by James Sanders
Adapted FOR MELISSA ERRICO from
by James Sanders (Knopf, 2001).
In his classic 1948 essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow was among the first critics to observe that urban crime films were not necessarily—at least in any obvious way—about the actual city at all:
The importance of the gangster film…cannot be measured in terms of the place of the gangster himself or the importance of the problem of crime in American life. Those European movie-goers who think there is a gangster on every corner in New York are certainly deceived, but defenders of the “positive” side of American culture are equally deceived if they think it is relevant to point out that most Americans have never seen a gangster. What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans…. For the gangster there is only the city…not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.
“The real city,” Warshow added, “produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster: he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” Just about the same time of Warshow’s essay, a new kind of urban “nighttown” had emerged, an unforgettable vision of urban alienation and decay that was not intended, in some sense, as a literal rendering of the city at all. It was a dark city of the mind, a place where outward troubles symbolized inward needs, where social breakdown revealed psychological distress—a filmic vision that used the city, in effect, to make tangible the profound interior conflicts of its characters.
The origins of this shadowy place can be traced to a celebrated group of low-budget, black-and-white Hollywood films that, even as Warshow was writing, were extending his “dangerous city of the imagination” beyond the singular figure of the gangster himself. These were dubbed “film noir” by a group of postwar French critics, among them Raymond Durgnat, who, after the liberation of France by the Allies, were at last able to view half a decade’s worth of American films previously denied them by the Nazi Occupation. Taking them in, all at once, the French recognized striking stylistic and thematic qualities among a series of “B” pictures that—typically released as the bottom half of a double-feature bill—had been little regarded in the United States, even by the studios that were making them. Centering on ordinary city-dwellers trapped in a grim web of passion, betrayal, and murder, noir films carried a distinctly urban flavor, evident in names such as Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Cry of the City (1948), Scarlet Street (1945), The Dark Corner (1946)—or, in one writer’s words, “any movie with City, Night, or Street in its title,”—and the city in which they took place (if named at all) was likely to be New York.
Some noir films were shot on location. But it was those pictures shot in the studio that created what the writers Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg call “the specific ambience of film noir”— a dismal yet somehow alluring imagery of neon signs and rainswept streets that has turned out to one of the most enduring cinematic visions of the city:
A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour. Lamps form haloes in the murk. In a walk-up, a man is waiting to murder or be murdered…. here is a world where it is always night, always foggy or wet, filled with gunshots and sobs, where men wear turned down brims on their hats and women loom in fur coats, guns thrust deep into pockets.
Produced for the most part on miniscule budgets, noir films (like the gangster films before them) relied heavily on the studio’s inventory of permanent sets—the extensive backlot constructions known in Hollywood as “New York Street”—but they jettisoned the upscale nightclubs and hotels of gangster films to focus almost exclusively on the seedier side of city life: cheap rooming houses, drab lunch counters, anonymous sidestreets, now given a strange and alienating character through slanted camera angles, unbalanced composition, and shadowy lighting—the stylistic hallmarks of the genre. “The set itself,” in Michael Wood’s words, “fell under suspicion.”
The effect, in these films, is startling. The same backlot blocks that had once suggested a compact and comprehensible city neighborhood now came to feel, in Foster Hirsch’s words, “airless and claustrophobic…a dark, urban world of neurotic entrapment,” the ideal setting for “stories of obsession and confinement in which the world begins small and then progressively closes down.” Revealingly, this sense of menacing enclosure had nothing to do with the kinds of social concerns about density and congestion evidenced in Hollywood’s tenement-set films of the late 1930s (such as 1937’s Dead End or 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces); noir films were not set in slums, but ordinary middle-class streets, and offered no images of overcrowding. If anything, noir streets tended to be strangely empty of people; it was the implicit feeling of confinement in their built-up walls and closed-down vistas that seemed so suffocating.
In the context of American cities that were still, in the late 1940s, overwhelmingly prosperous and secure, noir’s “nightmarish world,” as the film scholar and director Paul Schrader observed in his 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir,” could seem “far more of a creation than a reflection.” In retrospect, it is obvious that noir films were capturing not so much the existing urban reality of the early postwar era as an emerging attitude about the city—an incipient claustrophobia felt by many city dwellers as the suburbs began to beckon. Beneath it, too, was a new fear of urban density itself, understandable enough in the aftermath of the strategic bombing campaigns intended to devastate the urban industrial centers of Europe and Japan, culminating in the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Planning was already underway for a network of federal “defense highways” (later known as the Interstate Highway System) that would help quickly disperse the nation’s population to low-density areas, thus offering a less inviting target to potential aggressors. Public agencies and private lenders, meanwhile, were busy skewing their mortgage and housing policies away from anything resembling traditional urban settings, in favor of suburban-style communities that not only offered a high degree of social homogeneity but, to put it bluntly, simply didn’t have all those dark old buildings and streets.
As New York was overwhelmed with an array of social problems in the decades following the 1950s, the noir films themselves would fall out of fashion, but the feeling of the noir city would continue to resonate in a new and even darker city of the imagination, in films such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Klute (1971), and Taxi Driver (1976), all the more powerful for being filmed not in the studio but on real locations, not the confined, claustrophobic city of the backlot but a dark and alienated vision of the real city, permeated by decay, corruption, and above all, disconnection.
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James Sanders is an architect, author, and filmmaker in New York City, whose work
has garnered him a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Emmy Award.