In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City – Imogen Sara Smith
McFarland Press, 2011, 255 pages
Trade paperback, $45
The term “film noir” conjures up certain images, styles, stories, language, and certainly locations. For good or for ill, our visual thoughts about film noir often emerge from images of detectives in trench coats, seductive femmes fatales, and the darkened streets and alleys of cities. Yet film noir cannot be bound by cities, which is the starting point for Imogen Sara Smith’s excellent book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.
Smith explores just what noir is in the book’s masterful introduction, perhaps the best summation of film noir I’ve come across. Although many film noir movies are set in the city, Smith asks “…is film noir really inseparable from the city? (p.4)” Can noir’s plot elements, narrative and visual styles, and what I would call “worldview” (cynicism, pessimism, disillusionment, etc.) exist beyond the city limits?
In the city, no one can be trusted. Noir characters are “just trying to survive in a society that seems to reserve its cruelest punishments for the trusting (p. 24).” Like it or not, the city forces you into close contact with other people, most of them looking out only for themselves and if you need something from them, well, that’s your tough luck. On the other hand, unless your life intersects with others in some tangible way, no one really sees you. That’s usually not the case in small towns where everyone knows everything that everyone’s doing all the time. If you know the right people, you can work the small-town life to your advantage. But Smith shows us some interesting situations in which noir characters seek escape in towns and villages (Out of the Past , Clash by Night ), remote locales (The Prowler ), or abandoned settings (Split Second ) that prove just as dangerous as life in cities.
Yet while they’re seeking refuge, noir characters frequently find themselves on the road in such films as You Only Live Once (1937) or They Live by Night (1948). The latter film was directed by Nicholas Ray, a masterful director who frequently explored the idea of longing for a safe place to settle and call home, but never finding it. In fact Ray himself had a working title for all of his work: “I’m a stranger here myself,” which sums up nearly all of the “road” noir movies.
Is there freedom from corruption the further you get from the cities? For the answer, you might ask two characters who brought corruption with them: Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), the “Merry Widow” killer from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or the Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) from The Stranger (1946). There’s also plenty of corruption in the small town depicted in The Phenix City Story (1955) and the Arizona mining town in Violent Saturday (1955). Even two buddies going on an innocent fishing trip inThe Hitch-Hiker (1953) can find themselves in a heap of trouble.
In a large city, characters are constantly reminded of the presence of the police. Yet once outside the city limits – whether you’re in small towns, on the road, or in another country – law enforcement may either be distant, focused elsewhere, or non-existent. People may be mostly the same everywhere you go, but their environment and way of life can cause vastly different expectations than those found in cities. Such situations provide opportunities for the creative forces behind film noir to explore untapped potential for how characters handle remote locations, how it may change their outlook (On Dangerous Ground ), the way they handle people from a different culture (Ride the Pink Horse  or how they try to reinvent themselves (Flamingo Road ). Film noir can literally go anywhere.
It can also go to another time, journeying into a genre which may seem odd, but in fact fits remarkably well: the western. Some purists may seek to separate film noir from westerns, but as Smith points out, the two often share many themes. Western noir is a category (or subcategory, if you will) of film I am just beginning to explore, so the chapter entitled “Past Sunset: Noir Westerns” was nothing short of a revelation. Venturing into the westerns of just two directors – Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher – will give any noir fan many hours of pleasure (and perhaps philosophical enlightenment).
In addition to discussions of over 100 films, In Lonely Places also features some outstanding black-and-white photography. Once you read Smith’s book, you’ll also want to contrast it with Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (St. Martin’s, 1998). So prepare to take a trip outside the city this summer with film noir. Wherever you are, you can be sure noir will find you…