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Essays (book reviews)

Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity
by Edward Dimendberg
(Harvard University Press, 2004, 327 pages)

 


The quickest way to gauge the novelty of this splendid, groundbreaking book on film noir is to flip the pages and scan its illustrative photographs. No immortal narrative moments of death, betrayal or seduction. No The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Touch of Evil (1958). No Rita Hayworth or Robert Mitchum – in fact, almost no people at all. Instead: undramatic street corners, traffic signs, painted markings on highways; desultory crowds, banal traffic jams, and drab vignettes of cops learning about the latest (in the ‘40s or ‘50s) surveillance techniques.

 

Is it possible to write another book, another article, another word on film noir – a genre that has been star-spangled to death for around four decades by its fans, anthologists and scholars? Is there anything we don’t already know about film noir’s gender relations, its murky psycho-sexuality, its visual iconography, the historical context of post-war society, the morality or otherwise of hardboiled screen violence, the influence of the collected literary works of Hammett-Chandler-Woolrich – or, indeed, how very problematic it is to even call this genre a genre?

 

To be fair, good work within all these areas of the topic keeps appearing, and should be applauded. During the early years of this ew century, James Naremore’s More Than Night blazed a number of innovative trails simultaneously, while another cab off the rank, Volume 4 of Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Reader, mines new insights and unearths some not-usual suspects for its contributor list. And on the archival side, the long-overdue English-language edition of Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s seminal 1955 survey A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953 (introduced by Naremore and translated by Surrealist specialist Paul Hammond) seemed positively uncanny in the light of present-day speculations.

 

It is probably true to say that the surge of life in film noir studies comes less from developments internal to cinema theory (which is going through a slack time in the Anglo-American academy), and more from the interdisciplinary encounter of film interests with the octopus-like probings of cultural studies – including its postmodern arm, since neo-noir is, for good and for ill, such a perfect paradigm of postmodern culture.

 

But Ed Dimendberg’s project – while broadly partaking in the noir-meets-cultural-studies movement – is something altogether special and specific. Rather scarily – at least for an old-school cinephile like me – Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity waves away at the outset the moves of what it calls ‘genre or mise en scène criticism’ (p. 8). Equally, it’s not about auteurs – so it’s not the sort of project book that sets out to rehabilitate Robert Siodmak (although that’s a book we still need). And it studiously refuses the slightest value judgement that might distinguish major from minor exemplars of the genre. In fact, not its least achievement is to make Hubert Cornfield’s Plunder Road (1957) – not Thunder Road (1958), and as such previously unknown to me – seem like the most wildly exciting film of the 1950s.

 

Dimendberg draws his intellectual resources from a particular branch of materialist cultural studies: urbanism. He is interested not only in the changing facades of big city buildings, but in the suburban sprawl, and the traffic networks that facilitate movements of people and goods. He shares with the many admirers of Walter Benjamin a fascination with the elusive, transformative moment of modernity – seen as an entire restructuring of society rather than simply as that change-over in the arts known as modernism (although the book has some insightful things to say about that as well, for instance in relation to Giacometti’s sculpture). However, contrary to the more high-flying, intellectually bridge-burning proponents of cultural studies, Dimendberg is keen to retain and integrate the established wisdom of sociology and related disciplines.

 

What is this book about? It sets off, rather unfashionably, in search of the ‘lived experience’ that Nino Frank wrote about in one of the very earliest essays on film noir, and the ‘physical reality’ which Siegfried Kracauer (a greater star, in these pages, than John Garfield or Barbara Stanwyck) believed that cinema could redeem. As Dimendberg suggests, the trick is to ‘refuse sharp distinctions between figure and ground, content and context’ (p. 7) – which means, in practice, forgetting boring stuff like characters and plots and intended existential themes, and looking instead at the material environment as revealed by buildings, streets, roadways, landmarks and ‘passages’ of all kinds.

 

The central idea of Dimendberg’s book is the slow, difficult crossover between the era when urban space is experienced as centripetal - everything centring in a walkable city district – and the following era when it becomes centrifugal, defined by the ‘urban sprawl’. Film noir depends, for much of its fear-and-desire allure, on the romantic notion of the tightly concentrated, urban space, recognisable in all its particulars to those hot-shots (cops or criminals) in the know – which was already quickly becoming a nostalgic idea even as the classic films noir were being shot, as Dimendberg well shows. As the well-loved landmarks get torn down and highways start to scatter and circulate the elements of industrial society, a different kind of anxiety begins to permeate the genre: the social monster of seriality or mass-produced sameness (chiming in, as it happens, with the disquiet of many artists and intellectuals in the face of mass or popular culture).

 

I will mention only one particular film analysis out of the half-dozen or so close-readings offered by the book – all of them refreshingly novel views of sometimes very well-known texts such as Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) and Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955). Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) provides for Dimendberg ‘numerous suggestions about the twentieth-century urban trace and its culture of metropolitan spectacularity’ (pp. 30-1). The key element in his analysis is the hat seen in the first shot, ‘a metonymic fragment allowing the body to be located in urban space’, and hence an ‘object of surveillance’ that represents the ‘incessant struggle between perceptual indifference and engaged cognition’ (p. 31). Is this just cultural-studies-speak – or a pretentious way of describing something everyday and commonsensical (a smart hat on a gorgeous girl) – projected onto any old film noir?

 

Definitely not: for the narrative and thematic dynamics of Phantom Lady, as Dimendberg proves beyond doubt, involve conjuring a urban world in which both the ‘typical’ ordinary person (blending into the anonymous, serialised flow) and the mediatised image of the ‘the star’ rub shoulders with the threatening ‘stranger [who] evades notice’ (p. 32). Surveillance – and the fraught, easily manipulated business of identification – is at the core of this movie with its incessant mirror images (at last uncoupled from the old lit-crit standby of ‘dual personality’ or the 1970s feminist theory of screen-voyeurism), just as it permeates the forensic-detective fictions and TV documentaries of today. And all of that is caught in the film’s continual play of hats. This is the kind of analysis that makes you lift your head from the page and wonder: why didn’t I ever see Phantom Lady in these terms before?

 

Some will surely see a kinship between Dimendberg’s book and Thom Andersen’s video-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). But where that somewhat overrated work clings to a rather dreary notion of the material city that has been stolen, mugged and thrown off a skyscraper by the Big Bad Movies (and redeemed by the small, true, authentic ones), Dimendberg is more than willing (following the lead of theorist Henri Lefebvre) to locate the historic effects of urbanism in constructions that are just as imaginary (fictive, psychic, poetic, virtual) as they are real, set in steel or concrete. He is also keen to displace Los Angeles or New York from the centre of our understanding of the built environment, as well as of film noir itself – for him, a greater and more generalised transformation is at stake than the soiling of the mythical image of one or two great American cities.

 

If I have one very small criticism of this tremendous book, it relates to the slight terminological wooliness that Dimendberg inherits from even the best exemplars of contemporary cultural studies. This is a field of analysis that loves its ‘tensions’, its ‘hybrids’, its ‘shifting borders’, its ‘overlaps’: what I would call the language of the in-between. No matter where we are in time or space in this book, we find ourselves, in Dimendberg’s analysis, situated at a mysterious crossroads (or palimpsest, as he likes to say) of past and present, inwards and outwards, retro and modern, nightmarish and utopian. (In this, his book is something of a sequel to Dana Polan’s important and seminal 1986 study Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative and the American Cinema.) Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity begins with what seems to be a clear demarcation, a ‘break’ in historical time and social modes – from centripetal to centrifugal – and then has to keep strenuously explaining why there is in fact no definitive break, only an ongoing and ever-shifting ‘tension’ between these two formations. Which may indeed to be a decent account of how social processes actually work – i.e., messily – but at moments it can seem as if the necessary fluidity of the theoretical ideas is disguising a certain wishy-washiness of argumentation.

 

Similarly, Dimendberg opposes, to the standard protocols of film analysis, the ‘negotiation between creators, shared conventions, and social practices manifested in all cultural production’ – insights which, as he sternly but rightly claims, ‘with few significant exceptions, cinema historians have been slow to incorporate’ (p. 12). But there is still for me, a nagging discrepancy between those somewhat ominous and largely anonymous ‘social practices’ and the day-to-day, on-the-ground decisions made by the humble ‘creators’ of film noir. Just how, finally, did this genre, alone of the popular Hollywood genres, come to so unerringly picture an urban landscape in transition? What was the exact work-process and thought-process of (for instance) the location scouts employed by movie studios? Just how aware were directors like Kubrick, Hathaway, Huston and Polonsky, or their talented scriptwriters, of the real-world significance of the urban spots they used as pictorial backdrops to their narrative action?

 

I cannot really fault Dimendberg for the failure to answer all these intriguing questions within the 327 tightly-woven pages of his book. But I do hope others will subsequently try to build bridges between his invaluable urbanist perspective and the sorts of closely researched, fine-grain production histories (or ‘genetic criticism’) now entering the domain of cinema studies, as in the work of Janet Bergstrom on Murnau and Bill Krohn on Hitchcock.

 

None the less, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity is a book that – as I can vividly attest – completely changes the way you view movies. And not just noir movies. While reading it, I saw (quite by chance) Michael Mann’s Collateral and the teen-action-thriller Cellular. It is easy (indeed, routine) for critics to praise the former as a mythic, hyper-stylised, neo-noir story of men in conflict - played out, of course, against the ‘stunning backdrop’ of Los Angeles – and to deride the latter as a dopey, MTV-derived spectacle. But – making all due allowances for the huge shift between the postwar historical context that Dimendberg delineates and today’s pop-blockbuster culture – both these films in fact reflect intriguing aspects of urban experience and its ongoing transformations.

 

Collateral – predictably faulted in Cinema Scope magazine by the auteur of Los Angeles Plays Itself for its taking of geographical license – turns out to be a remarkable essay on ‘the twentieth-century urban trace and its culture of metropolitan spectacularity’. It begins at a point when the centrifugal impetus of modernity has well and truly triumphed. This Los Angeles is a city without a centre, a place of constant flight and disconnection. It is also – and this is typical of Mann’s work – a transparent, ‘overexposed’ city (to use a term dear to urban theorist Paul Virilio), everywhere filled with huge planes of glass and audiovisual screens.

 

In this urban space, individual identity is reduced to a fleeting trace – the meeting of a name, a number and an image somewhere on a surveillance monitor or in a computer databank. Much of the film hinges on the effort of police to pin down the identity of the killer stalking their city – an effort easily misled when cabdriver Max (Jamie Foxx) is forced to pretend he is hired killer Vince (Tom Cruise).

 

But Mann is also able to find the secret intrigues lurking inside this serial city. When everything looks exactly the same, anonymous and featureless, two options present themselves. Bad guys like Vince can pass off their nefarious acts under the cloak of urban anonymity (as in the superb opening airport scene). And good guys like Max can learn how to read and play the city – skills he displays in everything from his ability to perfectly predict travelling times to his flair for guessing the social type that any random person is.

 

Indeed, the extremely systematic final shots of the film show Vince overwhelmed by the very instance of seriality he has himself earlier described (no one notices a dead man on a train), while Max hits the road on foot. Ultimately, as a noir drama, Collateral is less a story of crime or morality than a portrait of the diverse ways in which citizens ‘work’ their city.

 

Cellular is far less artful film than Collateral, but no less intriguing from an urbanist viewpoint. Its central object – the cell phone (or, as it is called in places including Australia and Greece, the mobile phone) – manages to effortlessly evoke the spectre of seriality (one hilarious shot shows every single person in a public leisure spot nattering into their ‘cells’) while carving out a thrillingly centripetal space within the urban sprawl – the geographical, broadcasting range within which such phones can still be deployed as a communications tool – that focuses, defines and resolves its various, dispersed lines of action. In fact, I sense that the entire genre of contemporary action cinema could be illuminated anew by the judicious application of Dimendberg’s theses.

 

Believe me, even the last few Spielberg movies, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, start to seem interesting – fascinating, even – when read through the lens of Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, which is quite an achievement! The desperate drive of Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the former is to be a ‘somebody’, to represent (however fraudulently) that vanishing species of the individual in a world defined by incessant centrifugality (global air travel) and obsessive seriality (everyone looks the same, dresses the same, lives in rows of identical housing … ); while Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) in the latter benefits from a cosily centripetal fantasy of the American Way of Life, everything (a neighbourhood, a shopping mall, law-and-order institutions) concentrated in the handy space of an airport.

 

This is the sort of rumination that Ed Dimendberg’s book – one of the most outstanding publications in film studies over the past five years – opens up, well beyond the strict confines of its own, chosen topic. And any book that can help to reveal in Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal – films which I, like many, had hitherto dismissed as the usual Spielbergian sentimental slop – such vivid evidence of the ‘negotiation between creators, shared conventions, and social practices’, has to rate as a major achievement of intellectual re-vision.

 

© Adrian Martin January 2005


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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