14 DIXON STEELE
In A Lonely Place, 1950, USA, Director Nicholas Ray
You’re asking me if I can talk about Dixon Steele? I’m Mel Lippman. I was an almost famous Hollywood agent. Actually I was famous although it never felt like that. I made telephone calls, met people, attended meetings and pitched for my writers. All day and every day I did nothing but talk. I talked and talked and I’m talking now. Listen, Dixon Steele had talent but he was never the same man after the war. The man that came back from the unholy scrap in Japan was different and, I have to say, he had a much expanded notion of his own importance.
The movie scripts of Dixon Steele were always quality, right until the end. But tastes change, and after the war Dix took himself a little more seriously. He was more than intolerant. He was antagonistic. Dix was paid to turn books into film scripts but our hero was more interested in the stories he wanted to tell. What he missed about the war was the heroism. That’s my opinion. The scripts Dix produced were nothing like the books he was given to work on. Somehow, though, he always made a living. He lived in West Hollywood, in a fine old Spanish style building that had gorgeous pink walls. The tall palm trees outside had these large bright green leaves that brushed against the red stone tiles of the sloping roofs. I know. I should have been a writer, though, maybe not.
People were wary of Dix but he was liked. On a good night in his company there was nowhere else in the world you would rather be. Some said he was moody but it was more how he reacted to moments. The man did not like his authority to be challenged. After being a captain in the war he felt entitled to give orders. Dix was not the only writer that liked to lash out or drank more than he should. That was the tradition back then. But most writers settled for caustic wit and they were at least predictable. You felt the lash of their tongues and learned what not to say. Dix was as caustic as the rest but on a bad night he would explode and someone might have to go to hospital. Fortunately he worked in Hollywood, and the next day and after the best medical treatment it would be forgotten. The 50s in Hollywood were not good. It’s a coincidence but as television became popular Dixon Steele ran out of movie hits. We all suffered a little but Dix also had a war to remember. The business with Mildred Dickinson, though, was bad. And none of that would have happened if Dix had done what he was paid to do which was to sit down with the damned book and read it. Instead, Dix had to pick up Mildred and take her home so she could tell him all about the book. I blame myself. I lent Mildred the book. I had no idea she would read it, a hat check girl. Don’t ask me the title of the book. After what happened I refuse to mention it. The movie was a hit, though. Lousy but a hit, like the book.
On her way home from where Dix lived poor Mildred Atkinson was killed, thrown out of a car and on to the freeway. I always had a feeling that the cops would have liked the killer to be the guy that killed the Black Dahlia dame. Bill Parker the LAPD Commissioner had a thirst for publicity. Something must have put them in a bad mood because they went after Dix. That was a bad time for Dix. He had the war to think about and he was a murder suspect. I keep mentioning the war. He knew he was innocent, and so did I. I’ll be honest. A couple of times I had doubts. Dix had murdered Japs in the war, there I go again, and he was always ready for a fight. If he hadn’t been capable of killing then the police wouldn’t have got to him and Laurel. But violence, contempt and hatred for others Dixon Steele had in spades. He used to say to me, ‘Mel, folks are as awful as me. I don’t like myself and I sure as hell don’t like the rest.’ Among screenwriters this was not a feeling unique to Dixon Steele.
I liked Laurel although I was as nervous of Laurel Gray as I was wary of Dixon Steele. That masseuse she had in tow gave me the creeps. Laurel went to New York after she finished with Dix. I drove Laurel to the airport but the damned masseuse was on the back seat all the way talking about how the last thing sweet Laurel needed was another man in her life. This masseuse was not a lady you wanted to meet on a dark night. There was a European guy whose name I can’t remember. He wanted to write a script for a Wagner opera. Can you imagine? There was a rumour that Sam Goldwyn thought about the idea for at least ten minutes. If they ever do make a movie of The Ring, this masseuse will be the first name on the cast list. I can guarantee.
Laurel had an apartment in the same building as Dix. They met in the courtyard the same night Dix was taking home Mildred. The courtyard was a pleasant place to sit. It had shrubs and potted cactus plants and an art deco fountain. I liked going to those apartments. Not that I had much choice. I had to hang around. Worrying about Dixon Steele and deadlines was how I earned my salary.
We were all restless that autumn in 1950. I remember there being a humdinger of a Santa Ana wind. Those things are so humid they exhaust you. The Santa Ana and the murder of Mildred made everyone edgy. And for Dix that meant him lashing out at whoever was in reach. One way he got things out of his system was driving like a maniac. The hero complex again, you see. No, I’m not going to mention where he got it. Dix had more than one stand-up row with other drivers. One ended with Dix slugging this gridiron guy. Laurel was in the car and saw everything. After that particular incident Laurel doubted Dix not just as a potential husband but suspected that maybe he really had choked Mildred to death and thrown her out on the freeway. Laurel became cold to Dix. There were no more shared dishes of guacamole and glasses of white wine after that. And the last thing a girl should do if Dixon Steele is in love with her is ease off on the emotions. Dixon can smell mistrust a mile off. I suppose he sharpened the instinct in the war. I know, I’ve mentioned it again.
Everybody asks me what happened to Dixon Steele after Laurel headed out to New York. He was distraught, especially so because Dix knew he was to blame. But as time passed Dix told himself things would have been different if poor Mildred had not been killed, and by her boyfriend would you believe. A good looking guy, too. Knowing that helped, and after the damned Santa Ana wind blew away everyone settled. The cops gave Dix a rough ride but even without the cops Dix and Laurel wouldn’t have lasted. At some point Dix would have forgotten himself and Laurel would have headed for the exit. The last I heard Laurel was living with the damned masseuse. Do I think Laurel was bisexual? There had to be something about that Valkyrie that interested Laurel.
Dixon Steele lasted another four years in Hollywood. None of his other scripts made the big time, and nobody expected that they would. Dix was a reduced proposition, and one of my meal tickets was clipped. I did what I could. I brought in a private eye to help Dix stay focussed and to keep him out of fights. The private eye was called Marlowe and he had a way with words that not only stopped the fights but Dix liked. The problem was that Dix and Marlowe would spend most of the day drinking bourbon and discussing what was wrong with the world and Los Angeles. Marlowe left because he knew he was drinking too much, and I brought in another guy called Jake Gittes. Not a success, I’m afraid. Gittes was as capable of starting fights as Dix. The inevitable happened. They slung punches at one another, an argument about Noah Cross or someone. It was a shame because Dix liked private eyes. He once went up to Bridgeport to research this thing where a private eye called Markham was supposed to have killed four people. Dix came up with a script but by then no one was watching movies about private eyes. I told Dix we should try television, and we did but it came to nothing.
I never saw Dix again after he went over to Ireland to polish some script about the Republican Army. That was the last work he ever did for Hollywood. Dix liked Ireland. He said it soothed him. Dix settled in the village where Ford had filmed The Quiet Man with Duke Wayne. From what I heard Dix kept out of fights. Dix stopped drinking bourbon, switched to Guinness and became fat but nothing like the masseuse that had the hold over Laurel. I expected him to find a nice Irish girl but he never did. I wonder if it was something about the Irish brogue that stopped Dix looking for fights. Or maybe he just got old like the rest of us. I heard he wrote a couple of scripts for BBC television. I hope they appreciated him. The man could write. I was just pleased he had taken his typewriter.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.