The City, The Sewers, The Underground: Reconstructing Urban Space in Film Noir
With a map of Los Angeles as its opening title card, He Walked by Night (1948) puts LA up front as its main character; “a bunch of suburbs in search of a city,” the voiceover claims. After opening aerial shots of Los Angeles, however, the setting opens up to include narrative, “a true story,” according to the narrator. With these opening shots and statements, He Walked by Night places film noir into the space of LA and of criminal history, a history based on an actual World War II veteran on a post-war crime spree in 1946 Los Angeles and of a filmic history that builds from gangster films of the 1920s and 30s to television procedural shows like Dragnet, which actually came as an after effect of the film. He Walked by Night fits well into criminal, cultural, and filmic history of the period and uses all three to demonstrate that the urban ecology above ground is a constructed rather than natural space, built on the storm drains and infrastructure (sewage and water systems, railways, gas, and lines for electricity, telegraphs and telephones) below it.
Produced a year later, The Third Man (1949), a British Noir response to WWII, begins with zither music and an extreme close-up of the instrument’s strings, but it too springs into images of the city almost immediately, this time of a war-torn Vienna. As in He Walked by Night, in The Third Man, a voiceover introduces the post-World War II context, as well as an American coming to Vienna after the war in search of a job. Although the film’s narrative builds fiction from a real-world cultural and historical context, it too shows us how sewers in Vienna help construct the damaged city above them. In fact, we argue that both He Walked by Night (1948) and The Third Man (1949) use what lies below the urban milieu—the underground and infrastructure—to demonstrate that the city and its inhabitants are constructed and culturally situated rather than natural or essential subjects.
Underground rail systems play a big part in film noir. Subways, like the underground sewer and water drainage systems in other films, are first constructed and then reconstructed to serve the needs of the films’ protagonists. In Pickup on South Street (1953 Sam Fuller) and Dark City (1998 Alex Proyas), for example, a noir underworld becomes a literal underworld in scenes shot in a dark angled subway used primarily as a hiding place for protagonists and/or their enemies. In film, the underground serves as a cinematographic wonderland, an aesthetic as well as ecological space that serves both function and form for films noir like He Walked by Night and The Third Man.
Paul Schrader outlines stylistic elements that set film noir apart from the gangster films they replaced, focusing on techniques that show us that film noir “worked out its conflicts visually rather than thematically” so that “it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological problems” (226). Schrader’s claim opens up film noir and its urban settings to readings that question the “natural” state of cities and their inhabitants in films like He Walked by Night and The Third Man. The underground sewers and drainage systems in Vienna and Los Angeles support Andrew Ross’s claim that the best way to confront emerging environmental crises is to advocate “an ecology that looks first and foremost at the task of social reorganization and cultural innovation for its cardinal principles” (271). To do this, we need first to acknowledge that the city and its inhabitants are products of society and culture, not natural givens. Films like He Walked by Night (1948) and The Third Man (1949) provide not only an acknowledgment but an explanation for such a construction.
He Walked by Night (1948) and The Third Man (1949) examine the idea of the city as a social and cultural construct. They also highlight how and why social, cultural and historical forces construct “gangsters,” not their genes. But what sets these films apart from other noir films is the attention they give to the urban infrastructure hidden below its progressive construction. By foregrounding sewers as constructions, escape routes, and seemingly safe havens for noir characters, He Walked by Night and The Third Man demystify what seem like givens and call into question the idea of the city as natural.
If the city, its underground, and its inhabitants are “natural,” however, they are all “givens” that are unchangeable, except perhaps through evolution—a long-term process in which only “the fittest” survive, an argument Richard Dawkins and his so-called “selfish gene” theory would support. Instead, Andrew Ross suggests that “the only really sensible thing to do is to eschew this kind of attribution altogether, and look elsewhere, to local and culturally specific explanations, for existence of selfish and altruistic behaviors” (257). We agree with Ross’s contention. Characters in the noir films we examined adapt the underground sewers and drain pipes to serve their purposes—as constructed by their War and Post-War experiences.
An underground first seems to provide safety for post-war noir heroes in He Walked by Night (1949) and The Third Man (1949), as it did for civilians during World War II; it also serves as an ideal aesthetic space for post-World War II film noir. Adapting an already transformed concrete space into both an escape route and a quintessential noir setting, Roy and Lime seem to construct (or at least adapt to) a setting devoid of nature where lone anti-heroes escape the urban wilderness above them. Building on the already de-naturalized environment—a concrete covered river and valley in Los Angeles and a bombed-out and segmented version of Vienna—He Walked by Night and The Third Man suggest that in such an unnatural world, human nature also suffers. Instead of saving them, the sewers Roy and Lime reconstruct trap them and ultimately serve as their graves. Constructed as criminals seeking success after World War II, Roy and Lime meet the only fate an underworld and underworld culture can provide, especially in the noir world of the late 1940s cinema—death.