Film buffs and academics alike have argued for years over what exactly is or constitutes a film noir. Is it a style? A Genre? A specific narrative? Or location? Even a period of history? Good arguments have been made for all of these. This essay, however, will not be arguing about the parameters of noir, but rather will except the popular culture definition of Noir as a genre of film, represented by a specific style. Specifically, this essay will examine the use and portrayal of the city of New York in three iconic film noirs that both take place in New York and were heavily influenced by new Yorkers. The films are: Laura (1944) by Vera Caspary, Force of Evil (1948) featuring John Garfield, and The Naked City (1948) inspired by the photos of Weegee. All three show and use the city in a different way, yet all three are linked by the elements of noir, and that fact that when it comes down to it, as Cornelia Cody discusses in her essay on New York narratives, how this kind of story could only happen in New York City.
In many ways, American film began in New York City around the turn of the century, with silent shorts in parlors, so it only stands to reason that the city would continue to play a large role in American film. The city as a background has been used in all kinds of films, from D.W. Griffith’s shorts more as a means of convenience than intentional style,
to on location shooting in a musical such as On The Town (1949) or West Side Story (1961) to give it optimum authenticity,
or as a huge part of the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, using the city as a backdrop and a prop.
From the first backstage musical Applause (1927) to King Kong (1933), from the skyscrapers to the slums, the city has been popularized as a malevolent or benign monster.[i]
The city offers an escape, and anonymity, yet it is not always what it seams. It can either protect or betray us (as in Naked City) (16). It can inspire, as Martin Scorsese was inspired by Naked City to make Taxi Driver (1975), capturing and recreating the same city from noir films 30 years before.
For most filmmakers however, it’s not about creating an actually authentic portrayal. Its about creating what people will think is real, capturing the essence of a city. The vibe. This creation or recreation then becomes the basis for the identification of that place. Instead of saying I know New York because I have been there, we feel we know New York because we have seen it in films. We don’t need to visit it in person to feel like we know it, understand it, and are even a part of it. So that when we do visit that is what we expect to get (which may or may not happen).[ii] The filmmakers are relying on the audience’s imagination to fill in any gaps where necessary, and it is this play between the fantasy of the creators and the fantasies of the watchers that form the ever changing fantasy that makes up New York.[iii]
Like the portrait of Laura, it is the image that is at first so captivating and intriguing. It allows McPherson to imagine what Laura was like, and what it would be like to have her as his wife. When he finds out she is real, he recreates her out of the portrait Laura he has imagined and the real Laura he is getting to know personally. In this same way the filmmakers have created a portrait of New York City that is an exact replica made out of love, but it is brought to live by the imaginings of those who see it. These imaginings and fantasies are then blended with the original through personal experience narratives to recreate the city, based on wonderful illusions and the immediacy of real places and people, and from this we had acquired a taste of realism.[iv]
Cornelia Cody’s argument that people experience New York and then in retelling their personal experience narrative turn that story into a dramatic narrative structure initially seems too simple and obvious to be substantial (220). Yet through gathering these stories and studying how they are told, Cody begins to identify that essence of New York that both pulls people in and unites them into a collective of people with a shared experience. The experience that, whether you are a settler, a commuter, or full blown New Yorker, Cody identifies as surviving New York. By applying Cody’s theories of narrative to film noir in New York City, we can examine the story of the city within these noir films and how that story is being told. Instead of looking at how individuals retell their personal experience narratives into dramatic narrative structures, this essay will look at how individual New Yorkers involved in these films will put part of their personal narrative experience into the film, transforming the film into both a reflection and projection of New York. For as much as the city is a part of the films, the city and the individuals within it are simultaneously creating the world of the film as well as being an integral part of it.[v]
It is this aspect of performance that creates New York and New Yorkers, and film noir is only another more mainstream and wide reaching medium of performance. (219) This performance in conjunction with the city’s social and geographic situation, as well as its urban life, further creates an element of fantasy in the city that is not only always changing, but according to Cody is open to recreation. The recreation occurs in the performance of these fantasies, and one of the ways this is seen more clearly is in film noir. This fantasy then becomes part of the common imagination, no longer a fantasy but an actual part of the city, a representation that becomes real through the narratives of those who experience New York and share in that collective.
Yet if we accept this as the extent of the argument, then only new Yorkers would be able to experience what New York really is, the fantasy become reality. This is where film noir comes in. Through the cinematic medium that essentially creates these same fantasies through performance, all audiences who watch the noir films are put in the position of being a New Yorker, and vicariously experience New York, becoming part of the collective and adding to the common imagination. They go from being the listeners, to the tellers, for now they too, no matter their location, have a story about New York and feel that they have experienced something. This would explain how noir characteristics have become so famous and common in pop culture, constantly referenced in commercials, music videos, and public television. No explanation of noir or its tropes is necessary, even to children, as the genre has so pervaded the public imagination in just a few years.
Through its telling of the new York experience and its teaching of the ways of the city in the genre of noir, a film is effectively establishing and reaffirming itself as an insider of New York. This is crucial, for in order to believe that the world is real and authentic; the audience must feel that they are being told the true story of New York. Unlike other genres of film, where often the goal is that the viewer be unaware that they are watching a film, noir is self conscious and self-reflexive, using the audience as a mirror of the film itself and the characters within it. Noir draws attention to itself, and informs the audience what they are getting into. Noir films often begin with a voice over narration establishing the world or telling events that are significant to the audiences understanding, as seen in The Naked City, Laura, and Force of Evil.
In The Naked City, Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon and Jimmy Halloran try to catch Jean Dexter’s murderer, and in the process discover burglary, jewelry theft, set in urban New York City and filmed on location (107 locations) amidst the everyday lives of New Yorkers. The beginning opens with an extreme long and wide shot of the city, looking stark and barren, both enormous and small at the same time. A voice over starts, the narrator completely separate from the story; he is not a character, but omniscient, seeming almost to be the voice of the city. The narrator calls the audiences attention to the fact that we are watching a film, which results in a distance between the audience and the characters in the film. Though the distance is not so great that we are not engaged in the story. Opening of Naked City
On the contrary, the simply presentation of New York life in a gritty, unpolished way lends a realism to the film, clearly inspired by the photographs of Weegee. Instead of feeling as if we are brought into the world of The Naked City, we feel more that we are observing the story with the narrator, or looking at Weegee’s photos in a book, and that is this way we see into the depths and secrets of the city; that we too are omniscient and consequently getting the entirety of a true story. The authenticity created by the on location shooting and the use of actual New Yorkers as extras adds immensely to the films semi-documentary or noir documentary like realism, so the world created by the film is not entirely fantastical, but in fact entirely believable.
In Laura, the film begins with the audience being informed about Laura’s murder. We then learn about Laura, her friends, the suspects, and Det. Lt. Mark McPherson who is leading the investigation and seems to have a fascination with a portrait of Laura. He then discovers that Laura is not dead when she returns home, and the plot thickens as love, power, and fantasy rule the characters. In the opening voice, at first it seems to be an omniscient narrator like in Naked City, but then he (the voice) informs us that his name is Waldo Lydecker and moments later we are introduced to his character. Similar to in The Naked City, this voice over creates a private connection between Waldo and the audience, one that could only exist in a cinematic world.
The film is thus calling attention to itself, influencing how the audience views the film, their investment, their role and their level of participation in the film. Waldo establishes himself as the omniscient narrator, though as a character within the film we know that this is not actually possible. Yet throughout the rest of the film, though there are no more voice over’s, Waldo does serve in many ways as the story teller, constantly informing the other characters (and the film audience) of what they will do, or should do, and essentially how the story is going to play out.
Waldo needs this power and is desperate to keep it, and is thus threatened by McPherson, because whoever has Laura has all the power. Waldo is thus left with the only option of killing Laura in order to maintain his power and the hierarchy he has established and is constantly reinforcing through social and class references. The film is oddly and almost ironically symmetrical in this sense, for even though there is no voice over at the end, the final scene takes place in silence except for a broadcast of Waldo’s voice over the radio. In this way, he is still acting as the omniscient narrator informing the film audience of privileged information. While Laura hears the broadcast, it doesn’t have the same meaning to her because she doesn’t know Waldo is in her apartment and planning on killing her, while the film audience does.
In Force of Evil, the opening voice over is John Garfield as Joe Morse, and it is clear to the audience who the voice is, for they know Garfield, and it is also immediately established that the voice over is from the character of Joe Morse within the film, not so much as an omniscient narrator but more as an internal diary or thought process. This style of voice over and film opening is common, and found in many types of films, and is not as distancing for the audience, but instead offers a subjectivity of the main character. He is still acting as the storyteller, and this type of narration establishes him as the main character and established the world. Most importantly for this film, it shows us what he thinks of himself: an average guy, who is trying to make a buck, and is clever and willing enough to walk a moral line to do so. Yet while he sees himself on one side of the line, everyone else sees that he is on the other, right next to the gangsters.
Cody also emphasizes the importance of the New York insider versus the outsider, and the public versus the private, the lower class versus high society, the danger of the city and how to survive it. These dichotomies and juxtapositions are crucial elements of the city and obviously form a key part of Laura, Naked City, and Force of Evil. They are the basis for the fascination with the “critical and cultural fantasy” of the city that Harris discusses is the essay Film Noir Fascination.[vi] Harris argues that “what at first appears as a simple internal contradiction between fact and fantasy, typically embodied by the central characters in the split between knowledge and belief, breaks down; as it does so, it opens up what Tom Conley calls the ‘median area, between spectators’ fantasies and the facts of the film’” (4-5). Harris argues that the audience is caught between the fantasy and the facts of the film, and this fits well with Cody’s argument of storytelling, that “tales” both try to see what the city is, and in doing so become part of it, as Weegee did in his photographs, or as McPherson inadvertently does in Laura. These narratives being told about the city are simultaneously capturing (fact) and creating (fantasy) at the same time.[vii]
By becoming self-reflexive, the noir films can establish multiple gazes or ways of looking into the world of the film, establishing moral dilemmas for the characters and the audience, and suspending the audience, and the genre, in a period of time trapped between fantasy and reality, never sure of what is good or bad, who anyone is, who to trust, or what to have faith in. Consequently, the audience does not know whether or not they can trust the image they are watching (not unlike in Laura with the painting, or even Joe Morse in Force of Evil, painting himself as a good guy.) Noirs implicate the audience “in the dream within the film,” forcing the audience to realize that they are just as capable of doing the horrible things in the movie as the characters. We don’t know what is real either, whether sitting in the cinema or in everyday life (and neither do Joe Morse, McPherson, or Garza).[viii]
The screen becomes a mirror, self-reflexive in nature for both the characters in the film and the audience. As the characters realize who or what they really are at the climax, the “truth” comes out and the audience is shown that the film/screen is also functioning as a mirror reflecting themselves within the characters in the film. Both “mirror and screen,” the audience sees themselves and the characters on the screen as reflections, so that when a character realizes who or what they are, the audience experiences the same kind of personal realization. The audience realizes that whatever the character in the film has done, they are capable of doing it too (8). This reflection is both complete reality and complete fantasy as the same time. It is something created, something real, but not something we can physically hold or trust. What makes noir so fascinating and gripping is that through film we are not transported into another world, but that our world is recreated, projected, mirrored before our eyes, and it is a world of our darkest dreams. A world we are both scared and wary to enter, but like the femme fatale, one we cannot resist.
In all three films, Naked City [xi], Laura [xii], and Force of Evil [xiii], the city plays a crucial role in the visual and narrative aspects of the films. In order to discuss this, I have included clips from the films that either show the role of the city, or are a turning point in the narrative that will help us understand the people of the city better and consequently the city itself.
As The Naked City was inspired by the photographs of Weegee and even named after one of his books, the visual style of the film is one of its most positive features. Through extreme long and wide shots, the film manages to capture the element of the city and the indifference of the people, and its ephemeral nature. This clip begins with us seeing Det. Jimmy Halloran chasing after the bad guy, Garza, through the streets of New York. We see the city pressing in on him as he desperately searches for Garza amidst the crowds of people who have no idea what they are caught in the middle of. The city does not seem to be on his side, more favoring Garza who opening acknowledged moments before that he would use the city to make himself disappear and escape. Like the city, the people on the streets of New York that Halloran is trying to push through seem more like unbiased props and completely indifferent to the whole situation, obliviously consumed in their own everyday lives.
As we see Garza getting away, the narrator makes another voice over appearance, urging Garza not to run or draw attention to himself, and later urging him not to lose his head (which does result in the police finding him). This makes us wonder who the narrator is, and whose side is he on? Could he be the voice of the city? Or, as Weegee began and ended his book with a picture of himself, perhaps this is the films homage to that ideal, that the narrator is the voice of the creators of the story (The narrator was in fact Mark Hellinger, a New York journalist).[ix] For even though it is portrayed as real, just as Weegee’s photos were, both Weegee’s photos and this film are well thought out and carefully constructed images. Are they creating a fantasy out of reality, or a reality out of fantasy…it is difficult to discern, and this theme will in fact run through both Laura and Force of Evil as well.[x]
The film contains the same gritty and almost comically morbid quality as Weegee’s photographs, offering a similar commentary on New York: one that both observes and questions, and pushes the viewer to delineate the meaning behind the image themselves.
One aspect of the film that seems specifically in reference to Weegees work is the use and portrayal of children. Throughout the film children roam the street, jumping rope as a Detective looks from above, and then the kids jumping rope appears again at the end of the film, compared to Weegees photograph of kids playing in the street with water from a hydrant. Or The scene in the film where we are watching the police tail a suspect, with a group of kids eating ice cream in the middle of the frame, only to discover that there is another man following the police. The camera however, does not follow any of the men who are moving, but instead stays focused on the action of the children eating ice cream while the men move around and through the frame. This is one example of how the film tells the story in s subtle and succinct way, why also focusing on the life of New York and the people on the peripheries of this narrative that have no direct connection to what we see is going on, but who non the less are a part of this world (both the fictional and the real world of New York.)
And here is a screenshot taken from the film:
When comparing these pictures side by side, it is easy to see how they all contain similar elements, such as children playing, an a person (either seen or unseen) watching, the innocence and simplicity of childhood, how these children have no idea of what is going on around them or the gravity of the matter.
Weegee’s Naked City and the city in the film are best characterized and understood by looking at the end of the final scene. As Garza is running towards Brooklyn (to use the city to disappear, for what better place to not be found than Brooklyn?), the framing of the shot makes the distance of the bridge seem unbelievably long and impossible. As Garza further attempts to escape by climbing one of the bridges towers, but it traps him and he has no where to go. The metal beams around with the framing and cinematography form a cage like structure that he cannot escape. As Garza reaches the top, he looks down on what is a normal day for people playing tennis below, again, complete oblivious to what is going on around them. At the top the music reaches a climax and Garza gazes out at the city that surrounds him, pleading for its shelter, but it is too far away. The city is cold and distant to him, and cannot help him. Once even the city will not help him, Garza has nothing left, and he falls to his death, shpt by the cops. Yet the scene ends on a shot of the city, as if we are watching the city’s reaction to Garza’s death. What we see in those few seconds is nothing. Nothing in the shot changes. And this is exactly the point the film is trying to make. That the city is always changing, but always the same, and that the life of the city always goes on.
As the scene turns to night, the narrator reappears- we see brief moments of the characters lives we have met, and a few we don’t know, but there is a distance from them all that we feel, and yet there is still a connection between them that makes them truly a collective of individuals. People who don’t know either other or care about each other, but whose lives are intertwined and interwoven in ways they don’t even realize.
In Laura, written by Greenwich Villager Vera Caspary, the question of the film is “who is Laura?” and “what is Laura?” as the trailer from 1944 so cleverly put it. This film traipses the line between fantasy and reality, constantly forcing the characters to consider what is real and true and what is not, and by establishing the screen as a mirror, having the audience ask themselves the same questions. This scene from Laura is not only the heart of the film and the climax, but it has that certain something that is just unbelievable enough to be believable.
The crux of this film is that everyone has created a fantasy of Laura. She has been replaced by an image, a myth, and literally, by a portrait. Waldo creates his dream women, groomer and helping her establish her career. This is similar to what Jimmy Stewart does to Kin Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. McPherson similarly has created this fantasy of Laura based off of the stories he has heard about her and the time he has spent in her apartment. Waldo accuses him of being in love with a corpse, but that is not the case. McPherson, until Laura appears and he realizes she is not dead, is in love with the image of Laura, and the perfect construction of her that he has made in his head. In the scene leading up to Laura’s arrival, the camera follows McPherson around the apartment, watching him. The question the viewer may or may not ask at this time is, who are we supposed to be aligned with at this point? We think Laura is dead, so we have no real connection to her, Waldo is eccentric and not very nice, and we don’t altogether trust McPherson either. he is clearly infatuated with the portrait of Laura. As the camera moves about the apartment, it acts as a silent omniscient narrator, or perhaps as portrait watching McPherson. In those few moments, the audience is certainly aware that is feels like McPherson is being watched, but the question is, are we the only ones? Or is the painting taking an active role as well? Through the use of staging a framing, the painting does take an active role in the scenes, to the extent that often it is McPherson and the painting in one shot and Waldo alone in another. The camera is already establishing Laura and McPherson as a couple, even before we know she is alive. One cold even argue that the camera following McPherson is the painting, as the music becomes louder and more passionate and the painting takes on a greater presence.
Finally, McPherson falls asleep and the camera zooms into a close up, and then almost instantly zooms back out. This is a cinematic devise that is supposed to suggest to the audience that something has changed…in this case the initial thought is that we are now is hes dream world. This is especially true for McPherson when Laura arrives, for how could she be there and be alive except for in his dreams? Yet this is not a dream, but McPherson’s fantasy did just became a reality.
It is the uncertainty of this film that makes it so realistic and a film that could only take place in New York. No one is sure of who anyone else is, or sometimes, even themselves.
In Force of Evil, like in Laura, the characters are walking a fine line between worlds that they are not able to fully know or define, leaving them lost in ambiguity and uncertainty. In Laura, the line is between fantasy and reality, while in Force of even the line is a moral one, whether or not what Joe Morse is doing is bad.[xiv]
Within the film, Joe wants to believe that he is still a good guy since he is within the law, and yet everyone keeps comparing him to the gangsters. He says he is doing this to give back to his brother, yet he also admits that he is in this for the money. Are they the same? Just as Joe is wondering which side he is one, so to is the audience wondering. it is late in the film, after his brother has been killed, that he finally realizes what side he is on, and it is only then that Joe can make the decision to do what is right, and so he decides to turn himself in. This only leaves the audience further wondering, is he good or bad? Because technically in order to do good he had to realize that he had been doing wrong. The film leaves you with this feel, not as we see Joe locked up, but as we hear in a voice over what he has decided to do.
In the killing scene, we see Codys argument resurfacing, that is that living in the city is about knowing how to be smart and how to survive. By the rule, Joe is in the clear, but Frank and Leo had better watch out, and in the end, Frank and Leo bot get killed because they simply couldn’t take it anymore. The cinematography and editing in this scene is very interesting, putting the audience momentarily in the subjectivity of Frank just before he is shot, all the while quiet but passionate music is playing in the background.
The shots work like this: The establishing shot where we see all the characters and what is about to happen.
Then we see Franks face in a point of view shot from the killer
Then we are given the killers face from Franks point of view
And finally the shot is fired into our face, or rather, in a point of view shot from Franks perspective. This violence which occurs so directly at us is shocking, and leads into the scene of Joe drunk, ultimately resulting in the realization of who and what he is.
In all three films, the ways a seeing a viewing a some of the most important elements to the films. In Naked City, it is how a creator is presenting a world to us, in Laura it is how we see others, and in Force of Evil it is how we see ourselves. All three films have to do with going through an individual process within a collective group or situation. Garza and the city, Laura and the other intelligentsia and artists of the Village, and Joe with the gangsters. The city, likewise plays both a crucial visual and narrative role in each film, being simultaneously the backdrop, a prop, and sometimes even a character.
[i] Michael Webb, “The City in Film,” 8.
[ii] Cordelia Cody, “Only in New York,” 217-218.
[iii] Ibid., 219.
[iv] Ibid., 220.
[v] Ibid., 218.
[vi] Oliver Harris, “Film Noir Fascination,” 3.
[vii] Cornelia Cody, “Only in New York,” 220.
[viii] Oliver Harris, “Film Noir Fascination,” 8.
[ix] Mark Hellinger, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0375446/
[x]Anthony W. Lee, Richard Meyer, Weegee and Naked City.