I was born when she kissed me.
I died when she left me.
I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
If you’re a noir fan, you may recognize these lines, spoken by Humphrey Bogart’s character Dixon Steele in 1950’s In a Lonely Place, directed by co-star Gloria Grahame’s then-husband Nicholas Ray. These are the lines I’ve chosen for The Flapper Dame’s Classic Quote Blogathon.
Dixon is an angry, violent screenwriter who finds respite from his worst tendencies, for a time, with neighbor-turned-lover Laurel Gray (Grahame). She’s a tough cookie herself, but falls hard for the older man (24 years between the actors) and enjoys the change she seems to make in his demeanor. When Dixon recites the lines above, they are driving in his car and the words are for his current script project. He thinks they may be the best he has ever written. If not the best, we as viewers know they certainly speak the truth about his relationship with Laurel. He does seem a new man, reborn when they began their relationship. We wonder if he will survive if she goes. But his wild temper and possessiveness may indeed result in loss of her, and it will be his own fault. Thus, when Dixon asks Laurel to repeat the lines back to him, she does so, quietly, and stops after the second, seeming not to remember — or not be willing to say — the third. The guilt of responsibility for Dixon’s well being is a heavy burden she should not have to bear.
The more immediate context of these memorable lines is as important as their general reflection of the characters’ relationship. Dixon has just run out in anger from a dinner party in which he learned his friends have been talking about him behind is back. Laurel follows and he drives off, recklessly, and, when he runs a high-school football star off the road, he blames the kid wrongly and beats him almost to death. Only Laurel crying out stops Dixon from crushing the boy’s skull with a boulder. It is this moment that leads Dixon to his sudden revelation of the best lines he has ever written. The lines are pivotal for both characters: Laurel knows she cannot control Dixon, and Dixon knows he cannot control himself without her.
The macabre content and context of this famous quotation is pure noir. Though In a Lonely Place comes late in the cycle and may say as more about Grahame and Ray’s marriage than it does about the subjects of love and violence more generally, I find the lines haunting and the film more darkly compelling because of them.