In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City
Dressed in a trench coat and fedora, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) walks down a fog-shrouded San Francisco street. From Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), it’s the iconic image of film noir. Noir and the city, they’re attached at the hip. There’s Cry of the City (1948), Naked City (1948), Night and the City (1950) and While the City Sleeps (1956), to name a few. In the shadows of Dark City’s high rises, that’s where noir lives, right?
In her recent book, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, Imogen Sara Smith is our guide to the heart of noir’s less-traveled outback. It’s a comprehensive work that presents over 100 films where the urban jungle is not the main event. Smith’s thoughtful and erudite essays have appeared in a number of publications. She applies the same level of skill to this groundbreaking study.
Mitchum’s character first appears in the great outdoors, a milieu more Ansel Adams photograph than Edward Hopper painting. A rugged guy in a rugged setting, there’s no clue he belongs anyplace else. Here, riffing like a jazz fiend, Smith identifies him as both citified flâneur and freight-hopping vagabond, taking us on a dizzying road trip: “For Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, places form and dissolve like perfect smoke-rings. He drifts through them like a sleeper through a series of fitful dreams: hotels and campsites, racetracks and bars, dark alleys and sun-blinded Mexican piazzas, plush apartments and simmering jazz clubs, a mansion at Lake Tahoe and a cabin off a dirt road in pine-dark woods. He comes to rest in the town of Bridgeport, California, a bleak cluster of white frame houses dwarfed by high, bare mountains. Its main street could be the backdrop for a western, except that the stranger blowing into town wears a black fedora and drives a convertible.”
Bailey’s local Bridgeport girl, Ann (Virginia Huston), is without a conniving bone in her body. Look up “femme fatale” and you’ll find Jeff’s partner in deceit, Kathie (Jane Greer), literally dressed to kill. Away from the city, would she be as decent and good as Ann? Smith argues no, that it isn’t the city itself that corrupts. Dangerous ground can lie beneath your feet, anywhere. In an earlier draft that appeared in the Bright Lights Film Journal, she wrote: “But look outside the city: at the apple orchard in Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway, the beach-side hamburger stand in Edward Dmytryk’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the bleak snowbound country of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Desert ghost towns, tourist lodges in the mountains, fishing villages, New England hamlets, mansions in Beverly Hills have all been settings for films noir. These movies weaken the argument . . . that the city itself is the corroding force, that if only men stayed on the farm where horses graze in green fields, they would never turn to crime.”
Smith examines how the great American cities, shaped by greed, declined into criminal breeding grounds. Even for the law-abiding, like the protagonist of King Vidor’s proto-noir The Crowd (1928), a desperation set in to claw one’s way out of the rat race, usually to no avail. A national malaise, we’re told, came with postwar prosperity and seeped into classic film noir along with that desperate, pit-of-the-gut gnawing. The nation’s rural past became sentimentalized into a Garden of Eden while the suburbs became the new utopia. That’s until darkness falls, the power fails and the lights go out.
In the chapter “Blind Highways: Noir on the Road,” there are grifters, drifters and Gun Crazy’s pistol packin’ lovers on the run. The noir road movie plays to the longing for escape from the daily grind. The lure of the West, Smith tells us, is as old as the nation. Of the opening credit sequence of Detour (1945), she writes: “The highway – Route 66 – running through flat, scrubby desert dotted with prickly pears, is shot from the back of a moving car: it’s not the point of view of someone driving, but of someone passively riding, and watching if he’s being followed . . . “ The road isn’t kind to female characters. Ann Savage in Detour, thumbing her way to oblivion, Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole, trying to wash that man and the Albuquerque dust right out of her “bottle-blonde” hair and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice who, to paraphrase Smith, looks more Saks model than hash slinger, all wait for salvation at the end of the trail.
Noir cognoscenti might skim through the recaps of familiar films. Witnessing the travails of Al and Vera, Detour’s “born in the same gutter” twins was bad enough the first time. Who’d want to live through that again? More careful readers will discover fresh insights and tidbits gleaned from Smith’s painstaking research.
With a wealth of black-and-white photos, In Lonely Places is a cinematic treasure map ranging from off-the-beaten-track locales to those very close to home. The front cover is a gorgeous, tinted publicity still of Joan Bennett as Celia Lamphere in Secret Beyond the Door (1948). Celia, who believes her husband is trying to kill her, is lost in a misty forest, panic setting in. Maybe, the nightmare is only a dream, maybe not. One thing’s for certain. She’s alone, terribly alone. And as Smith’s book reveals, sometimes the darkest, most lonely places are waiting there in the imagination.
First published on The Film Noir Foundation website.