escape doom, is the stuff of tragedy both ancient and modern.37
The film builds to a conclusion in a powerful scene, full of undercurrents and double-meaning. Dix, sensing that Laurel is drawing away (she cannot sleep, has been taking pills) suddenly proposes marriage, and this in a manic, impatient way that contrasts all the more with Laurel’s sleeping-pill haze and her own clear hesitations. Bogart gives as powerful a performance here as he ever did, suggesting by the business of his action, and his air of unease, and the pace of his speech, that he knows everything is falling apart, and that he is simply refusing to see it, wants instead to push forward before it is too late. (As you will see, he is trying to “straighten out” something already crooked.) Laurel, for her part, enacts a Cavellian theme, but in a slightly different register. She has not “let herself be known” by Dix, let herself matter to him, but this is because she doesn’t know what she should reveal or how. Her lack of self-knowledge, which we saw when she spouted her pieties about domesticity, is on view here, as she seems unable to look into one mirror, and then, as if to make the point again, she turns to another mirror, and again fails to see her reflection (all of course an echo of the opening credits). And Dix enacts the domesticity she says she wants, but, as you’ll see, clumsily. Here is the scene. The irony of Dix’s description of their own love scene, that it is like his movie script, is true but (a) that also means it is posed, that just as in a fiction film, it is staged by both of them as they both suspect things have fallen apart, and (b) ironic because there is actually no real love anymore. The irrelevance of what they simply “tell” each other is also a point made, but is has a different meaning than the one Dix intends. Bogart has never been better, as, when he sits on the couch for breakfast and Laurel comes toward him, the fleeting expressions on his face register at once what he knows, but what he also will not admit.
Clip 8. Kitchen
This all serves as prelude for Dix’s final, violent attack on Laurel, interrupted by a phone call that will announce he is cleared. Ray is willing to go very far in this scene to suggest that what has happened is not the result of mistakes, moral failures, correctable blindness. He stages the aftermath to suggest that their last nearly deadly physical encounter38 was also at the same time something like the last time they made love, suggesting too that the violence and the love are intertwined, given what we have seen of the complex demands—almost impossible demands—made on these lovers, and by these lovers.39 That intertwining is unmistakably and rather startlingly suggested by Laurel’s dishabille.
Clip 9. Finale
That closing line, “I lived a few weeks while you loved me,” brings together many of the themes of the movie and, appropriately, leaves a good deal unsettled. Laurel is quoting a line from Dix’s new movie, lines that Dix had already expressed as if a foreshadowing of the end of their own affair. (“I was born when she kissed me; I lived a few weeks while she loved me. I died when she left me.”) There is, first, genuine pathos in the line; they, Laurel especially, had missed their chance for “life.” There is, second, the fact that Laurel expresses herself in a line from a film, not her own words, and so that second level of reflectivity returns: the movie’s relation to the audience, its own genuineness or honesty, and so here the question of its quotability, or the meaning of Laurel’s use of it to express herself.40 (She sees herself in lines provided by a movie, and this could mean either that the movie script has captured something genuine, or that Laurel is as “real” as a character from a film.) Third, there is her alteration, changing the third person (she) to the first (me). Laurel seems to realize that Dix’s “leaving her” is as much a result of her distrust and that she is back where she began, a starlet with a shady past. Astonishingly, in her mind, Dix left her. (“I died when you left me,” would be the continuation); they did not break up—all an odd way to put it after what we have just seen.
Stanley Cavell has argued that skepticism about other minds, while an expression of uncertainty about another, is not properly skepticism in the philosophical sense, but tragedy, and that there is no human alternative to tragedy. I think Nicholas Ray would agree.
With respect to other minds it may seem that the problem is rather to break into another circle of experiences. But the main point is that the objects of external world skepticism do not have a perspective on what it is to be known. The question of their knowability has to be solved on the side of the knower alone, with no ‘confirmation’ from the side of the known object. The possibility of forms of skepticism both with respect to knowing an other mind (the “‘active skeptical recital”’) and with respect to being known by an other mind (the “‘passive skeptical recital”’), will turn out to be crucial for understanding the instabilities in the idea of an Outsider in other minds skepticism, and for understanding what may be distorting in seeing the problem of others as a problem of knowledge in the first place. (246)I discuss the implications of this distinction below.↑