Noir Hits The Road

An interview with Imogen Sara Smith

Film noir is usually associated with urban settings, but in Imogen Sara Smith’s book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, she considers different noir locations—pristine suburbs, Western deserts, seedy border towns—to describe the genre as ultimately stemming from an existential condition. It’s an elegantly detailed tour through genre classics like Out of the Past (1947) and On Dangerous Ground (1952), in which Smith shows that no matter how far you run, you can’t escape yourself. Smith is also the author of Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy.

—Aaron Cutler

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THE BELIEVER: Why did noir move away from communal spaces? Was it reflecting something that was happening in the culture?

IMOGEN SARA SMITH: Yes, especially the political climate. A lot of the writers, directors, and actors who were involved in film noir were left-wing, and many of them fell afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the ’50s—Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin, Edward Dmytryk, Cy Endfield. I see noir in part as an expression of the disillusionment of the left, because during the 1930s, socialism and even communism seemed like they actually had a chance in America, as a response to the Depression. Then the war changed the whole mood of the country, and after that came the Cold War and the demonization of communism.

Many noir films are bitter attacks on capitalism: they show organized crime as essentially indistinguishable from big business, or they show people warped by materialism until they turn to crime because they’re so desperate to achieve the American dream. The films are despairing and pessimistic, offering no solutions. They also reflect changes in technology and social life. During the postwar era, television replaced theaters, cars replaced public transportation, and the suburban “nuclear family” replaced urban communal living or rural extended families. Because people had appliances, they no longer needed servants, milkmen, icemen, and so forth. The glory of all this new technology was supposed to be that it made the family, or the individual, self-sufficient. But what noir reflects is that it also made life lonelier, and made people less trusting of each other.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Aaron Cutler is a programming aide for the São Paulo International Film Festival and keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer, at aaroncutler.tumblr.com.

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