Geographies of Noir Vol. 3. Landscape (Cityscape) vs. Map.

Manhattan from the air opening The Naked City.
In its classical period, during the 1940s and 1950s, film noir has activated the traditional representations of space – landscapes and maps – as critical mediums for perception as well as practice of space, used by a whole set of actors, individual and collective ones. Generally, on one side stand the forces of law and order, and on the other – the outlaws. But, there is a series of grey figures, typical noir individuals 'somewhere in the night', who devise their specific spatial practices. The iconography of the city which noir directors employ has previously been firmly established by the artistic avant-gardes, thus, on that front, film noir merely consolidates the already existing representations. Where, instead, many noir films contribute, is how they 'mobilise' these standardised representations of space. What is subsequently to become an important field of study in cultural geography as well as critical cartography, namely, the intimate link between, respectively, landscape and map with power, is the spatial onus of many a film noir. Landscapes and maps are dispositifs employed and exercised for diverse purposes, strategic and tactical ones. Finally, what is peculiar to film noir is the tension between these two closely associated ways of representation – landscape and map – and we shall see what way.

Landscape in this article is employed in its meaning of a point of view from which a subject is able to “command a view of the country stretching out beneath him and thereby exert control over” [Fabricant, C., cit. in Wallach, A. (2008) Between Subject and Object. In DeLue, R. Z., and Elkins, J., Landscape Theory. London: Routledge. pp. 317-8]. But, this precise understanding of landscape gravitates towards the cityscape, as the centre of power, and, in noir, landscape starts from it. Cityscape present itself on different scales, framing only a single building or a street intersection, up to the entire city horizon seen from a hill or surveyed from an airplane. The aerial views were introduced to a wider public during the war, through the newsreels which used shots of destroyed cities seen from above. On the other hand, during the postwar period, aerial photography becomes one of the key instruments in the city planning. A couple of decades later, aerial surveillance via helicopters becomes a key instrument of the Los Angeles Police Department as well [Davis, M. (1990) City of Quartz. London, New York: Verso. pp. 265-322], and correspondingly, an important formal element in a number of police films from the 1970s on. In film noir, instead, the aerial vision of the city is never perfectly correlated with the total command of the space below. The view is never entirely perpendicular to the soil, satellite-like, instead the viewing angle allows for perception of volumes to some extent, thus, people are not just moving dots, and cars are not abstract rectangles. This kind of image is apt for the intricate play of shadows which are used to convey the drama of modern city life, and, more importantly to our context, the angle of view and the shadows do not allow for everything to be scanned, thus, mapped. But this is not a given, as vectors of mapping are operating, too, and they put in question this romanticised vision of the city and attempt to reduce it to the grid. This relationship is the leitmotif of what follows.

Landscape-map relationship in film noir can be compared to a struggle between an overall vision of the city, which is that of the control on behalf of a state or a criminal organisation, and the single perspectives of its citizens, replicating in this way the modern political dialectic between a “particular universal” and “universal particular”. These films present a postwar social/political subject, a unit in the Fordist production system, a consumer in the Keynesian economy, but, at the same time, a democratic subject of a nation-state, an inhabitant of a place, of a city which, through its institutions, confers him a certain identity, freedom of movement, right to work, etc. In this sense, wide shots of the city, more than merely localising the story and providing the ambiance for it, serve the purpose of identifying the film's spectator with the city filmed. A film noir spectator, if him or her were to have a computer mouse, would probably pan the camera to zoom into the exact location of the film theatre wherein she or he is watching the film at the moment.

One of the shared formal devices in film noir is a wide shot of the city straight-away at the film's opening. As many film noir analysts have noted, in this manner the city itself becomes one of the story's protagonists, an active agent, not a backdrop for the story. Exemplary in terms of this formal method is The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948), specifically its introducing sequence, which is basically a documentary description of New York City through a series of aerial shots accompanied with a voice over commentator. The very first shot approaches Manhattan from an airplane. Axonometric view, at around 45 degrees, does not allow the viewer to grasp the famous New York's orthogonal street grid, therefore it is not an emulation of Manhattan's famous gridiron, but a landscape. The shots that follow are panoramics, the camera rotates horizontally to try to embrace the skyline, as the camera/airplane circles around the island. Dassin's rendering of New York is nearer to Jacopo de' Barbari's 16th century cityscape of Venice or to the photographs of Andreas Feininger from the 1940s, than it is to the high modernist visions of BereniceAbbot and the later Edward Steichen, who tend towards abstract orthogonality. 
In the following shots, the night closes on the city and its lights twinkle, giving a more intimate vision of this jungle of glass and steel. The camera looks like it is about to enter into the heart of the city, to feel its 'pulse', as the narrator says. The next sequence concentrates on New York's inhabitants who work the night shift. This type of social and economic urban dissection is a topos borrowed from the avant-garde tradition of, for example, Ruthmann's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) and Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Although The Naked City is, per definition, a police procedural, it still uses the paradigm of the city as an organism, and the law forces are only one of the many entities that make the city “breath”. 

 Moreover, hand in hand with crime, another layer of meaning is almost inevitable in film noir. Hollywood makes the city sexy, as the very title of the film says. The city is a person, a female as it is to be expected, and the poster of the film recites loudly and clearly: “The Soul of a City. Her glory stripped! Her passions bared! Her heart wide open! Reckless life!”. The excitement, as well as the danger of the city life, are implied in film noir, and this is what makes the city sexy, at least as far as police eventually saves the day, like in The Naked City. In fact, straight after the harmonious film's opening, celebrating the vitality of the city, a murder takes place and we are introduced into the police procedure of handling the case. From a brief overview of the police headquarters down to a police detective walking through the neighbourhood, we are reminded that what makes the city, the polis to be exact, is the police.

Los Angeles city map in He Walked By Night.
 The Naked City's sibling is He Walked By Night (Alfred Werker, 1948), shot in the same year but in the West Coast metropolis of noir. Its opening is as paradigmatic as the previous one. Itstarts in a slightly different manner, with the film credits superimposed over a map. As if to dispel the anonymity of intersecting lines, the lower left corner of the map bears an inscription: “Los Angeles. Metropolitan Area”. But it is not just any map of L.A., it has a multitude of pins attached to it. At the moment we are not aware of it (although it is not too difficult to suppose), but eventually we are informed that pins mark the crime scenes. Mind that the pins cast very long shadows upon the map shifting it from its natural bidimensionality. This map is not devoid of traces of life, but we will get back to this later. 
After the credits, the introducing shots describe the city with landscape views of the flatlands seen from the surrounding hills, not from an airplane. Los Angeles is an ocean of low-story houses, the opposite of the sky-high rises of Manhattan. This circling around the city in a way corresponds to Edward Soja's description of Fortress L.A. [Soja, E. (1989) Postmodern Geographies. London, New York: Verso.]. After the broad view, the camera takes us into the valley, closes up on the landmark Union Station, then a crossroads, and finally, the story kicks off inside the institutional core of power – the City Hall, which, at the moment of the film's shooting was also the tallest building in the city. Throughout this visual tour, a now standardised voice over provides a lots of information about the city, ranging from its nicknames to some statistical trivia. After this sightseeing, we get a quick tour of how the police works starting from the Communications Room, where all the telecommunication lines converge, and from which they radiate down to patrol cars on street-level. Thus, in more or less three minutes, the spectator gets acquainted with the map of the city, Angeleno overall landscape, with some details included, as well as with the modus operandi of the police forces.

The film story is a supposedly real-life police case of a hunt after an ex-police technician gone criminal mastermind performing a series of robberies of technological equipment around the city. We should glide over the details and focus on the film's finale, which takes us into a very special urban spatiality, far from the 'eternal sunshine' of the SoCal – L.A.'s drainage system. Throughout the film, Roy evades police capture in surface because of his technological skill to connect hertzian space of the radio and the maze of the streets. But, when he is driven into the city sewers, in an environment made of concrete, water and vapour, basically unlit if not with the flashlights, with police using the tear gas as well, through which radio-waves are unable to travel, the police gains a critical advantage by adopting a map. But the map is not an X-ray device which shatters the opacities of the physical elements. It is employed only to mechanically block the key exits to the street, and the police actually does not know where the fugitive is. Therefore, in order to control and master this labyrinth, they have to penetrate it physically, exposing them to danger. Naturally, it would be interesting to see what would have happened if the criminal was equipped with the map, too. Anyway, after Roy is eventually shot down, the film closes with yet another view of the map which opened the film (although it displays the surface of the city). 
This iconic sequence, which brings many of the noir spatial ontologies together, is mirrored almost to perfection in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), where another criminal, this time none else than Orson Welles, is trapped in the sewers of Vienna at the end of the film. Significantly, the mitteleuropean police does not employ a map, but, even though the city's sewers look comparably much more complex than the Angeleno system, but they, too, manage to hunt down the criminal. So, this complex infrastructural vision of the city gets a global, transcontinental diffusion very soon, although the way of confronting it varies slightly.

Police using cartography in The Street With No Name.
In The Street With No Name (William Keighley, 1948), map is a fundamental police planning instrument from the start. In an early scene, which takes place at the police headquarters, a wall map is tagged with circles which connote the suspect's quotidian movements. From that cartographic vision of the city, the film takes us straight into the middle of one of these circles, on field, along the Main Street in Los Angeles (even though the city in the film is called 'Center City'). Even in this case, as in the previous ones, map is not used to design a new residential area or a playground, but to indicate the spatial practices of the city's inhabitants. And the map is not more than one side of the interface, the other being policemen on ground, on foot or in patrol cars, in a cat-and-mice game with outlaws. The practices of 'subjective mapping', albeit reified in this commodity per excellence – a Hollywood film, are made public to wide audiences, and, in a way, implicitly become part of popular culture, years before the underground experiments of the Situationists, who, in an unusual gesture towards other cultural productions which they usually considered with contempt at the very best, openly used The Naked City for one of their pyschogeographic maps (although the film's name, in its turn, was taken from Weegee's photographic book published in 1945).

In the previous examples, the police has the best, and manages to maintain the urban life in order. But, there is a 'dark' side, too, a series of film noirs in which the police is not as efficient, and this state of things is adequately exemplified with the representation of the city in these films. The opening shots of CrissCross (Robert Siodmak, 1949) may lead one to think that the aerial scanning of L.A. by night, with the symbolic City Hall (with its lights off) framed in the very first shot, may imply that everything/everyone in this city is under surveillance and, thus, under control. But, if we watch closer, we notice that the sequence of the shots is directed the other way around compared to He Walked By Night, from the centre of the urban power towards peripheral seats of power acting in parallel or intersecting with the official ones. The camera slowly flies over myriads of city lights, and subsequently, Siodmak masterfully lands us on an anonymous parking lot, as if we were paratroopers, in the middle of a shady plot of deceit and corruption. As implied in this centrifugal and nocturnal opening, in this film the police is almost entirely absent until the final scene, when they appear ex nihilis, after all the misdeeds have already been done.

The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) shows us New York in a similar light. As the background to the film's opening credits, and accompanied with the sound of cool jazz, the photographer John Alton frames the Manhattan's street canyons in twilight with a combination of fly-overs and fixed street-level city views. Following these views which convey the excitement of the after-war city life, we assist a urban event per excellence of the period – a boxing match in a sports arena. Although it is packed with people, the narration quickly spirals deeper and deeper into the underworld and towards periphery, ending in a desolate airplane hangar. In this film, again, the protagonists (and, thus, spectators, too) are left without a map, with no surveillance whatsoever from the police. These brief series of examples sketch how the films presenting the city in landscape view convey a variety of power relations, often expressed through the day-lit and night-time formal opposition, and the presence of the maps which inevitably refer to certain police order.

Subsequently, the things get a bit more complicated, such as in Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959) on the threshold of the 1960s. The opening shot represents rows of grand parallel avenues by night from an aerial point of view. Frames later, huge letters sweep away any doubt concerning what are we seeing – “LOS ANGELES”. In the second shot, the camera takes us down onto one of the avenues. The third shot provides an even more detailed spatio-temporal location: the camera is now riding atop of a car (mind the Google) slowly down the boulevard, and a giant superimposed caption appears – “MAIN STREET. 8:OO PM.” The following shot completes the geo-localisation as Fuller zooms in on a neon sign of a striptease club, which is a burlesque danseuse dominating the club's entrance. The next shot is a close-up on the dancer in blood and flesh, “Sugar Torch”, albeit soon to be killed right in the middle of the Main Street. In this fundamentally landscape vision of the city, Fuller plays between day and night cityscapes, and also the morality of the characters is much more complicated, emblematising an evolution in the use of landscape and map in the New Hollywood. 

At the same time, from its onset landscape in noir is not confined only to the city, it embraces wider spatialities. In the opening sequence of Border Incident (Anthony Mann, 1949), the entire region of Southern California is shown in a fly-over, especially its flourishing agricultural fields. Through this almost satellite-view vision (which is to become a trademark of some Northern Californian corporations in the future), a story of the immigrant workers from Mexico – braceros – is introduced, interpreted as an opportunity and a problem engaging two countries, with specific spatialities and cultures. After this macro-economic analysis follows a micro-economic and social case study, and the story depicts a group of braceros who are “smuggled” into the United States, in a cooperation between American farmers/tax evaders and a Mexican criminal organisation. To stop this illegal cross-border action, in which the main victims are the abused workers themselves, a cross-border alliance of American and Mexican law forces is formed ad hoc. Aerial vision in this case implies the control on an extra-urban scale, national and international, with more or less overt implying of who is the leader in this coupling of neighbours. Emblematically, when American representatives travel to a border town in Mexico to meet their Mexican counter-parts, they do so in a government aircraft. Thus, the protagonists themselves are using this supposedly superior dimension of sight, means of transport which will soon become a standard in noir.

Going back to the roots of noir, the combination of the cartographic vision with the landscape view intended a sight of nature, can be observed in an early film noir – High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941). Towards the end of the film, the film's protagonist, a fugitive gangster Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart), seeks refuge from police on the mountain slopes of the Sierras. In the pursuit, sublime landscapes of Sierras, so important in the American landscape tradition, are superimposed with the animated maps of the area, upon which the the trace of the police cars is shown [e.g. for a superb analysis of this sequence, see Conley, T. (2007) Cartographic Cinema. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp.83-9]. This superimposition of two devices, literally of a map over a landscape view, bluntly translates into the eventual killing of the gangster, who cannot hide in the mountains. These parts of Earth's surface are mapped now, and thus flattened, and this morphological elements which served as fortress for many peoples through history are subjected to the supremacy of the cartographic apparatus.

Thus, in parallel, noir developed a much broader vision of the country, in many respects similar to that of Westerns. Still, it is important to observe that maps are not at all guarantees of peace and order, as the main character of Detour (Edgar Ulmer, 1945), Al, discovers. When he hitch-hikes across the U.S. all the way from NYC to L.A., we assist to an example of cross-editing of maps which follow the movement of the character with the shots of him actually travelling (see minute 14). Although Al eventually gets to L.A., in the process he gets involved in two murders, and his destiny is sealed. In the film's final, he is aimlessly strolling along a highway, with no map or landscape vision whatsoever, and this is also 'the last stop' for him as the police car approaches.

What emerges from this brief overview is a fundamental connection between mapping and the practices in which characters are engaged, and their success and failure. Initially, in the first half of the 1940s, rarely do we see criminals play with maps, but after the war it becomes a cliché to see gangsters focussed on a map laid on the table at the centre. Why is that tells us the trailer of The Street With No Name: “Organised gangsterism is returning. A new type of gangsters are combining the ruthlessness of the Prohibition era with the scientific techniques and strategy used by the underground in the World War Two”. The derivation of the planning techniques is then clearly formulated. The planning turn of noir is best exemplified in The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), wherein the diagrammatic praparation of the heist is as fundamental, if not more important for the narrative, than the heist in itself. In fact, the robbery unfurls smoothly, but what does not is classically the getaway of robbers, which has since become an everyone-knows-what-next cliché in almost all heist films. But, the precise reason for that is not so evident. In my view, what impedes the criminal's running away is that they are not able to construct the 'bigger picture', in terms of space specifically. In the organisation of a heist, gangsters almost equal urbanists, engineers and the police in terms of the collection and organisation of data – spatial and temporal – for what concerns their target. After the heist, a wider resolution of the data becomes critical, and the police is the one who covers a much a bigger portion of territory with many more layers of information, and connecting this data with their actors, manages to weave diffused dragnets around the gangsters.

The things increase in complexity when subtler technologies, such as radio, as we already saw in He Walked By Night, inform the locative interface of the characters, and, then, practices of surveillance are countered by sous-velliance. The lines of flight are then projected across different scalarities, but, what remains a constant in noir, as well as in follow-ups usually called neo-noirs, is the enactment of planning, its embodiment. Plan is nothing without its deployment on field. Besides the robbers, who by definition have a limited scope of action, and the police officials commanding from their offices, true mapping practitioners in the 1960s and 1970s are private or police detectives. Their action exemplifies the difference between mapping and map-making, and the corresponding conceptual pair, wayfinding and navigating. Ingold explains, navigating means 'establishing correspondences' between where the traveller is now, and where he supposedly on a chart 'is' [Ingold, T. (2000)The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge, p.236]. On the other hand, mapping is the performative gesture of moving in which it becomes 'inscriptive practice' itself, establishing a connection between the traveller and the territory [ibid., p.231]. Noir characters shift the emphasis on doing, on intuitive and processual knowledge, wayfinding more than navigating, they 'know as they go' [ibid., p.231]. Rarely do we ever see a detective carrying a map around and trying to find his way around in the dark. Maybe he did learn where to enter and maybe where to exit from a map, but everything else is bound to change in the middle. For this reason, mapping subjects in noir explicitly put into question the ubiquitous knowledge maps should represent. They continually verify or confute the maps on ground, measuring themselves against the smoothnesses and striae of terrain, built environment and other individuals, and this is exactly what mapping is.

In some film noirs, the map is already made, whereas the landscape is in the making. But in others, the landscape is in the mapping.

1 comment:

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