2020 Film Essays

Technology and Anxiety in Film Noir

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Sorry, Wrong Number

After a period of adjustment following WWII, the industries that had so efficiently channeled America’s resources into ships, bombs, tanks, airplanes and uniforms turned their mighty production capacity towards supplying the populace with an abundance of material goods and devices. Add to that a baby-booming middle-class able to afford this material plethora, the nation was soon awash in an unprecedented level of material abundance: cars and televisions; roomy suburban homes, outfitted with electric oven ranges, vacuums, coffee makers and washing machines. It was truly an age of marvels.

As might be expected, film noir reflects this new reality with its shadowy fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist. In fact, it might even be said that many noirs were, like the country as a whole, positively besotted with technology and technological gadgets. Channeled through science and machines, good ol’ American “know-how” had helped win the war. It’s understandable that a similar story would percolate through to the small-scale conflicts of cops and criminals.

In the hybrid documentary/drama noirs such as He Walked by Night and T-Men, the process of police work and forensic detection act as co-stars to the film’s human actors. In T-Men, two Treasury agents go undercover to infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. The plot hinges on such scientific details as the composition of the paper used for American currency, the accuracy of photostatic reproduction and the quality of the plates employed to print dummy bills.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - T-Men

Armored Car Robbery offers a privileged view into the workings of a police station, parts of which resemble an assembly line. The later Crimewave features a scene in the same place. Both films depict how the police monitor and track suspects through a complex system of telephones, listening devices, two-way car radios and specialized tactics and jargon.

White Heat is a film infused with technology and cutting-edge gadgets. Trains, factory lines, car telephones, crime labs, electronic trackers, triangulation radar — all feature prominently and are significant factors in the story’s outcome. The climax takes place in a field of massive spherical gas tanks. Shot in high contrast black and white, the scene appears as something out of The Day the Earth Stood Still rather than a crime picture.

It’s not only law enforcement with access to the latest and greatest gadgets in noirs. Techno-obsessed criminal Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) from He Walked by Night burglarizes electronics stores, modifies and upgrades the devices he steals and then resells them. He’s an expert lock-pick, chemist, electronics engineer and self-surgeon. So of-the-moment, he even knows how to modify and improve televisions. In many ways, He Walked by Night is a contest between scientists. For it’s through comparing the marks on bullet casings found at crime scenes and the new technique of composite sketches, as much as the hail of police bullets at the climax, that finally ends Martin’s reign of terror.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - He Walked By Night

But while there’s a certain gee-whiz aura around all these new-fangled gizmos, noir can’t help but also regard this new era with a cynical, gimlet eye. It’s not just that ill-intentioned men might use the latest and greatest doohickeys for their own nefarious ends, but that these gadgets and the modernizing world they represent, rather than a boon, instead reinforce modernity’s sense of entrapment, alienation and doom.

Perhaps a generation scarred by total war couldn’t but help view industrial production as resting on a dark undercurrent. Factories that assembled cars once turned out tanks. Easy air travel was born as bombers and fighter planes. Even movies weren’t immune. Yes, they were used to raise morale, but — in other hands — became tools of genocidal propaganda and state control. 

Whatever the reason, film noir’s troubled view of technology seems to be a dominant theme. For example, everyday objects become sources of fear and dread, rather than simply being helpful and handy devices.

In Sorry, Wrong Number, sickly and house-bound Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) overhears on the telephone two men plotting a murder. Frantic to warn the victim, Leona makes dozens of calls throughout the night, only to slowly realize the murder being plotted is her own. Busy signals, incessant ringing and the click of receivers take on an ominous import. Rather than a means of communication and a way for a shut-in to have some form of human connection, the telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number only serves to breed fear and alienation. Its ultimate purpose: a herald for the swift approach of death.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Sorry, Wrong Number

Film noir is a voyeur’s dream and a nightmare of paranoia for everyone else. Surveillance technology opens private lives in drastic and disturbing ways. Phone taps, zoom lenses, listening devices, secret recordings and hidden cameras appear in one form or another in such films as Laura, T-Men, White Heat, Nightmare Alley, Armored Car Robbery, Pushover, Sudden Fear and Rear Window. Privacy does not exist in film noir — from the most innocuous desires to the most perverted cravings, all are in constant threat of exposure and exploitation.

Common objects in noir double as tools of murder and torture: the harrow farm machine in Border Incident that chews up Jack Bearnes (George Murphy); the infamous hot coffee scene of The Big Heat; The Schemer (Wallace Ford) of T-Men cooked alive in a steam room; the hearing aid used to torture Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) in The Big Combo; the stool pigeon forced into a metal stamping machine at the point of a blowtorch in Brute Force; the snow plow that rolls over Red (Rudy Bond) in Nightfall; the third rail that gets Hayes Stewart (William Talman) in City That Never Sleeps and Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger) in Cry Terror!; the stove coil Edward Miller (Arthur Franz) uses to brand his palm in The Sniper; the accidental blast of steam from a locomotive that boils Zuckie Hommell (Ford Rainey) in White Heat.

However, there are more threats than just modernity’s material gifts in noir films. Business executive George Stroud (Ray Milland) in The Big Clock finds himself cornered not only when he’s wrongly suspected of murder but, more importantly, when subjected to corporate efficiency standards. His boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), the chrono-obsessed founder of Janoth Enterprises, has installed a giant, state-of-the art clock (no timepiece in the world is more accurate) in the lobby of firm’s office building. This “big clock” regulates all aspects of the business and any departure from the schedule is cause for termination. Using the clock, Laughton plans his day down to the minute, even the trysts with his mistress.

Dehumanizing and soul-killing time management, itself the product of the industrial revolution, is the true villain of The Big Clock. The point is further underscored when Milland hides out in the giant device, an eerie wonder of glowing dials, levers and buttons, with the scene being reminiscent of the humans-as-cogs in Metropolis.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - The Big Clock

The ultimate products of the machine-driven, industrial age are the sewers and basements, streets and alleyways, parking garages, numberless stairwells and apartments/offices. But where the modern metropolis might represent a society’s wealth and technological advancement, it is nothing but a trap for characters of film noir — Side Street, The Third Man, Night and the City, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Naked City and On Dangerous Ground  portray the urban landscape as an inimical place, one that may shine from a distance as the new techno-Eden that can promise jobs, community and a good time, but is in reality a warren of opportunistic con-men, shifty women and indifferent or corrupt government figures.

What’s more singularly American than the automobile? The freedom of movement, the autonomy, the ability to pick up and strike out for new places — the car was the embodiment of American individualism and self-sufficiency. 

But in film noir, the car that allows freedom of movement also contributes to a sense of rootlessness. There’s liberty behind the wheel, but also a feeling of alienation when everyone else is similarly disconnected and going their own way. The search for opportunity, or open space, or a simple, hard-won vacation turns into another kind of trap. Film after film depicts the car as a mobile cage, something that must be escaped from rather than a means of escape. 

In Detour, piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) thinks he’s headed for his waiting girlfriend in L..A where they plan to start a new life. Instead, he’s soon at the mercy of Vera (Ann Savage), who has enough circumstantial evidence to frame him for murder. Sure, Al appropriated the car of a dead businessman he met while hitchhiking, but that only binds him more tightly to the workings of chance and circumstance. Over several days on the road, Al and Vera play out their death spiral, the convertible they ride in a duelist’s arena.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Detour

The Hitch-Hiker creates an even more dire situation. Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are on a fishing trip when, on a whim — free of wives and job responsibilities — the pair decide to head to Mexico. They’re American men in a car. Such a lark is their right.

Unfortunately, they pick up a hitchhiker — in this case, serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman). He forces the pair to take him to Mexico, all the while taunting them with his plans for their eventual murder. Sunbaked and far off the beaten path, the car in The Hitch-Hiker is a pressure cooker of fear and dread. The irony is where once that motorized capsule of steel and glass represented a man’s freedom, it is now a prison bumping across a fatalistic wasteland in which a person’s worst imaginings play out.

In The Chase, the limousine of mobster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) has backseat gas and brake pedals he can use to take control of the vehicle. Eddie enjoys terrifying his chauffer by accelerating to dangerous speeds. But again, the car — symbol of freedom and initiative, and despite this new-fangled device — becomes a deathtrap when Cochran tries to outrun a train.

Robert Mitchum built a career playing heroes who should’ve stayed away from cars. As Jeff in Out of the Past, he’s a sitting duck for Jane Greer’s Kathie and her pistol. Jean Simmons’ Diane Tremayne Jessup drives Mitchum’s Frank Jessup over a cliff in Angel Face. In Where Danger Lives, Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) and Margo (Faith Domergue) speed to their ruin in Mexico. And the noirish Thunder Road ends in a straight out crack up.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Out of the Past

Similar scenarios span the classic film noir cycle: The Devil Thumbs a Ride (more innocents trapped by a sadistic hitchhiker), Drive a Crooked Road (Mickey Rooney’s Eddie Shannon substitutes his love of cars for interpersonal relationships and is therefore an easy dupe for the femme fatale) and Highway Dragnet (Richard Conte as hitchhiker Jim Henry on the run from the cops.) Even brief scenes such as the car bomb that kills Jocelyn Brando’s Katie Bannion in The Big Heat — later echoed in a shot of a wrecking yard — reinforce the dim, ominous view noir takes of the quintessential American machine.

As a literal and figurative symbol of entrapment, it’s hard to find something more emblematic than a train. The confined space, the sense of headlong movement and a foreordained destination work perfectly as metaphors of isolation, entrapment and fate. 

Filmed almost entirely in the confines of a passenger train, The Narrow Margin is perhaps the quintessential example. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) must escort Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), the wife of a mob boss set to testify against her husband, on a cross-country train trip. The pair quickly realizes it’s impossible to move unseen in the corridors of a train car, not to mention elude someone who might be chasing them.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - The Narrow Margin

The train standing in as a symbol of inescapable fate also appears Human Desire, Strangers on a Train, Leave Her to Heaven and Double Indemnity. What might be seen as a convenient and quick mode of travel, in the hands of noir’s dark little fingers, becomes a moving coffin. Instead of discovering liberation, new vistas and virgin cities, passengers on trains in film noir find themselves chugging along to the end of the line and a waiting grave.

But the characters of noir are not only shown trapped by the wonders of the industrial age. Many also become equated with machines and therefore a person stripped of a soul.

Act of Violence opens with a closeup of a .45 pistol. Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) intends to use the weapon against a former Army comrade for an act of betrayal committed when both men were German POWs. Joe approaches his revenge with the implacability of a machine. He’s undeterred by the law, pleas from the wife of Van Heflin’s Frank R. Enley or pleas from his own fiancé. Wounded in the war, Joe walks with a permanent, shuffling limp; its ominous sound terrorizes his victims long before they can see him. 

Throughout the film, Ryan’s Joe is identified with other modern devices. At first, it’s simple things such as a jiggling door handle. The ticking of a clock (perhaps one of man’s most gruesome inventions) matches the rhythm of his limp. Later, Ryan’s ominous, mocking laugh comes over a telephone. He is no longer a man, but a machine.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Act of Violence

Similarly, Richard Basehart’s Roy Martin from He Walked By Night is not only a technological savant, but also the perfect criminal. Why? Because he possesses the characteristics of a machine: precise, efficient and bloodless.

The soul-less gizmo wizard appears in 711 Ocean Drive. Edmond O’Brien plays a genius telephone repairman named Mal Granger whose skills gain him employment with the mob. He’s directly equated with technology and machines — not only through his profession and heartless personality, but also in scenes when he’s backgrounded by a factory or in a stunning moment inside Hoover Dam’s turbine vault. 

Baseheart also stars in Tension as a milquetoast pharmacist, Warren Quimby, who suffers repeated indignities at the hands of his adulterous wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). In a fit desperation to “man up,” Warren replaces his glasses with cutting-edge contact lenses. The change alters him, and he develops a second personality — more outgoing, more assertive. The easy comparison is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Warren’s Hyde, though actually a nice guy, is also willing to enter his wife’s shady world where people are exploited and used, and where murder and deceit are normal. It’s not that technology utterly corrupts him, but it is the “gateway drug” to darker areas of experience. A lesser man would’ve succumb.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Tension

Little else represents technology-based entrapment and alienation better than the ubiquitous heist picture. Stickups, bank robberies, hijackings — the heist is the default setting of film noir. Characteristic of these knock overs is the level of planning that goes into the job. 

These heist movies — Kansas City Confidential, Armored Car Robbery, The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, 5 Against the House, to name a few — build suspense through the intricate plotting of the crime and a preposterous alignment of timing, routine and equipment, which speaks less of the criminals involved (their intelligence, their foresight) and more of the world in which they live. A society ordered by timetables, programmed around rote process, and brimming with state-of-the-art technology, demands that the successful crime be similarly regimented and streamlined. Men must become part of the machine. 

The first 15 minutes of Hubert Cornfield’s 1957 Plunder Road depict an elaborate train robbery involving explosives, knockout gas and a crane truck — a theft obviously planned to the minutest detail. Coming near the end of what is considered the classic noir period, Plunder Road almost revels in the purposely Baroque operation.

The film’s audacious opening and technological bravura is also notable for its lack of dialogue. In noir movies, nervous hard-boiled types are known for their banter, but not a single wisecrack passes between these men. Instead, like all individuals engineered into specific roles required for the success of the mission, they are merely cogs in the machine.

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - Plunder Road

None of this compares to the ultimate form of technological anxiety in film noir, one that becomes full-on existential dread. The genre positively glows with fears of radiation and nuclear apocalypse. Just as an American public was coming to term with the implications of the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, noir was already contemplating the terror of radiation and nuclear weapons.

In D.O.A., poor schlump Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is dosed with a slow-acting “luminous poison,” later revealed as iridium. Condemned to death, Frank’s only solace is finding his killers and discovering why they want him dead — a pyrrhic victory to say the least.

Several movies deal in hostile foreign powers on the hunt for the secrets of nuclear fission: A Bullet for Joey, House on 92nd Street, The Atomic City, The Thief, Pickup on South Street and World for Ransom.

In Kiss Me Deadly, several shady parties vie for “the great whatsit,” in time revealed as a lead-lined briefcase carrying uranium. The film ends with the case’s contents going critical and presumably taking out all of Los Angeles. City of Fear develops a similar scenario, though — in this case — it’s what today is called a “dirty bomb.” Escaped convict Vince Ryker (Vince Edwards) unknowingly totes around a canister of cobalt-60 he believes is heroin and, if opened, threatens to poison all of L.A. 

Film Noir Technology and Anxiety - City of Fear

Split Second offers perhaps the most doom-laden statement on what modernity heralds for our species. Three escaped convicts hole up with their hostages in a ghost town that lies on the Nevada Test Site and within the blast radius of an imminent bomb test. The crooks figure the cops will clear out soon and make escape easy. Unknown to them, the timetable for the detonation has been moved ahead an hour.

Near the film’s climax, the countdown is given over to The Great Machine, an autonomous computer that prefigures such genocidal AIs as HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey), Joshua (War Games) and the Skynet of The Terminator. Split Second shows what film noir inherently understood: the human race — rather than liberated by the era of techno-utopia, and as our own current slow-motion greenhouse apocalypse demonstrates — is at the mercy of its own ingenuity.

Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.