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August 18, 2008
Centripetal and Centrifugal Space in Film Noir 1939 – 1959: Case Studies Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep
L.A.s City Hall a signifier of Centripetal Space isn't usually represented in Films Noir
Some early 20th film criticism by critics such as Siegfried Kracauer (an architect by training) has considered film in relation to cities and alongside this the growth of modernity in which representations of the city were usually associated with modernity frequently in a very optimistic way. Dziga Vertov's elegy to the city in Man With a Movie Camera is perhaps the best example of this. (Try and avoid the version with the Michael Nyman soundtrack it wrecks the meanings of the film as they might have have been generated by contemporaries).
Film noir as a cinematic category runs counter to the tradition that modernity is progress and focuses upon the seamy undersideside of the city and frequently the spaces in the city which are ignored and which contain currents that continually undermine notions of progress and the city of light and enlightenment understood as the general aims of supporters of modernity. The cinema of Weimar Germany provides some good examples of this and I don't just mean the 'expressionist cinema' which was largely finished by 1923, but rather the German films that took some of the stylistic attitudes but also explored various aspects of crime in the city. Fritz Lang's 'M' considered from the perspective of reading spaces of the city and also alternative types of surveillance is fascinating in this respect - Lang too was an architect by training. Joe May's 'Asphalt' is another. Then French 'Poetic Realism' of the 1930s has also had both a stylistic and critical similarities to what became known as film noir. Film Noir's origins are irrevocably a cultural reverbaration of the upheavals of the European 30 Years War 1914-1945 with many of the core directors of 'noir' having had a European if not German background such as Lang, Wilder & Siodmak. In the case a of Siodmak and Wilder their noir sensibilities were a million miles away from the optimimistic ethnographis style of film People on Sunday celebrating everyday life in Berlin in 1929 which was released only weeks before the Great Crash which eventually brought Germany into the hands of the Nazis.
Since the 1970s the critical category of film noir has been much debated within film studies circles. The term originated from French film critics in the aftermath of World War II when the French market was flooded with American imports of films which were unavailable under Nazi occupation. Most of these films were originally generically marketed as something else in the United States however, in a post-war mood these thrillers were experienced as doom laden and pessimistic, with resonances of the French poetic-realist cycle as well as the German expressionist cycle. In recent years it seems as though 'Noir' has been overwritten and although it was once a critically developed category neo-noir has become a style / sub-genre that is exploited by the industry with many variants such as 'tech-noir'.
The definition of film noir is highly contested , “film noir’ suggests Vernet (1993 p 26) ‘ is a collector’s idea that, for the moment, can only be found in books’ however, for the purpose of this article the aim is to explore the spatial hypothesis proposed by Dimendberg (2004) rather than to examine definitions of ‘noir’ itself and the reader will need to consult some of the well known writings about this. The films I have chosen as case studies are accepted by all critics as central to the group of films that have been constructed as ‘noir’ and therefore provide a good basis to develop debate around Dimendberg's ideas of the representations of space.
Dimendberg argues that film noir between 1939-1959 represented the spatial infrastructure of American cities through highly specific spatial configurations marking the reconstruction of the American city space from an early modern model of centripetal space to a more complex one based upon centrifugal space. Dimendberg defines these spaces in the following way:
Centripetal and centrifugal space, tendencies towards concentration and dispersal, recur and often overlap throughout film noir. (Dimendberg, 2004 p 18).
Two core films from the film noir cycle - Double Indemnity (1944) dir. Billy Wilder and The Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks - will be used as case studies using a detailed textual analysis of the representations of space to explore Dimendberg’s hypothesis. Both films are about Los Angeles (L.A.) and both involve the work of Raymond Chandler. L.A. has been the subject of much scrutiny by critics from a range of academic backgrounds such as Frederic Jameson, Mike Davis and Edward Soja and has been seen as the archetypal post-modern city.
Centrifugal and Centripetal Space
Dimendberg locates the growth of centrifugal space as a tendency or process which started in the middle of the 19th century in the United States. This was made possible by new transportation systems that intersected with a desire to live away from the intensities of the centre. Dimendberg identifies centripetal tendencies as
“... a fascination with urban density and the visible – the skyline, monuments, recognisable public spaces, and inner-city neighbourhoods” (Dimendberg 2004 p 177)
whereas centrifugal space is bound up with:
‘immateriality, invisibility and speed’ (ibid).
The growth of cinema as an institution has been intimately bound up with the growth of modernity and the city as part of the built environment and culturally in terms of mass urban audiences.
The ‘film noir’ cycle is commonly thought to have started in 1941 with the Maltese Falcon many of the core films noir emerged in the years following Double Indemnity in the late 1940s such as Mildred Pierce (1945) Michael Curtiz (Austro-Hungarian), The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard (1950) Wilder (Austrian). Joan Copjec, it is worth noting, is scathing about what she describes as the
“pop-psychological diagnosis of pot-war male malaise” (Copjec 1993b)
which many argue motivated the ‘film noir’ cycle. 
Developments in the American city since the 1940s have combined both centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Los Angeles is particularly interesting for film noir primarily represented Los Angeles and to a lesser extent
LA downtown: A centripetal fortress in the City of Quartz
For Dimendberg the representations of the city in ‘film noir’ express the changing configurations very effectively, because many of these films relied upon location shooting. It was this relationship to realism first noted by the French critic Nino Frank which makes film noir so important in relation to the representation of urban space:
Today’s spectator is sensitive to nothing more than this impression of real life, of lived experience… (Dimendberg 2004,p 5)
The Representation of Space in Double Indemnity
In Double Indemnity the film opens with a sense of the modern as a car races through the streets to a modern office building with a night-porter and lifts. The car goes past workers repairing the tram system, a reflection on both the capabilities of the modern car and a reminder of how the public transport system had been undermined by vested interests several years previously. As a figure enters the building the viewer sees a huge empty hall where the administration of modern society is carried out as the character makes his way to an office and starts to record his confession on the latest recording technology.
Neff & Phyllis in the Spanish Interior: Double Indemnity
This space signifies a huge engine of centripetal economic forces. In a flashback narrative structure typical of film noir we are taken to a suburb of Los Angeles on the edge of the city. The house that Walter Neff is visiting is commented upon in both its style and price as a voice-over. It is in the popular Spanish colonial style which is very expensive, retro and tasteless redolent of ‘new money’. The difficulties of transportation to the ‘downtown’ are strongly signified as the daughter gets a lift from Walter Neff to go to meet her boyfriend in downtown LA. This provides clear evidence of the centrifugal nature of the place and the need to rely on private transportation.
Keys and Neff in the Boss's well upholstered office in Double Indemnity
Another core space of the film takes place in the modern office building of the insurance company that employs Neff. The space is strongly hierarchical ranging from the porters on the door to ways in which the internal space is divided to represent the power relations. Looking down on the main hall which is full of serried rows of typists the engine of repetitive monotonous capitalism is represented. Neff who is further up the pecking order shares an office space with another salesman. Neff’s line manager (Keys) has his own office from which he is responsible for checking the deals made and assessing any claims many of which are fraudulent. The chief executive of the company has a very large office and attention is drawn to this visually and in the dialogue. This is the architecture of centripetal capitalism, an intense hub of activity, yet its location is represented only indirectly by a brief view of the City Hall through the window of the Chief Executive’s office after Phyllis has been made an offer to settle her claim. This provides only tangential reference to the metropolis.
Double Indemnity: Neff meets Phyllis in the supermarket in the anonimity of no-place
Other spaces represented in the film include the supermarket where Neff arranges to meet Phyllis. This is a space created by centrifugal forces for it isn’t a localised ‘Mainstreet’ it is a space full of strangers who are unlikely to recognise either Phyllis or Neff, otherwise it would be unsafe for them. It isn’t part of a city of ‘community’ or ‘collective memory’.
Neff’s own bachelor flat is an undistinguished dormitory area of the city. It has its own underground garage for residents with a supervisor who cleans the cars as well. This signifies the type of space best described as ‘mid-town’ for the aspirant social status of the occupants.
Other spaces which are represented is the cafe in which Neff meets Lola and also the view over the Hollywood Bowl which represents a centrifugal tendency in that the centre doesn’t have the ability to provide this entertainment. This kind of space would appear to require a car to access it.
There are several off-screen places referred to which are clearly thought of as provincial compared to the importance of L.A. itself. The passenger on the train comments that Palo Alto is a ‘nice little town’. The passenger himself comes from Medford,
Phyllis on the railway tracks in Double Indemnity
Lola the step-daughter of Phyllis Dietrichson has also moved to Hollywood and there is precise reference made to the type of housing and thus the type of people who live there: it is a space of constrained circumstances for young hopefuls. This is also a centrifugal reference.
Los Angeles as represented by Double Indemnity is constructed as a space in which the individual to successfully negotiate the newly developing urban space must drive. That Neff’s flat has an underground garage shows that this is a modern residence built for a city which requires the car. The car itself symbolises the decentralisation of place.
Throughout the film there is recognition that space is becoming more abstract. The insurance industry is an example of a layer of abstract capitalism which creates ‘products’ out of nothing but the fear of the future. Neff knows the double indemnity clause included in expensive insurance policies is a cynical marketing tool which for all statistical purposes is never going to happen.
Double Indemnity is a film which could have been scripted by Foucault. Keyes’ dismissing his superior’s argument relies upon the use of actuarial tables that cover every eventuality is an aspect of the new scientific methods of control which Foucault discusses. Surveillance is a central theme throughout the film and the seemingly panoptic gaze -driven by statistics- which Keyes manages is seemingly far more effective than the surveillance system of the police who bought into the accidental death story. Capitalism is clearly more thorough ans scinetific in its investigations.
What makes Double Indemnity a film which is rooted in the representation of centripetal space is the marked lack of a significant centre. The downtown is only briefly seen through a car window and there is no significant landmark. This fits with Dimendberg’s comments on Crossfire (1949) and The Big Combo (1955) in which they are presented
‘…without the clearly delineated plaza, piazza, place, or Platz that traditionally provided a focal point for collective life in the large city… (Dimendberg 2004, p 89).
The most significant place in terms of monumentality is the Hollywood Bowl which is far from the centre and is only seen at a distance.
The Representation of Space in ‘The Big Sleep’
In similar ways to Double Indemnity, the Big Sleep also represents the centripetal nature of contemporary LA. Whilst the spaces represented are different to those of Double Indemnity the lack of a defining central space means that this film too is focused upon the negotiation of spaces which are far from the centre. for example one shoot-out takes place in a country retreat as a signifier of space which is outside of the surveillance systems of the city.
There are several key spaces in which the action takes place. The house of the General signifies old money rather than the new money of Double Indemnity. Central places for the action are the out of town gambling club and Geiger’s rented house which is used as a site of blackmail. Its exact location in the city remains obscure but it is not fully urbanised central space. Other places used are the two shops, the flat in older apartment building and run down office spaces, both Sam Spade’s and another one where a minor criminal is poisoned.
Outside of Geiger's house which was rented out.
Located in a non-specific suburb this is an example of centrifugal space
In both films cars function as significant spatial markers. Significant actions take place in them in both films. In Double Indemnity Neff develops a link with the daughter and in another car the murder takes place. In The Big Sleep the General’s chauffeur has been killed in his car, and Sam Spade falls in love with the General’s daughter in a car. The car then is a signifier of a space which is no-place. Notably some space is not represented in either film such as industrial space or working class or ethnically based places.
Above: an undated image of gasholders and an industrial scene in Los Angeles of the 1940s. This represents the industrialised aspects of LA not represented in the case study films
Space as Nodal
In both the films analysed space is represented as increasingly amorphous and abstract, lives appeared to be increasingly the negotiation of the space between a range of discrete nodes. Shopping space was represented as a modern node in Double Indemnity but we are never familiarised with its location, essentially the location is irrelevant. The shops represented in The Big Sleep are like the offices inhabiting slightly run down marginalised areas - they sell second-hand and pornographic books – they aren’t the spaces of modernity like department stores. To some extent these are sites of nostalgia for Raymond Chandler, who was involved in the screenplays for both these films later moved away from LA itself. Chandler had sarcastically slighted it as a city which was losing its structure:
“Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck”. (Chandler cited Dimendberg, 2004 p 170.)
Dimendberg cites a response by Foucault to Rabinow who had noted that architects were no longer the ‘masters of space they once were or thought themselves to be’ (Rabinow cited Dimendberg 2004 p 174).The response which Foucault gave seems to fit perfectly with the above analysis of the representations of space within Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep. Foucault identified three ‘great variables’ which are territory, communication and speed all imbricated with each other in complex ways: “that exceed received understandings of the architectural and usefully define centrifugal space”. (Dimendberg 2004,157).
Given that films noir represent a dis-ease within society it is worth trying to situate the representation of L. A. within a broader framework of models of representation of the city itself. Boyer (1996) identifies three broad models of the city:
City as Work of Art
City as Panorama
These representations of the city can be equated to the traditional, modern and contemporary periods. In many respects Los Angeles has largely missed out on the longer organic growth of this process model of city development. In the 1870s L.A. was still a small town of little more than 5,000 people. The discovery of oil in 1892 turned L.A. into a boom town and by the middle of the 1920s it was producing nearly a quarter of the world’s oil. As well as this is was associated with the massive boom in film production as Hollywood became the world’s leading film-making place. Both of these industries are referenced in Double Indemnity. Oil is also the basis of General Sternwood’s fortune in The Big Sleep. The massive growth of industry in L.A. during the war meant it was the largest producers of cars outside of Detroit by 1950. It was also a huge centre of migrant labour, yet neither of these films make the slightest verbal or visual reference to these aspects of L.A. therefore the representations of urban space are very selective .
Bunker Hill 1900
L.A. is being represented as a city with little collective memory, and Chandler himself was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the city. There is a hint of nostalgia in Double Indemnity when the man from Medford,
The City of Panorama
The city of panorama is described by Boyer as:
…the city of soaring skyscrapers and metropolitan extension, a spatial order that when seen from a birds-eye perspective that requested deciphering and reordering.” (p 41)
But this developmental process didn’t happen in Los Angeles in the way it had happened in other cities. The city hall completed in 1928 remained the tallest building in Los Angeles until 1964; height limitations were imposed because of the fear of earthquakes. At the time of the making of these case study films the City Hall was physically prominent and not ‘dwarfed’ by its surroundings. Yet this public monument, which was clearly centripetal in design, was specifically denied by the films underscoring their centrifugal mode of the representation of space.
Above LA Downtown 2005
Los Angeles was never subjected to the disciplined vision of Le Corbusier; geology had contributed to its specific development because it has been built near a significant fault-line making earthquakes an ever-present danger. LA then is “celebrated as the prototypical contemporary place”. (Boyer p47):
Los Angeles fails to offer the traveller a series of city tableaux, framed sites ruled by the lines of perspectival space. A non-place, existing in a state of constant flux and interfaces becomes a new synthetic time-space…
City of Spectacle
The city of spectacle, argues Boyer, is a city of appropriations of historic styles, bounded by nodes within ‘an urban composition criss-crossed by highways and invisible electronic circuitry.’ (Boyer p 47). Spectacle here is linked to the work of Guy Debord and is related to the notion that vision is elevated in order to deceive. By comparison Foucault, writing polemically against Debord, argued that contemporary society was based upon technologies of surveillance.
But Foucault’s opposition of surveillance and spectacle seems to overlook how the effects of these two regimes can coincide’. Crary (1994 p18)
Dimendberg’s arguments about the representations of urban space in films noir can’t really be fully justified on the basis of case studies of just these two films. It is also problematic that these films were both strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler who had his own particular perspectives on the nature of Los Angeles and the rapid urban changes it was undergoing. Some historical aspects of Los Angeles have been used as it is clear that its growth and the way urban space developed has been different to cities such as New York or Chicago and of course major European capitals.
Why such Pessimism about Los Angeles? Subjectivity & the Category of 'Noir'
There is an enigma of why there a pessimistic vision of LA created in these two films. Perhaps it is the critical construction of these films originally started by French critics -coming from a radically destabilised position- discussing them as 'noir' rather than as straightforward crime thrillers which has created a problem of analysis by distorting the field of vision?
Importantly both the films have redemptive aspects to them refuting accusations of ‘pessimism’. In The Big Sleep Sam Spade seems to have got his girl. another aspect of Sam spade is that he is honest at heart, he is trustworthy but he is also anti-bureaucratic. The audience can identify with him because the ends justify the means which sometimes means being unconventional to get to 'the truth'. In Double Indemnity Neff recognises the power of true love and enables Zachette to reunite with Lola. Neff has failed to kill his substitute father figure Keys who forgives him in the closing scene. If a critical analysis can ignore for a moment the title of “film noir” and see these films as thrillers with specific target audiences the representation of Walter and Phyllis becomes one of two aspirants desperately trying to make it by taking short cuts rather than following the protestant ethic: lured by spectacle they become victims of surveillance technologies in the Foucaultian sense. The world of the Big Sleep is a different class world in which there are still people still trying to ‘make it by short cuts’ who all lose in the end. The world of the gambling club bears an indirect witness to the rapidly growing economy of LA. This is where the new money is being spent and the new upper-middle classes are emerging. Both films represent Los Angeles in a way that privileges the centrifugal over the centripetal and arguably represents spatially the roots of the postmodern city avant la lettre.
Boyer, Christine. 1996. The City of Collective Memory. Cambridge (Mass): MIT
Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell
Clarke, David B. Ed. 1997.The Cinematic City. London: Routledge
Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso
Copjec, Joan. 1993. The Phenomenal Nonphenomenal. Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso
Crary, Jonathan. 1994. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge (Mass): MIT
Dimendberg, Edward. 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard
Jameson, Frederic. 1993. The Synoptic Chandler. Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso
Rykwert, Joseph. 2000. The Seduction of Place. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Vernet, Marc. 1993. ‘Film Noir on the Edge of Doom’. Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso
City of Quartz: by Mike Davis. Channel 4 TV documentary 1991.
Los Angeles the Postmodern City: by Edward Soja. Open University: Department of Geography. 1993.
 Vernet 1993 p 2 points out that ‘…recall that, by those in charge of publicity at the time of its release, Gilda and films like it at the time were presented as ‘romantic melodrama’.
 Vernet (1993, p 14) points to 5 problematic areas in the construction of film noir as a critical category. Elsewhere in the article he challenges the cinematic techniques used such as ‘expressionist lighting’. Vernet also points out that the original list of films noir by Borde & Chaumeton only had 22 films on it. Silver & Ward writing several years later had several hundred.
 Wilder was an Austrian émigré who was involved in making an ethnographically based film of the city People on a Sunday made in Berlin in the summer of 1929 when optimism abounded and the industrial economy in Germany (not the rural) was still expanding. Only a few weeks later the German economy entered into a dramatic downward cycle emanating from the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Howard Hawks was an all- American established director and had made Scarface a key film in the 1930s American gangster cycle which represented the city very differently.
 There is not the space here to compare representations in film noir of L. A. and
 It was in post-war Germany and Soviet Russia where representations of the city in relation to the underlying tensions and hopes for modernity were first explored. Metropolis (1926 released 1927) from Fritz Lang marked a transition from the anti-modern expressionist cycle representing the literal layering of city-spaces from the Elysian heights of the elites to the catacombs of the ancient city. Lang’s representation ended in a populist appeal for a more understanding society with mediators. Walter Ruttman an avant-garde artist brought out Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). This represented the city as a space of rhythms in a documentary form but avoided social issues. Dziga Vertov’s far more political film Man With a Movie Camera (1929) celebrated the city space of modernity and identified it as a space of progress building a better future.
This was the period when America underwent a period of rapid change. There were many tensions to overcome, the demobilisation of millions of service personnel and their re-employment, the re-settling of women who had been providing the industrial labour needed to run the war and as well as this the reconstruction of American cities which had an infrastructure that had been deteriorating rapidly because there had been a lack of investment because of war and the preceding depression. Nevertheless LA at this time was a boomtown which had done extremely well out of the war and it became a major beneficiary of the long post-war economic boom.
 Later the planner and geographer Manuel Castells would identify the construction of these cities as a fundamental aspect of Informational Society summed up in his ideas of ‘the space of flows’ and ‘timeless time’.
 Crary (1994) notes that Foucault as well as writing about new disciplinary regimes to create a modern subject coincide with the development of industrialisation he also describes the role of the newly constituted sciences in regulating the behaviour of subjects “crucial to the development of these new disciplinary techniques of the subject was the fixing of quantitative and statistical norms of behaviour”. (Crary 1994, p 15). Copjec (1993 b pp167-172) spends some time discussing the reference to actuarial tables in relation to Foucault
 Frederic Jameson (1993 p43) points out that Chandler frequently represents gambling clubs in his novels. These function as a subcategory of “ the gradual enlargement of the private club or casino into the whole closed enclave of the private development with its gates and private police”.
 Copjec (1993 b p 185) draws attention to the range of ‘social’ policies encouraging suburban expansion and ethnic and racial segregation which was mainly mandated by the Federal Housing Administration founded in 1934. The representations in the two case studies create a spatial absence perhaps linked to these policies.
 Jameson (1993 p 37) argues that Chandler is ‘the least politically correct of our modern writers’ and ‘faithfully gives vent to everything racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise socially resentful and reactionary in the American collective unconscious…”
 Rykwert (2000 p 132) makes similar points to Boyer in his chapter “Flight From the City: Lived Space and Virtual Space” although he doesn’t differentiate so precisely between the historical characteristics of each phase.
 “since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialised mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present day society’s generalised abstraction”. (Debord, cited Crary 1994 p 19)
 Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance… we are neither in the amphitheatre nor on stage but in the Panoptic machine.” (Foucault cited Crary 1994 p 17)