No film genre in Hollywood’s golden age was more urban to its core than noir. The word conjures up dark alleyways, all night diners, the mean streets. Its wave of popularity in the 1940s coincided exactly with the apex of cities in American life. A century of industrialization and the factory boom provided by World War II meant a higher percentage of Americans lived in cities in the 1940s than at any other time in American history, before or since.
The idea that the city’s problems needed a suburban antidote circulated before the suburbs were even built. Just take a look at The City, a documentary made by urban planners for the 1939 World’s Fair that presents cities as dehumanizing hell holes while promoting an ideal planned suburb as an alternative full of happy (white) children. The suburban onslaught’s ideation is present in classic noir, even if none of it ever happens in the suburbs. After all, could you imagine Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend crazily jonesing for a bottle of rotgut whiskey in Rye or Syosset instead of Manhattan? In the postwar period the dark, dangerous urban world of noir represented what so many people were hoping to break away from in their prefabricated subdivisions.
Neo-noir, a genre that began in the late 60s with films like Point Blank is also rooted in the rough city streets, but in cities that had been transformed by suburbanization and deindustrialization. American cities were starved of resources after World War II in favor of all the Levittowns sprouting around them. Those subdivisions became a green-lawned, stripmalled noose. The subdivisions gleamed and the interstate highways built to connect them to the city blasted urban neighborhoods apart. African American city dwellers rose up in defiance against racist policing and ghettoization in the 1960s, but the long hot summers of strife were only met with white flight and no money to fix the damage once the dust cleared and fires died out.
We tend to think of the 1950s as the high point of suburbanization, but it was actually in the 1970s when the number of people living in the suburbs first outnumbered those in the cities. In the midst of the polyester decade’s malaise New York City almost went bankrupt and Detroit, to name just one city, lost one fifth of its population. In recent decades, however, many American cities have experienced a wave of gentrification that has priced out older residents and transformed neighborhoods.
Traces of America’s cities post-suburbanization and pre-gentrification are disappearing as corner bars become microbreweries and parks are taken over by strollers and dogs. The best place today to find those lost cities in all their dirty glory is in the realist films of the 70s and early 80s. New York in the 1970s is synonymous in our cultural imagination with Taxi Driver. Philadelphia’s unique grit is displayed best in 1981’s Blow Out.
Neo-noir contains two especially rich examples. The Departed and The Town are hardly a match for 1973’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle in providing a street-level view of Boston. Chicago post Richard Daley (dead in 1976) and pre Richard Daley Jr (elected in 1989) is best documented on film by Michael Mann’s 1981 masterpiece Thief. The opening shots are fetishistic in their lingering over the details. We begin in an alleyway on a rainy night, streetlights casting a glow on the fire escapes. The trestles of the el train stand in the distance. The frame is so dark that it could be in black and white, and combined with the antiqueness of the alley, could be back in 1946. The only sign that Humphrey Bogart is not about to walk into the picture is the thoroughly modern electronic Tangerine Dream score.
The Chicago of Thief is both mundane and modern. There’s a scene where Frank, played by James Caan, has a meeting on a rooftop with the glittering modern corporate office buildings in the background. These are not celebrated urban structures, but Mann has an affection for them, also seen in his 1990s masterpiece Heat. Their competent blandness might not move us as much as the Chrysler Building or other, more stylish forebears, but like it or not, those glass-covered rectangular boxes are the hallmark of the modern city. They are so interchangable, in fact, that Mann filmed this scene in Los Angeles, not Chicago.
On the more mundane side, much of the action takes place at a car lot owned by Frank as a front business. Urban car lots are a disappearing phenomenon in an age of massive suburban outlets and developers converting such spaces into more profitable ventures like condos to greet the return of the urban bourgeoisie. The car lots’ cheap pizzazz of bright lights and decorative banners feels tawdry. Mann uses that lighting perfectly, bare bulbs reflecting like jewels of cubic zirconia on the windshields and hoods of the massive steel bodies of 1970s sedans.
Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle does not have any urban car lots or factories, but it does take the viewer to aging sports arenas, dumpy local banks, highway tunnels, and bowling alleys. The bank robbery central to the plot takes place in one of those small local branches that are so nondescript that they can substitute for any other.
The most famous Boston location in the film is the now demolished Boston Garden, a cavern of the old school known for its faulty cooling system and parquet basketball floor. The wave of sports arenas in the last thirty years has utterly transformed sports spectatorship, which grew along with cities in the early 20th century. Today’s arenas gleam with infusions of big money and abound with technology, with a single beer costing what Eddie Coyle paid for a steak dinner back in 1973. The stands of the Garden look positively dank, the bare-knuckled brand of 1970s hockey practiced on the ice about as pretty as a broken chair.
However, the meatiest scenes with the best dialogue take place in diners. In Thief and The Friends of Eddie Coyle diners are the places where the tough guy protagonists make tough guy conversation. Like car lots, diners are disappearing from American cities. They came before the onslaught of fast food and “foodie” restaurants alike. Corporatization on the one hand and gentrification on the other are putting the local diner out of business. In one of the best lines of the film Eddie Coyle wearily sighs “I wish I had a nickel for every name I got that was alright” when gun runner Jackie Brown assures him that his contact is “alright.” Would that line work in a McDonald’s or in a place called “Grow” that specializes in gluten free avocado toast? No, it could only be in a diner drenched in formica, chrome, and the smell of hot roast beef sandwiches.
Just as important as the diners are the dingy bars, the kinds of places where the beer list consists of Bud and Bud Light. In Eddie Coyle Peter Boyle’s Dillon keeps bar at a place whose wood paneled walls are a shade of dark brown somewhere between cockroach and shit. Thief goes into The Green Mill, its gaudy neon marquee as out of step with the times as the jazz music played there. There’s not a craft beer or small batch bourbon to be found. Dive bars that aren’t meant to be ironic or appeal to hipsters are as rare as diners in America’s gentrifying urban neighborhoods.
The decayed, gritty, fly-blown cities of neo-noir are similar to the art deco sheen of classic noir landscapes in one crucial way, however: their white maleness. Classic noir played on the fears of a wartime society where the men were away and women were able to grab more for themselves, hence the predominance of femme fatales. Just as the solitary white man roamed the wide-open plains facing down disorder in the Western, the white male protagonists of classic noir did so on the streets of the dangerous city. It’s telling that in neo-noir, a product of post-1960s disillusion, the protagonists are almost always crooks, when in classic noir the hero was just as likely to be a private dick a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
The urban worlds of Thief and The Friends of Eddie Coyle are overwhelmingly white, despite the demographic changes to cities after “white flight.” The infamous racial segregation of Chicago and Boston are on full display in that regard, so this might not just be a manifestation of Hollywood’s racism alone.
Like Philip Marlowe, Eddie Coyle and Frank are white men under siege. Frank is faced with the potential loss of his adopted daughter, Coyle with time in prison. The anxieties over the threats to white man remain from classic noir, but the altered city actually intensifies them. In the post-suburban city white men are no longer the default, now existing in a constant state of anxiety. At one point Coyle, protesting his situation, says he will have to “go on welfare” like a black person. (He uses a slur.) His very status as a white man is no longer valid.
Eddie Coyle highlights the realities of segregated Boston when Dillon tells his underling to dump the car with Coyle’s body in an African American part of town, using a racial slur to get his point across. During the 1970s Boston would see violent clashes over school busing intended to mitigate school segregation. That topic is not directly referenced, but the attitudes and language used by the film’s main characters at least signal to that reality.
It’s telling that the most famous and popular neo-noir film of the 70s and 80s is the futuristic Blade Runner. Here too the city is dangerous and decayed, but in ways that are stylish as much as they are dystopian. It’s much more pleasant to imagine a hellish future city than to have to think about the neglected cities -and all the problems they face- all around us. Giant audio message blimps and electronic billboards with women in kimonos are far more tantalizing than dive bars, grungy diners, broken-down hockey arenas, and racial segregation.
Thief was one of many movies in the 80s filmed in Chicago and its surrounding environs. The Windy City has probably never been on film as much before or since, but the Hollywood version of Chicago could not have been more different than Michael Mann’s. It was usually a suburbanite’s view of the city. In 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting the suburban characters travel into Chicago as if they are headed up the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. There’s robbery, shooting, gangs, and a trip to the emergency room. Here Chicago was a scary place, but still carried a certain allure.
These 1980s films served as propaganda for a city long-infamous for its boosterism. In Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, affluent suburban white kids got to enjoy iconic Chicago, from Wrigley Field to the Art Institute in a glamorous, sparkling metropolis. The famous parade scene takes place in the Loop, the downtown zone that Chicago politicos used as a Potemkin Village during years of decay in the neighborhoods to brag that Chicago was “the city that works.” I saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off way too many times growing up. Living in rural Nebraska it gave me dreams of a big city with possibilities beyond anything I could imagine.
I got to visit there on a school trip in 1994, and it was a dream come true. Of course, we only went to the tourist and Loop sites and stayed at a hotel in the suburbs near O’Hare. This experience thrilled me, but I still only saw the most outward-facing parts of Chicago. In 1998 after graduating college I moved to Chicago and saw something very different. Living in the neighborhoods, this Chicago looked a lot more like Thief.
There were fried chicken joints with bulletproof glass behind the counter, dark bars that still had Stroh’s on tap, bland Chinese takeout places with godawful names like Wok and Roll, and the cozy Greek diner that became my home away from home. In the late 90s and early 2000s these neighborhoods were beginning to see the tendrils of gentrification, even if I would get offers for drugs whenever I got off the el train at night. Someone was shot on my street and I witnessed a mugging there, but if you visited my old block today you’d never know.
I was living in Chicago when 2000’s High Fidelity was filmed and released. It documented a different Chicago, a hip city full of nightclubs and bohemian diversions. In one scene John Cusack’s Rob Gordon talks to the audience from a seat at The Green Mill, the same bar where Frank hung out in Thief. In High Fidelity it is glamorous instead of dank, a tourist attraction in the newly gentrifying city, not a vestige of a world gone by. Even though the other Chicago was still going strong, that’s not the city even a film in love with Chicago wanted to show.
The neo-noir city is something else entirely. Thief and The Friends of Eddie Coyle take us to those utilitarian, overlooked urban places so quotidian that we barely notice them. The stark lighting of the urban car dealership in Thief and the garish red decor of the Chinese restaurant are the kinds of colors and textures too ordinarily ugly to be turned into fodder for Hollywood. Classic noir gave us the sharp angles of the city at its height, neo-noir gave us the shambolic grit of the city at its depth, and for that we should thank it.