Somewhere in the Night

A New Yorker born a few years after the end of World War II, at the start of the “hysteria” of the Cold War and “paranoia” of the McCarthy witch hunts, Nicholas Christopher believes that film noir is the “fugitive footage of postwar America . . . in which the twin shocks (or ever-ramifying nightmares) of a near-apocalyptic world war and rapid-fire urbanization would be captured and delineated, painfully and unswervingly, for all time.”

From his own walking-wounded perspective added to Sigmund Freud’s that after a searing war a country permits itself acts of violence it would never otherwise allow, Christopher evolves resonant notions of film noir and its depiction of the postwar American city. He draws on all of the 317 titles in the FILM NOIR ENCYCLOPEDIA (1988), plus 50 others he classifies as film noirs, to demonstrate that in this cinematic milieu “money talks” and “everybody dies” are the guiding truisms. For him, paraphrasing critic Michael Wood, the film noir world is a state made visible on the city’s “mean streets” and in police precincts, office buildings, casinos and bars—a picture of “what life would look like if crime did pay.”

In sexual and social matters, noir is a subversive form, far removed from the usual pre-war concerns of marriage, love as elixir, and the ultimately redemptive portrayals of infidelity and divorce. “To rah-rah wartime films that glorified the gal back home and the guy overseas, film noir responds with the manipulated, and in turn manipulating, postwar woman and the scarred returning G.I. enmeshed in the incendiary big city.”

SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT: FILM NOIR AND THE AMERICAN CITY is a feast for buffs of film-noir’s golden era—1940-1959. Especially evocative are Christopher’s commentaries on THE BIG CLOCK (1948), GILDA (1946), PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE BIG KNIFE (1955), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944),and LAURA (1944), to name a few. Thirty-eight selected “neo-noirs”—1960-1997—are highlighted by 1995’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS, in which Christopher finds echoes of noir combined with the postmodern preoccupation with the inherent ambiguities of the storyteller’s role.