One of the strands we are developing for the 2019 Festival of the Future City is a short season looking at the depiction of the city in film noir. This blog provides an outline of what constitutes a film noir and what such films can tell us about urban living.
(Publicity still: The hunt for Fabian from Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, 1950)
Film noir: an overview
French critic Nino Frank was among the first to use the term ‘film noir’ to describe a certain style of Hollywood movie. This was in his article ‘Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle’ (‘A new police genre: the criminal adventure’), which was published in the magazine L’écran français in 1946. ‘Film noir’ became more widely used from the 1970s onwards. It is usually applied to films made in the 1940s and 50s, with later works that replicate or reinterpret some of the noir elements being known as neo-noir.
In Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (1955) – the first book to attempt to identify and catalogue film noirs – the authors refer to the difficulty of fixing upon a definition. Most film noirs are crime stories, but they also include gothic romances, heightened melodramas and gritty films addressing social problems. Film noir is not a genre but more of a mood or an atmosphere conveyed through plot, character and visuals.
A film noir may contain some or all of the following:
- A traumatised male protagonist (a demobbed soldier, an aging boxer, a disillusioned crook) undergoing some kind of moral dilemma.
- A world-weary professional investigator (a private eye, a police detective) whose search – often of a missing person – draws him into a disorientating web of deceit that challenges his integrity.
- A femme fatale – beautiful, duplicitous, erotic, amoral – set up as a contrast to a good, homely, supportive female figure and usually punished for her transgressions.
- A crooked politician, a shady DA, a brutal cop and other untrustworthy authority figures.
- A collection of memorable small-part characters: neurotic, wisecracking, grotesque, raddled, deranged, sleazy, eccentric.
- Visually dark, oppressive scenes of high-contrast lighting and deep shadows including the dramatic use of the cage-like stripes created by slatted window blinds.
- Asymmetrical and unbalanced compositions within frames including the use of extreme camera angles and mirrored reflections.
- Labyrinthine plots involving multiple flashbacks, surreal dream sequences (often caused by a blow to the head or the injection of drugs) and unreliable narrators.
- Snatches of snappy, funny dialogue interspersed with eloquent ruminations of jaded cynicism.
- A pessimistic view of humanity and a downbeat ending.
Among directors associated with American film noir are emigres such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmark. They brought a European sensibility to their vision of the USA during and after the Second World War, evoking German expressionism, French existentialism and Freudian psychoanalysis.
Many stories were adapted from pulp fiction as well as from more highly regarded hard-boiled crime novels by the likes of James M Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornel Woolrich. The photographs of Weegee and the paintings of Edward Hopper are among visual influences drawn from other cultural forms.
The majority of film noirs were originally made as B movies – destined to be the low-budget second feature on a double bill – that only retrospectively gained critical acclaim and the recognition of artistic merit. According to the website American Film Noir, the most prolific of the individual film noir studios between 1940 and 1956 was RKO closely followed by Warner Bros. However, almost 40 per cent of the films were made by independent producers.
Film noir in the city
Most films identified – however loosely – as noir, have a modern urban setting. This is not necessarily a city – it could be a small town – but a large city offers a particularly potent combination of the alienation, paranoia, chaos, fear, corruption, greed, social division and loneliness that lie on the other side of the American dream.
A familiar noir scene takes place on a rain-slicked city street at night. Flickering neon is reflected in oily puddles; the roar of a passing car competes with discordant music blaring through the swinging door of a basement club; and a hunched, trench-coated figure waits in a darkened doorway. The scene might have been shot on location but was more likely to have been filmed on a studio backlot. The constraints of budget and time inspired innovative creative solutions by which to generate the necessary ambiance.
The image of the city in film noir is largely a negative one with a sense that any glamour, excitement or cultural sophistication on offer are for the powerful few. For the protagonist the city is an ambivalent place of menace and mental unravelling.
Among city-themed topics to be addressed in relation to film noir are:
- The architecture of the city – how buildings and interiors shape the narrative and the mood.
- The iconography of the city and its meaning – including the use of signage, lights, fire escapes, hydrants, vending machines, telephone booths and other street furniture.
- The geographic, moral and social divisions of the city – contrasting uptown: downtown; Inner city: suburb; the avenue: the alley; densely packed streets: open-spaces; built-up areas: derelict areas; the land: the waterfront; the luxury penthouse apartment: the seedy rooming house; the high-class restaurant: the diner; the crowd: the individual.
- The sounds of the city.
- Travelling through the city – the automobile and the subway train.
- Comparison of the real city and the city of the imagination: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York.
- Comparison of the images of the American and of the European city.
- The role of women in the city.
The following provides a short selection of film noirs notable for their depiction of a city. The list includes some non-American films and one particularly important neo-noir.
Murder, My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk) An adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, the film stars Dick Powell – previously best known as a romantic lead in musicals – as the Los Angeles-based private detective Philip Marlowe who investigates the entangled cases of a released prisoner’s missing girlfriend and the stolen necklace of a wealthy collector’s seductive second wife.
Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder) Described by the BFI as the ‘noirest’ noir, this film – adapted from a James M Cain novel – includes several location shots of Los Angeles (Wilder said he wanted the look of a newsreel for added realism) as insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) tells the story of how Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) ensnared him in a scheme to murder her husband.
Publicity still: Phyllis and Walter with Dietrichson’s body on the railway track
The Phantom Lady (1944, Robert Siodmark) Set in New York, this is the story of a frenetic search through the city to find the elusive woman who could provide the alibi needed by an innocent man imprisoned for the murder of his wife.
Publicity still: Carol follows the barman to the elevated train station
The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin) A police procedural filmed on location in New York in which homicide detective (Barry Fitzgerald) investigates the murder of a model.
Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky) An unethical lawyer, Joe Morse (John Garfield), works for a crooked client who seeks to consolidate the New York numbers racket by getting rid of rivals, who include Joe’s brother Leo.
Cry of the City (1948, Robert Siodmark) Largely set in New York’s Little Italy, hardened criminal Martin Rome (Richard Conte) – a cop-killer – is pursued by police lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature), who grew up in the same neighbourhood.
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed) With a screenplay by Graham Greene, this journey through the shadowy, bomb-damaged, divided city of post-war Vienna finds writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) trying to solve the mystery of the death of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).
Publicity still: The pursuit of Lime through the streets at night
The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) Set in an unnamed mid-western city, this film tells the story of a successful million-dollar jewellery heist and the double-crosses, bad luck, police brutality, murder and suicide that follow.
Publicity still: Open space on the edge of the city
Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin) Small-time hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) attempts to become a big-time wrestling promoter in London but makes an enemy of the most powerful promoter in the city who puts a bounty on his head.
Publicity still: The alley by the nightclub
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, Otto Preminger) A violent New York detective, Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), who struggles to remain on the side of good, accidentally kills a man and attempts to evade suspicion in this New York-set film, which includes location footage of Times Square and Lower Manhattan.
Publicity still: Dixon at the rooming house
Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller) In this ‘Communist-scare’ film, a New York pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), unwittingly steals a microfilm containing top secret information and finds himself caught up in a sting operation led by government agents tracking down a spy network.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich) Adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane, this Los Angeles-set movie ends with an apocalyptic explosion as the ruthless private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) tracks down a gang dealing in stolen radioactive material.
Publicity still: Hammer in his car watching Lily Carver go up the stairs of her hotel
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/ Lift to the Scaffold/ Elevator to the Scaffold (1958, Louis Malle) An ex-Foreign Legion soldier, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), murders his mistress’ husband but is trapped when attempting to retrieve some incriminating evidence.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, Robert Wise) A racist ex-con (Robert Ryan) reluctantly teams up with a black jazz musician (Harry Belafonte) to pull a bank robbery in upstate New York masterminded by a bitter former cop.
Publicity still: Johnny at the nightclub
Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) stumbles across the corruption that comes with the expansion of Los Angeles, in particular the criminal control of the city’s water supply.
Publicity still: Gittes at the reservoir
Online sources of information on film noir
BFI News, Features and Opinion: ‘One great film noir for every year (1940-59)’
New York Times: Movies: ‘Right Out of Film Noir, a Shadowy New York’
Guardian: Film: Top 10 Film Noir