STUDY GUIDE Unit Three: FILM NOIR: Small
Towns and Big Cities
Reading Questions: McArthur, Chinese Boxes and Russian
Dolls;" Krutnik, "Something More than Night"
AudioVisual Guide Questions: Frank Capra, It's
A Wonderful Life
Colin McArthur, "Chinese Boxes and Russian Dolls: Tracking the Elusive
Frank Krutnik, "Something More than Night: Tales of the Noir City"
McArthur begins his essay with the descriptive example of Glasgow, Scotland
in order to show that cities "are always already social and ideological,
immersed in narrative, constantly moving chess pieces in the game of defining
and redefining utopias." Explain.
At the same time, there is a dominant discourse of Glasgow (and all cities.)
This is called the hegemonic Glasgow narrative. [Hegemony: Predominance,
esp. the preponderant influence of one state over others] McArthur acknowledges
the hegemonic Glasgow narrative but is careful to point out that "like
many hegemonies, it is fragile and contested." What does this suggest?
This point opens the possibility of alternative narratives and counter-hegemonic
stories of the city. How?
McArthur traces the master opposition of country/city in Murnau's
Trace the details that make up this opposition.
This charting of the master opposition continues in his analysis of Capra's
Deeds Goes to Town (1936). What details make up the metropolis/small
The essay suggests that the master opposition emerges most forcefully in
the inter-war period. What circumstances and demographics of the
inter-war period encourages the "valorization of the small town and its
The argument shows how these inter-war values have re-emerged since the
1980s. McArthur again charts the master opposition between city/midwest
town in the Julia Roberts vehicle, Sleeping with the Enemy (1991).
Present the details of this opposition.
Review McArthur's discussion of the cinematic presentation of urban space
in King Vidor's The Crowd (1928). Compare his analysis to
your own notes on the film taken during our Unit One screening.
You may want to screen Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). McArthur
offers a compelling analysis of Hitchcock's city.
"Critics are generally agreed that the gangster film and its generic affiliates
such as the film noir and the film policier occupy a special
place in the representation of the city." McArthur discusses two key character
types from this genre: the Gangster and the City Boy. Summarize
Note the description of the "urban milieu of the gangster film."
McArthur argues that there are two other prominent urban film perspectives:
comic book view and the postmodern view. How does he define
The author claims that sympathetic representations of the city are found,
oddly enough, in American film musicals. Why? Alongside musicals, the films
of Woody Allen also present an affirmative view of the city. Compare your
viewing notes from Unit One and McArthur's presentation of the opening
scenes of Manhattan (1979). Characterize the urban presentation
of the film's "monochrome beauty."
The conclusion of the essay (esp.33-34) argues that Hollywood has operated
both an economic and aesthetic hegemony over world cinema. Explain
these two points in detail.
In response to the previous observation, McArthur argues for the necessity
of "other discourses arising to compete with existing (hegemonic) ones."
What sort of discourses might these be?
The ending paragraphs of the essay discuss the profound influence of Italian
Neo-Realism on the representation of cities. Some of the characteristics
of these films (Rossellini's Paisa (1946) and De Sica's Bicycle
Thief (1949)) include the following: location rather than studio shooting,
use of non-actors, and tracing the impact of social forces on weaker members
of society. You may want to return to McArthur's list as these characteristics
will be found in Unit Four's Call Northside 777 (1948).
AudioVisual Guide Questions
Krutnik explains that the noir city of Hollywood's thrillers of
the 40s and 50s "is a shadow realm of crime and dislocation in which benighted
individuals do battle with implacable threats and temptations." He presents
the connection between this genre and the post-World War II era. How do
the nuclear age, the Cold War, and the Red Scare provide a context for
The term film noir, applied after the fact by critics of the French
New Wave to American film of this period, means literally black or dark
film. What does this terminology suggest about the genre? Krutnik
argues that film noir presents a dichotomy regarding the city:
at the same time it presents the vitality of the city alongside its corruption,
its enticements as well as its horrors. Explain.
Krutnik centers his essay on an analysis of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful
Life (1946). The film is an unusual hybrid of supernatural fantasy,
drama, and comedy. At the center of its sunny Hollywood narrative, one
finds a mini-film noir. Trace Krutnik's extensive analysis of this
key sequence, called the nightmare or unborn sequence. How does the presentation
of Bedford Falls compare with Pottersville? How does the film's lighting,
design, and soundtrack create Pottersville as an urban nightmare realm?
The essay claims the George Bailey is typical of the protagonists
of many noir thrillers. He is confused, suicidal, dislocated, desperate
and terrorized by unfamiliar hostile surroundings. Summarize the nature
of the noir protagonist based on George's characteristics during
the "urban nightmare" sequence.
The author argues that Itís A Wonderful Life presents a profoundly
conservative vision of urban social life. He claims that the film "retreats
from passionately engaged social criticism" because of its Jeffersonian
sentimental fantasy of mythic American small town community. Explain.
The essay moves to an analysis of the setting of film noir. Summarize
the characteristics of these settings. Krutnik goes on to show that the
exterior settings of noir reflect an internal landscape, a psychic setting.
He claims that the "private eye" protagonist embodies a psychological landscape
in which film noir tales play out. In particular, this interior
landscape is mapped on film through the metaphor of the labyrinth.
Explain each of the following representational strategies of the labyrinth:
voice-over, flashback, optical point-of-view, simulated dreams, nightmares
or hallucinations. How do these film techniques "engulf the drama in a
vortex of subjective overdetermination?"
In part a creative response to the Production Code, the representational
techniques of film noir operate often at the level of subtext. What
and how does it "hint continuously at a parallel universe of enticement
The author claims that the white-nostalgia model of community found
in Itís A Wonderful Life and My Darling Clementine (1946)
is challenged by some noir films such as When Strangers Marry
(1944). What is the white-nostalgia model of community? Explain this term
in the context of Itís A Wonderful Life.
Film noir privileges the emotive over the narrative. Explain how
noir privileges "connotation over the denotative, cause-and-effect logic
of linear narrative." The essay argues the stylistic emphasis of noir
a realm in which the "horror of the noir city" is tied to "the pervasive
indeterminacy of meaning" in noir film. Explain this statement.
If film noir "multiplies rather than contains the signifiers of
dis-ease" how would you expect noir films to differ from their Hollywood
counterparts of the time period? How could this trait of film noir open
popular film to the role of social commentary and critique?
To study more film noir, consult the "Films Cited" list at the end
of Krutnik's essay. Am excellent list for further viewing is provided.
Wonderful Life (1946), Dir. Frank Capra
Consider the film's opening moments. How does the "conversation in heaven"
legitimate the narrative to come? What values does it privilege?
Consider the "life history" of George Bailey. What are his dreams and goals?
How do travel and "building something big" signal desires the film will
Focus your analysis on the manner in which the urban/small town dichotomy
created by the film. Trace the characters and qualities of Bedford Falls
in detail. Follow through the transformation of each personal and social
quality as it is perverted in the "unborn sequence" of Pottersville.
The film presents an interesting critique of capitalism in the person of
Mr. Potter. In this most radical strain of the picture, a caution about
greed and power emerges. Discuss this theme.
Clarence the Angel and George Bailey find themselves first at Martini's
Tavern. How is this locale symbolic of the urban nightmare to come? What
is the environment like? What kinds of people populate this world? How
is the language and accent of the bartender different from any previously
found in the film? What does he represent?
Trace the film techniques used to create Pottersville as an urban
nightmare. How are light, setting, camera, dialog, character, and soundtrack
used to craft this result?
What are the racial dynamics of this scene? How do they work at
a predominantly "unconscious" level? How do the characters in this
scene compare with the only person of color found in Bedford Falls, Annie
the Bailey's maid? How is the role of race and people of color imagined
in the "ideal community" of Bedford Falls? In comparison, what happens
in the racialized world of Pottersville? How is Bedford Falls a "white
How does the film noir section of Capra's picture morph into a psychological
drama? How is George Bailey typical of film noir protagonists?
Describe the turmoil of his character. How does this troubled psyche
clash with the harmonious world of ideal America as found in Bedford Falls?
How does the sentimental resolution of the film remedy this dangerous subtext?
Discuss the women in Bedford Falls and Pottersville. How does the urban/small
town opposition present gender ideals? What is the nightmare fate
of Mary, Violet Bick, and "Ma" Bailey in the ugly urban world of Pottersville?
How does the film reinscribe traditional gender roles?
Some have argued that It's A Wonderful Life contains two warring
styles of Hollywood film: the domestic romance and the film noir. How are
these tensions presented in the film? How are they resolved and in favor
of which style? What is the social message of this resolution?