In film noir, the city
at night often provides the setting as a visual metaphor for the film.
The cityscape these films portray is shadowy, secretive,
and dangerous, much like the brooding mood of the films themselves.
Why would the city evoke these types of moods? The answer to this is complex.
After World War II, America experienced the
baby boom. While most other countries struggled to recover from the
devastation of war, the United States' economy soared. All sorts of commodities were readily available that hadn't been before under the rationed War-time economy. It was a good environment in which to raise a family, and so the demand for housing quickly outstripped the supply. There hadn't been much demand for new housing during the Depression when family sizes shrunk and money was tight. With the ensuing prosperity and population boom, the United States had a housing shortage on its hands. As there was not much space to build within the confines of the city, the new housing had to spring up in what became known as the suburbs. City folk began to flee the cities to live in these new developments, most famously 'Levittown' on Long Island. While the city used to be chic, now all the money bled out into the countryside. The money the US government contributed to construction of housing mostly went to the suburbs, and as a result of the development of the major highways under Eisenhower it became easier to commute to work.
Obviously, this had repercussions on the city itself and on those who remained. Buildings crumbled, the crime rate in the cities rose, and the city became associated with decay and corruption.
Another aspect of cities that directors of noir often played up was the labyrinthine nature of city streets-- streets winding narrowly and almost nonsensically through dark alleys and fog. Double Indemnity, for example, opens with
Neff careening around a grey and smoggy Los Angeles in the early morning.
The clips on this page offer examples of the noir city.
The clip on the left, from The Big Sleep, gives a snapshot of this landscape: winding and claustrophobic streets, darkness and fog. Marlowe has to strain to see where he is going, and he quite easily hides in the shadows so he can apprehend the boy he is chasing. Who knows what else could be hiding in the shadows? In the scene in the middle, the anonymity of the city is used against Marlowe, as a couple of thugs appear out of nowhere and beat him up, and then melt away just as quickly. The streets empty, so there is no one around to help him. Certainly the agents of the law are no where to be seen--the police are largely ineffectual in these movies. Whenever they appear in The Big Sleep, for example, they are bumbling and oppressively bureaucratic. Marlowe has to work around rather than with the cops in order to solve his case.
The scene on the right, from The Killers, shows a more crowded city street, though still dark and isolated. The effect of the people walking by, rather than making the place seem more alive and human, actually seems to cause more isolation. The man (the insurance investigator) seems even more anonymous with the people walking behind him. He is waiting for Kitty, a woman who has never seen him before, and knows only to look for a polka-dotted bow-tie. He could be just any other guy walking past the theater. Nobody takes any notice of him or of the others as they pass on the street. Everyone is isolated, even if they are not alone.
Some places can be described as "fun to visit but you wouldn't want to live there"; the city portrayed in these films is a place you wouldn't even want to visit except in a movie.