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Staging Murders: The Social Imaginary, Film, and the City

From: Wide Angle
Volume 20, Number 3, July 1998
pp. 85-96 | 10.1353/wan.1998.0033

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Wide Angle 20.3 (1998) 85-96

Figures

In neo-noir films, starting with Internal Affairs (d. Mike Figgis, 1990), I see fragments of an L.A. street I know very well dressed up for crime: misrepresented so casually, it becomes a private joke. I have even begun to search, beyond Los Angeles itself, for the ur-space where all murder on film "must" take place. In the twenties and thirties, "New York" streets were built at Paramount and Warners Brothers Studios, particularly for gangster movies, later, of course, for film noir. Clearly the film facades were modeled on the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen, or Little Italy, based on photos of Mulberry Street, or streets closer the Manhattan Bridge -- a condensation of immigrant neighborhoods in southern Manhattan. Many in the film industry at the time knew these neighborhoods, having grown up there. Decades later, Godfather II recreated Mulberry Street circa 1910, and Mean Streets was shot "presumably" in the neighborhood of Little Italy. In fact, Mean Streets was shot mostly in Los Angeles. However, the cinematic map of New York -- never to be confused with real streets -- was already well established by the early seventies. New York and L.A. had merged in strange ways.

Gradually, these faux streets take on a social imaginary of their own, in varying mutations over the past fifty years, decade by decade, country by country. During the forties, as Hollywood films steadily moved "on location," but were shot on the lot as well, streets in Los Angeles had to be found that matched New York streets. Similarly, which streets in Paris did Godard feel matched his paradoxical memory of American cities, based on film noir, to be then transmuted so ironically in Breathless? Or which locations in seventies Germany served Wenders as sites for The American Friend?

What, at last, are the urban "requirements" for a location where a murder should take place -- the alleys, the placement of buildings? Film scholarship certainly has shown us how high-contrast lighting and camera positions produce that anxious moment when murder is possible, the alienated space where no neighborhood can survive, where no friends can be trusted, where all crooks are in business, and where all businessmen are crooks. But what is the code for film locations? Streets have to be staged in a very structured way when murder is involved.

Like Dante's Inferno, spiraling downward one ring at a time, each ring takes you deeper, and farther from any hope of escape. The outer ring is the gangster world (I am reminded especially of setups in films and crime literature from the twenties and thirties). The next ring is the world of the detective: the last white pathfinder in the cesspool of urban nihilism (as in thirties and forties literature and film, ending with The Maltese Falcon). Further down lies the ring inhabited by the killer, filled with unreliable narratives, perverse voice-overs, and distortions (film noir, of course). And finally, the ring of the victim, generally shot like an Expressionist horror film -- very fractured, even more distorted (consider Sudden Fear, dir. David Miller,1952).

Ideally, a street location should allow for all four "rings"--simultaneously if needed, but certainly in sequence. The life shown on the street should feel utterly alienated, as if no community could survive there, except to plan, commit, or support a crime. For accent, there should be a rotted cafe or a dumpy grocery store where the crooks are in business. As for residential housing, apartment buildings should suffice, and they ought to have a dark, empty hallway -- a place where neighbors fail to hear the lingering death squall while someone is being murdered on the fourth floor. For long shots, the street should have uneven, extreme angles between the buildings -- for hidden intentions -- where a crook can hide before mugging his victim.

As social critics, perhaps we ought to "blame" Jeffersonian America for all this nihilism, for the American distrust of the city, and for our worship of small towns, associated with Jefferson's preoccupations. And then, we should condemn the cognate of this nihilism: the American obsession with urban decay. In other words, this cinematic image...


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