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Driving is Murder: The Automobile, Violence, and the City in Film Noir

 
  Written for Professor Joan Copjec's Reading the City: Film Noir at City College of New York.  
  December 15, 2006  



 

“Greater liberty, greater fruitfulness of time and effort, brighter glimpses of the wide and beautiful world, more health and happiness – these are the lasting benefits of the motor-car.”
– Herbert Ladd Towle, “The Automobile and Its Mission” (1913)

“Today a magnificent instrument has ruptured the human environment in the name of progress. Its terror has been accepted as a fact of modern war – almost as if it were a sacrifice of war.”
– Kenneth R. Schneider, Autokind vs. Mankind (1971)

“Va va voom!”
– Nick in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The years 1941 to 1958 are generally agreed to be the boundaries of film noir’s classic period, starting with The Maltese Falcon and ending with Touch of Evil.1 These dates most obviously encompass World War II, whose events delayed America’s reaction to the depression years of the Thirties2 and the country’s unbridled embrace of the automobile. This latter phenomenon, which began in the 1920s, found its greatest proponent in the Interstate Highway and Defense Act of 1956, whereby the United States government committed to pay for virtually all of the construction costs of over 40,000 miles of toll-free highways across America.3 But even before the Act a number of publications4 argued for decentralization as a means of national defense. In the naming of the Act itself there is a wedding of the automobile and war, of mobility and violence, the last two of which are of concern here.

This paper examines the vehicular violence found in film noirs, in relation to the changes the automobile wrought on cities. In the four classic noirs discussed here (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, Touch of Evil, and Kiss Me Deadly), violence associated with cars is seen to be a critique and portent of the automobile’s negative effects on the American urban landscape. A couple recent neo-noirs are also discussed (Crash and Boyz N the Hood) to illustrate how violence in turn was a consequence of the changes wrought by the automobile in ways not foreseen.

By the time of early film noir the internal combustion automobile was already firmly entrenched in the American way of life.5 The country’s ideals of individual freedom, prosperity, and technological advancement all found a perfect symbol in the car, a liberating machine with the promise of personal mobility and control. But as the automobile began to affect the physical and social fabric of cities and their environs, a film movement focused on the dark sides of the city and humanity would take an equally dark view of the car.

 



 

 
  Fig. 1 – Double Indemnity  



 

An early example is Double Indemnity, the 1944 classic directed by Billy Wilder. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) tells the story of his involvement in the premeditated murder of Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) husband, a murder that takes place in a car on the way to a train station. Neff hides in the back seat of the car (Fig. 1) and strangles Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) after Phyllis signals with three long honks of the horn. The viewer doesn’t see the murder take place but instead sees Phyllis and her barely-suppressed smirk as she keeps her eyes on the road (Fig. 2 – her look slightly off camera seems to implicate the viewer in this act). They continue driving to the station where Neff boards as her dead husband. Neff jumps off the back of the last train car where Phyllis waits for him in the car; together they plant the dead husband’s body on the tracks (Fig. 3) and flee the scene. This cover-up comes from Neff’s knowledge of the double indemnity clause where compensation is doubled if one dies on a train, because death via the automobile, even in the late 1930s setting of the film, is so common.

 



 

 
  Fig. 2 – Double Indemnity  



 

This film coincided with a conflicting moment between the realm of the automobile and that of the train (pre-automobile), when Los Angeles instituted a parkway plan affirming the car’s role in the city.6 Wilder’s critique of this plan is primarily in the scenes of the murder and cover-up described above. The car and the road are the site of murder (action) and the train and the tracks are the site of deception (apparent inaction) as the couple attempts to cover-up the almost perfect murder. For Walter and Phyllis the car embodies the future – their relationship sans Mr. Dietrichson – while the train embodies the past, his dead body. The liberation of the car is taken to its ultimate extreme during the act of murder, as the lovers remove themselves from preying eyes on a darkened street. Even the honking horn – a signal of distress or danger – dissipates into the suburban night.

 



   
  Fig. 3 – Double Indemnity  



 

On the other hand Neff is able to pass himself off as the dead husband on the train, though ultimately the couple’s murder is undone by this public space, not the private space of the car. Most importantly, the distinction between the realm of the car and that of the train is important because the former creates the situation whereby Phyllis feels the need to kill her husband. Her boredom, isolation, and desire to escape “points to the isolation a woman may face in the automobile-centered suburb where…she spends most of her time secluded from public space.”7 The conflict between these two realms cannot be resolved in the film with its fatal (and fateful)8 conclusion for both Walter and Phyllis. Double Indemnity helps to set up some of the noir attitudes towards the automobile: a future fraught with danger and a freedom fraught with consequences.

 



   
  Fig. 4 – The Big Heat  



 

Nine years later, in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, the setting is again suburbia, though here it is presented as a place free from domestic conflict and home to domestic bliss. Of course in the world of noir this bliss is short-lived. In a car bomb meant for Detective Sergeant Bannion (Glenn Ford) his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is the inadvertent victim when she turns the key in the ignition (Fig. 4). In a film loaded with inventive violence, such as scarring a face with scalding hot coffee, ultimately the car bomb is the only violent act that is indiscriminate. It’s also an act that directly stems from the suburban situation of Bannion and his family. Unlike traditional cities and their mix of transportation alternatives (walking, public transportation, driving) the suburban milieu is characterized by a dependence upon the automobile for mobility. This dependence makes a car bomb the obvious choice for the mob targeting Bannion, as he must drive to leave home at some point; this dependence also means the end for his wife.

The choice of a car bomb in the narrative is important for a couple of reasons. First, It causes a narrative shift, setting Bannion off on a rampage towards the perpetrators. Second, the explosion causes a split, permanently separating Bannion from his wife and from his suburban, domestic bliss. This split or splintering can be read as a commentary on the suburban lifestyle facilitated by the automobile, a lifestyle defined by particular prescribed roles (mother, father, children) and possessions (house, yard, car). Two of these components are destroyed in the explosion, therefore destroying Bannion’s ability to continue leading a suburban life. A hotel room replaces his suburban home as Bannion is thrown from suburban bliss into urban noir.

 



   
  Fig. 5 – Touch of Evil  



 

The explosion in Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil occurs at the end of the now famous three-minute tracking shot which opens the film. The shot follows a car bomb from its setting (Fig. 5) and planting in a car’s trunk to its explosion (Fig. 6). Newlyweds Mike and Susie Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) unknowingly walk alongside the car carrying the bomb, the car that explodes moments after it crosses the border from Mexico to the United States. Again the decision to use a car bomb is crucial, as it allows the crime to be addressed by jurisdictions on both sides of the border. The explosion separates the couple for the remainder of the film so Señor Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement official, can investigate the crime. Any comfort or security in their newly-formed marriage bond explodes along with the car, as Mrs. Vargas is thrown into one situation after another that endangers her welfare.

 



   
  Fig. 6 – Touch of Evil  



  Set in the fictional border town of Los Robles (called “the Paris of the border” on a billboard), this location points to the importance of movement, most obviously movement across borders, as the car’s explosion in the U.S. brings Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) into the picture, complicating Vargas’s investigation and bringing corruption into the mix. Movement is also accentuated from this beginning, in the soundtrack of the three-minute opening shot where music spills from the different nightclubs as we follow the newlyweds and the doomed car – the diegetic soundtrack of the film’s restored 1998 version replaced Henry Mancini’s original, nondiegetic score.9 Throughout the film movement becomes confused, as do the borders, indicating a fading of the traditional city and its legibility towards the ungraspable, unlimited modern city of the automobile, in formation at the time.  



   
  Fig. 7 – Touch of Evil  



  In addition to being a border town, Los Robles is also an oil boomtown, evident by the presence of numerous oil wells on the town’s skyline (Fig. 7). While this fact is not integral to the narrative it is important at the level of the chronotope of the film, as it was actually filmed in Venice, California. This reference to the oil boom of Los Angeles in the early 20th century and the uneasy relationship between the automobile and the urban fabric of the town was a conflict ultimately decided in part by the city’s aforementioned parkway plan. In the film this uneasy relationship becomes clear in a scene where Vargas and the District Attorney hurtle down a side street in a convertible (Fig. 8). The disjunction between the buildings and the car is obvious from the size, scale, and proximity of the buildings more suited to pedestrians than speeding cars.  



   
  Fig. 8 – Touch of Evil  



 

In another relevant scene Mrs. Vargas is taken to the remote Mirador hotel purportedly for safety, though without a car she is effectively stranded and at the mercy of the hooligans that eventually drug her. The hotel exhibits sprawl, as it is described by Quinlan’s partner Menzies as “mighty hard to find, with the new highway branching off as it does.” Violence becomes an extension of seclusion facilitated by sprawl and the lack of access to an automobile, which hearkens back to Double Indemnity.

 



   
  Fig. 9 – Kiss Me Deadly  



  Where Touch of Evil’s commentary on Los Angeles and the automobile occurs at the level of the chronotope, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly by Mickey Spillaine confronts the automobile’s impact on L.A. directly. From the moment the credits roll it is apparent that driving is an integral part of this apocalyptic noir. After Christina (Cloris Leachman) coerces Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) to give her a ride the credits follow the car down the road, the words inverted like markings on the road they drive (Fig. 9). What can be seen as superficial or gimmicky also portends to the “unnatural or other-worldly events which follow.”10  



   
  Fig. 10 – Kiss Me Deadly  



  When Christina meets her fate at the hands of the torturers in an early scene, Hammer’s car is then pushed off a precipice in an effort to cover up her death and kill Hammer as well (Fig. 10). The latter, of course, doesn’t happen, alluding to the idea that Hammer is of the car and its time and therefore cannot be killed by it. This is reinforced later by his thwarting of two car bombs planted in a convertible given to him by Christina’s killer.  



   
  Fig. 11 – Kiss Me Deadly  



  Throughout the film we see Hammer in sharp contrast to his surroundings, most apparently in his trip to Bunker Hill. As he passes under the funicular (Fig. 11) we see an overlapping between old and new, public and private, à la Double Indemnity. Once Hammer tiredly climbs the many flights of stairs and enters Carmen Trivago’s apartment, what can be seen as overdone clichés of Italian life – the hanging laundry, the basket wine, the boiling pasta, and opera accompaniment – is presented to distinguish between the traditional and the modern, the latter symbolized by Mike Hammer and his “fastidiously modern apartment with its Eames chairs, telephone answering machine, and middle-brow art.”11 The clean and rational furnishings and interior of Hammer’s apartment stand in sharp contrast to a past “that is becoming progressively incomprehensible.”12 The view outside his apartment window (Fig. 12) plainly shows us what is facilitating this change in lifestyle, this rationalizing and homogenizing force (compare this view with the one from the terrace in Crash to see a similar, later view – Fig. 14) that takes the verticality of Bunker Hill and transforms it into the linear horizontality of the freeway.  



   
  Fig. 12 – Kiss Me Deadly  



 

In his adaptation of Spillaine’s novel, Aldrich strayed from the original in numerous ways, most obviously in moving the location from New York to Los Angeles, from a pedestrian-centered environment to one catering to the automobile. Aldrich also added a character not in the novel, Hammer’s car mechanic Nick. The two are kindred spirits, lovers of cars, driving, and speed. Nick is pulled into Hammer’s investigation and dies as a result, killed by a car as the jack holding it over him is released by an unrecognizable assailant. Of the portrayals of automobiles and concomitant violence in film noir, only Kiss Me Deadly actually goes as far as “death by automobile.” The perspective of this act is most revealing, placing the viewer in the car’s position, as if to directly implicate the viewer in Nick’s death (Fig. 13).

Another change from Spillaine’s novel to the film version is switching the contents of the case from drugs to an atomic weapon. Aldrich has refashioned a violent pulp novel into a critique of capitalism, modernity and their end products, where both the car and the bomb can be deadly in the wrong hands.

 



   
  Fig. 13 – Kiss Me Deadly  



  David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel Crash, what could be called a sci-fi-noir,13 takes the theme of vehicular violence to its extreme, incorporating eroticism into the mix. This controversial and misunderstood film does more than present the sexual fetishes of a small group of individuals centered around Vaughan (Elias Koteas) and his obsession with recreating celebrity car accidents. It also comments on technology and its mediating effect between individuals. As the car’s impact has altered not only the physical landscape of the city (Fig. 14) but also its social landscape – how people interact with other people – the car is presented here as the only means of emotional connection for characters who are otherwise cold, detached, and numb when they’re not in a car or watching one on TV.  



   
  Fig. 14 – Crash  



  The destructive nature of the automobile is evident throughout the film. One example is the junkyard where James Ballard (James Spader) and Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) inadvertently meet while trying to find their respective cars after an accident. The junkyard is located directly under a highway overpass (Fig. 15). This proximity not only ties the act of driving and destruction together into parallel strata, but it also points to the residual spaces created by highways; in this case only can an auto graveyard occupy the space created by the car’s accommodation.  



   
  Fig. 15 – Crash  



  In John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz N the Hood, the automobile is both the instigator and the facilitator of violence, with street signs pointing to the former. After the sounds of gun shots and a statistic about gun violence and black American males, we see the first image of the film: a stop sign and a distant plane; later we see “Wrong Way” and “Do Not Enter” signs when the children walk down an alley to see a dead body (Fig. 16). These signs signify the limited movements of the characters in their environment. Not coincidentally these signs pertain to the cars that reshaped the urban fabric of Los Angeles into segregated areas with both physical and social boundaries. The film transports us to the hood where these signs – ironically associated with the myth of freedom implied by the car14 – delimit the areas where residents can and cannot tread, lest they be dealt with by the gun-toting police. For example, when Tré (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) are driving in the “wrong place at the wrong time…the patrolmen see this as a suspicious act and as a cause to terrorize the pair.”15  



 

 
  Fig. 16 – Boyz N the Hood  



  In the hood guns alone aren’t sufficient enough for power; they must be combined with the car to create a situation where one can perform a murder and flee without detection: the drive-by shooting. The drive-by is a product of the hood, an environment that requires a car for mobility. Not coincidentally, Ricky is gunned down after he and Tré walk back from the corner store, an anachronistic neighborhood element and an action that make them vulnerable. The car also becomes the identity for the individuals within them, as the red car (Fig. 17) of Ricky’s murderers signals their presence and relates them to earlier threats. Later, Doughboy’s (Ice Cube) pimped-out convertible signals his retaliation for Ricky’s death.  



   
  Fig. 17 – Boyz N the Hood  



  In Double Indemnity and Kiss Me Deadly the filmmakers expressed the shift from public mobility to private mobility via contrasting cars with trains, at a time when the shift was underway. With nearly fifty years between the first of those films and Boyz N the Hood, this contrast is nevertheless presented again, in a cut from the boys walking down their block to the boys walking down the middle of what appear to be unused railroad tracks (Fig. 18). Here Singleton is using the juxtaposition to say that the boundaries of segregation and limits of movement have changed from physical to immaterial and mediated. The expression of railroad tracks as a boundary between neighborhoods – most commonly illustrated in the phrase “the other side of the tracks” – can be seen as a predecessor to mediated boundaries like the constant, yet invisible, presence of police helicopters overhead. The railroads are also a precursor of the sprawl that is contemporary Los Angeles, a condition usually (incorrectly) attributed solely to the automobile. L.A.’s dispersed settlement pattern – established by a combination of migrating Midwestern farmers around the turn of the century and the railroads and trolleys in place at the time, among other factors – merely continued as the railroad tracks were supplanted by highways.16  



 

 
  Fig. 18 – Boyz N the Hood  



 

What differentiates the Los Angeles of Double Indemnity from that of Boyz N the Hood is that the latter occupies the space that the former abandoned. White families moved from the city to the suburbs as Blacks migrated to large cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles between the World Wars. This influx of Blacks into the city and exodus of Whites outside the city is one condition that created the segregation that is the hood. These movements were facilitated by the automobile’s mobility, via the city’s catering to those interests. So from Double Indemnity to Boyz N the Hood, violence related to the automobile (in both cause and effect) is found both in the city and the suburbs. Violence in the city arises from segregation in the wake of the white flight, and violence in the suburbs arises from a social disconnection created by privacy, isolation, dependence, and boredom.

The films discussed here illustrate the numerous shades of violence of the automobile: violence arising from isolation and the humdrum environment that stems from automotive sprawl (Double Indemnity), violence targeting dependence upon the automobile (The Big Heat), violence symbolizing a shift in the borders and boundaries of the city (Touch of Evil), and government-sponsored decentralization colliding with government-sponsored warfare in the extermination of the human race (Kiss Me Deadly). The later films illustrate how the car has become a necessary mediator between individuals (Crash) and a tool for killing (Boyz N the Hood). In an attempt to distill a conclusion from these various points of view, the automobile is by its very nature a violent entity via a break from a body-centered way of life to a machine-centered way of life. The future fraught with danger and freedom fraught with consequences of film noir arise from the car’s paradoxical condition: the false promises of freedom and mobility leading to a loss of individual control, an increase in technological dependency, and the inherent danger of the automobile itself.

 



 

1. Silver, Alain. “Introduction.” Film Noir Reader. Silver, Alain and Ursini, James, editors. New York: Proscenium Publishers, 1996: p. 11.

2. Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Silver, Alain and Ursini, James, editors. New York: Proscenium Publishers, 1996: p. 54.

3. Flink, James J. The Car Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1975: p. 213.

4. “The Atomic Bomb and the Future City.” American City, August 1946, and “Defense through Decentralization.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Number 7 (1951).

5. “If the street cars were to stop, life would go on about as usual. But if automobiles were to suddenly cease to function, the whole economic and social structure would be disrupted.” Quote by Ed Ainsworth (1938) in Bottles, Scott. Los Angeles and the Automobile. Los Angeles: University of Berkeley Press, 1987: p. 211.

6. Fotsch, Paul Mason. "Film Noir and Automotive Isolation in Los Angeles." Cultural Studies - Critical Methodologies, Volume 5 Number 1, (2005): p. 103.

7. Ibid, p. 107.

8. “They've committed a murder and it's not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They're stuck with each other and they've got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it's a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.” – Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity.

9. “As the camera roves through the streets of the Mexican border town, the plan was to feature a succession of different contrasting Latin American musical numbers – the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another… The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the entire picture.” Memo from Orson Welles to Universal studio chief Edward Muhl in Touch of Evil. DVD. Universal, 2000.

10. Silver, Alain. “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style.” Film Noir Reader. Silver, Alain and Ursini, James. New York: Proscenium Publishers, 1996: p. 225.

11. Davis, Mike. “Bunker Hill: Hollywood’s Dark Shadow.” Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Shiel, Mark and Fitzmaurice, Tony. London: Blackwell Publishers, 2001: p. 43.

12. Dimendbert, Edward. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004: p. 246.

13. J.G. Ballard calls science fiction “The body’s dream of becoming a machine,” in “Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century.” Zone 6: Incorporations. Crary, Jonathan and Kwinter, Sanford, editors. New York: Zone, 1992: p. 277.

14. Massood, Paula J. “Mapping the Hood: The Genealogy of City Space in Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society.” Cinema Journal, Volume 35 No2 (1996): p. 90.

15. Ibid, p. 91.

16. Kunstler, James Howard. Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993: p. 208.

 



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