Black and white proof of city life's ugliness

Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity
March 4, 2005

That film noir should have gone to Europe for its christening says much about its ambiguous place in the Hollywood canon. Indeed, the atmosphere of noir is on the surface hardly characteristic of how America likes to present itself: it is a cinema of fatalism, worry and paralysis, the "can't do" mentality.

But American it is all the same, and while noir would not have generated such a resonance abroad if the problems it posed did not touch the universal, Edward Dimendberg's aim in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity is to show how closely film noir is associated with 20th-century American urban experience. As Dimendberg puts it, "film noir remains unique for its engagement with urban subject matter more often encountered in architectural histories than in Hollywood narrative film". He shows with lucidity and persuasiveness how throughout its life, loosely 1941 to 1959, noir and its doomed heroes provided a filmic map of a period of disconcerting change.

This broadens the traditional defining characteristics of film noir, summarised by Paul Schrader in 1971 as war and postwar disillusionment; the influence of realism; the inspiration of German Expressionist cinema; and the hard-boiled crime thriller tradition typified by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. To this we might add annihilation anxiety after the nuclear detonations in Japan in 1945, which left obvious traces in films such as Kiss Me Deadly.

For Dimendberg, though, the anxiety suffered by the noir hero derives less from the experience of the Second World War than from what the war brought in its wake. "Post-1939 mutations in the built environment of the American city," he writes, "also entailed a 'massive disruption of traditional forms of memory' and the attendant experiences of loss and displacement that produce a sense of being an exile at home." And: "No longer romanticised as a fantasy domain of speed, dynamic machine production... or technological precision, as in the early modernist projects of the Futurists or Le Corbusier, the post-1939 city was rendered by many artists, social critics and film-makers as a coldhearted and treacherous mechanism more likely to provoke fear than awe."

The strangeness of the new and uncertainty of the future caused the thoughts of noir heroes to turn towards the past. "Nostalgia and longing for older urban forms combined with a fear of new alienating urban realities pervade film noir. The loss of public space, the homogenisation of everyday life, the intensification of surveillance, and the eradication of older neighborhoods by urban renewal and redevelopment projects are seldom absent from these films... Unlike the contemporaneous conquests of the big sky and the open frontier by characters in the film genre of the western, the protagonists in film noir appear cursed by an inability to dwell comfortably anywhere."

Dimendberg rallies a handful of pivotal films - Street of Chance , Plunder Road , The Killer's Kiss , Thieves' Highway - to illustrate his case. He also stresses the shift during the period of noir from centripetal to centrifugal space, with their tendencies towards concentration and dispersal (the theories of freeway guru Norman Bel Geddes are crucial here). This brought for the noir hero a new set of anxieties to replace the old: fear of constriction and disorientation giving way to anxiety generated by a spatial habitat devoid of landmarks.

All in all, Dimendberg's book is a fascinating memorial to a film genre and a lost America. It should prove as durable as the urban sites it discusses turned out not to be.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on film and music.

Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity

Author - Edward Dimendberg
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 3
Price - £38.95 and £16.95
ISBN - 0 674 01314 X and 01346 8

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