STUDY GUIDE Unit Four: FILM NOIR: Classic
Noir, Gangster Noir, and Chicago
Reading Questions: The Urban Experience
Chapter 3; Christopher, Somewhere in the
Night (Supplement Professor Lecture);
AudioVisual Guide Questions: Reed, The
The Urban Experience Fischer,
Chapter 3, Urban Life: the Physical Setting
Notes on Nicholas Christopher, from Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and
the American City to Suppplement Professor Lecture
Chapter 3 emphasizes that the urban experience is plural.
There is no single urban experience. This diversity of contemporary urban
experience is compared to the preindustrial city. What was its structure?
In comparison to the preindustrial city, American urban historians suggest
that the modern city differs in at least three major ways. Explain each
of the following: 1) We now have two systems of land-use distinctions (home
and work place are now separate); 2) Social classes have become more
separated, as have age groups; 3) The relation between centrality and social
rank has been partly reversed, largely due to changes in transportation.
In general, industrial American cities developed along the concentric-circle
pattern of land use. Explain.
Urban neighborhoods typically differ from one another along three lines:
1) economic status; 2) family stage; and 3) race and ethnicity.
Fischer offers a general economic explanation of the urban ecology. He
adds a list of noneconomic social considerations as well (page 49). Explain
this list of cultural factors that shape urban development.
The chapter explains the differences between North American urban ecology
and that of European metropolises. Explain the following traits: 1) The
degree of spatial differentiation that we see in American cities seems
to exceed that in most modern societies. 2) Governmental planning of land
use is minor in comparison with the influences of private property owners
and the marketplace.
Putting up with crowds is an indelible image of urbanism. However,
the evidence of daytime crowding suggest that this is only a factor
during limited commuting periods. Moreover, only a minority of urbanites
commute by mass transit. The overall "crowding" of U.S. cities has been
declining since 1900. With respect to nighttime crowding, the evidence
suggests that in terms of number of persons per unit, urban residences
are less crowded that nonurban ones. Thus, household crowding is not intrinsic
to the urban experience, even if public crowding may be more common in
Chapter Three details the physical urban environment. Contrary to
popular opinion, cities are "not getting worse." Preindustrial cities may
not have consumed the amount of natural resources that modern cities do,
but they were vastly fouler environments. Moreover, rural villages of the
Western past were not arcadias. Peasants often shared their home with their
most valuable possessions, their animals.
However, cities do tend to produce "heat islands." One byproduct
is increased rain, including acid rain. When factoring in industry, automobiles,
and home furnaces, one finds that cities are notably warmer than surrounding
countrysides. The consequences are mixed: winters are milder, but
summers more uncomfortable.
The connection between urbanism and severe noise is real but may
not have demonstrable health effects. Explain.
A third environmental issues is pollution. However, cities tend
to fare better with regard to sanitation than do rural areas. On the other
hand, air pollution is 15 times greater in cities than in rural areas.
The effects of air pollution are costly in terms of materials, cleaning,
Historically, urban life has seemed hazardous to human health. However,
the urban-rural difference in mortality has disappeared, even perhaps reversed
in favor of city dwellers. This may in part result from the improved health
care opportunities of urbanites. Explain.
On the average, the following is true of urban housing: 1)
Metropolitan housing consists of apartment & rental housing more often
than does nonmetropolitan housing. 2) Number of rooms per unit and of persons
in these units do not differ much between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan
locations. Between city and suburb, however, center cities have smaller
households. 3) One is more likely to find overcrowded units (homes with
more people than rooms) in nonmetropolitan areas. 4) Metropolitan housing
units, on the average, are in slightly better physical condition than nonmetropolitan
units. These statistics do not reveal the diversity of urban living but
do cast doubt on the pervasive tenement image.
Given the above statistics, it is important to note that in the United
States, the single-family home is an almost universal ideal, whereas this
preference is not found throughout other world cultures. Despite the American
dislike for apartment living, no studies show that apartment life has negative
effects on social life or psychological states. American folk wisdom, however,
believes that apartment living leads to higher crime rates and personal
isolation. Explain the evidence which counters this belief.
One popular image of urban life turns out to be true: the image of the
immense variety of services and facilities a city can provide is accurate.
Whatever the service--retail stores, specialty goods, religious denominations--the
more urban a place, the greater number and variety of services, particularly
specialized ones. Fischer presents a chart of the city size necessary for
the certain presence of specified services from electrical supplies to
zoos. Retrace this chart and the notion of "Critical mass."
Fischer traces the consequences of this plenitude of services and facilities.
What are the consequences, esp. for ethnic groups?
Questions: The Third Man
- Christopher summarizes the visual antecedents of film noir: German
Expressionist films of the 1930s, French poetic realism of the late thirties,
postwar Italian Neo-Realism, urban paintings of Hopper, Kline, O'Keefe, and
others. Explain one of these influences in greater detail.
- The mythological antecedent of film noir is that of the city
as labyrinth. This myth operates on several levels in film noir: 1) the
actual physical maze of the city; 2) the human condition of the film which
produce amazement; and 3) the labyrinth of the hero's inner workings. Explain
each of these manifestations in terms of the kinds of cinematic details found
in film noir.
- Film noir operates in the mythic underworld. As in Greek
mythology, this underworld is often a place of spiritual testing, a transition
from the material to the psychic point of view. Explain the following insight:
"In film noir, the hero's descent in to the labyrinth of the city parallels
(indeed, is) a descent into the self."
- In film noir, the city is a character, revealed to
us incrementally, plane by plane, prism by prism, in the way of a cubist construction.
- An astonishing number of films noir begin with one of two images behind
their opening credits: 1) a cityscape at night, stationary or panned by a
moving camera, or 2) a train or locomotive hurtling through the night.
- Christopher argues that film noir springs from the images of foreign
cities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki) on World War II newsreels. The possibility
of mass destruction creates a range of subliminal messages in film noir:
1) the simultaneous glorification of and disgust with violence, glamour, and
power; 2) the belief that fear, itself, can be an explosive force in a populace;
and 3) human angst, alienation, and duplicity. Explain these traits against
the social context of the post-war United States.
- Christopher argues that film noir's effects have been profound:
they have changed the way we looked at and felt about our cities. "The city
is the seedbed of noir." Explain. (p.37)
- The titles of films noir reflect several strains: 1) adjectives
of emotional distress (Abandoned, Desperate); 2) single-word nouns
of disaster (Whirlpool, Crack-Up); 3) the word city (The Naked City,
The Captive City); 4) the word street (One Way Street, Scarlet Street);
5) the word night (Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Nightmare); 6) city addresses
(711 Ocean Drive, 99 River Street); 7) telephone numbers (Call Northside
777, Southside 1-1000); 8) names (Laura, Mildred Pierce), with
a special subset of Johnny (Johnny Angel, Johnny Apollo); and 9) the
purely aesthetic, grisley-erotic titles (Born to Kill) with a subset
around the word Kiss (Kiss Me Deadly, Kiss of Death).
- These films present a "stark, dark vision of American urban life." While
they represent the "apoge of black-and-white film making, with stunning visual
style and technical virtuosity," they are concerned with the moral terms
of "the greys." Explain. (p 44-45)
- The three forces behind film noir narrative are violence, sex, and
dreams. Christopher links this to the self-denial of the war years. The desire
for glamour, recklessness and personal freedom is connected to the tremendous
postwar boom in consumer goods and luxury items. How is noir linked
to the "wildfire acquisitiveness and gaudy commercialism of the 'freedom-at-any-price'
- The French New Wave critics insisted that film noir was never a
film genre at all but, rather, a way of seeing the world. These "black" films
of post-war America reflect the massive sea change of our cultural history.
- Christopher comments briefly on the influence of Fritz Lang's Metropolis
on film noir. Compare his comments to your observations. (p. 65)
- Christopher traces several thematic fascinations in film noir. One
of these concerns mass-produced electronic devices of the post-war
era (telephone, radio, television) esp. the dictaphone recorder (which becomes
a central "character" in Call Northside 777). These gadgets make urban
man [sic] an information gatherer. Trace the in-depth discussion of the telephone
in film noir. Why is this "personal and impersonal" device so important and
critical to so many noir films? (pp. 88-92)
- Trace the role of the automobile in film noir. (pp.92-95)
- Explain the prevalence of subways and railroads in film noir.
(pp.95-98) (You might want to rent the out-of-print Union Station (1950)
which uses Chicago's train terminal, el tunnels, and elevated lines.)
- The office building, esp. the skyscraper, is omnipresent in film
noir. Office buildings represent power, status, and an implicit sort of
perspective. These structures, as presented in film noir, share several
characteristics, esp. their enormous scale. Keep Christopher's analysis in
mind when viewing the many scenes in Chicago's Tribune Tower in Call Northside
- The text argues that film noir is the most psychologically oriented
of all film genres. For the first time in American film, sexual preoccupations,
obsessions, and perversions are explicitly dealt with. These fascinations
are presented as linked to the urban milieu. Explain.
Carol Reed, The Third Man
The Third Man, although of British origin, represents a model film
noir. Our viewing focuses on the scenes immediately preceding the "tunnel
sequence." Break your analysis into two segments: 1) above ground before
the descent, and 2) the underground scene.
How are the above ground moments before the descent structured? Pay
close attention to the stylistic innovation of the film (light, shadow,
scale, perspective, camera use, and sound). What kind of ambiance is created
? How are the distortions and disorientations typical of film noir?
How is the location of Vienna presented and used in this segment?
Once the film moves to its ground-breaking tunnel sequence underground,
note the stylistic details. How is light, camera, shadow, and esp. sound
used by Reed? How is the "underworld" created on film? What are the tensions
of the chase scene and Harry Lime's (Orson Welles') death? How are water
and the final staircase used? How does the sewer create a "moral setting"
for the drama? (Lime's character is found to be diluting penicillin for
profit, resulting in deaths and deformities in sick children.)
When time permits, screen this exceptional film in its entirety. Most recommended
is the biting dialogue written by novelist Graham Greene.