If film noir is defined by any single image, it is the dark city. Yet a film doesn't have to take place in the dark city to be noir. Any fallen world will suffice. In the two basic types of film noir, we are either (1) in the fallen noir world from the very beginning (Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Heat), or (2) something happens, and the protagonist suddenly finds him or herself in the fallen world (Pitfall).
Noir is often about the darkness lurking underneath the surface of things. Any surface will suffice – a woman's face, a man's reputation, an organization, or the Norman Rockwell cheerfulness of a small town. Here are five definitive examples of the small town noir.
1. Shadow of a Doubt
With Shadow of Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943), director Hitchcock virtually invents the small town noir, setting the template for most of the small town noirs that follow. Our protagonist is an archetypal innocent investigator, a bright, wholesome teenager named Charlie (Teresa Wright) whose discovery of what lies beneath is the film's subject matter. The catalyst for her discovery is the arrival – from the Big City to the small town of Santa Rosa, California – of young Charlie's beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton).
Though she is initially glad to see him, young Charlie soon begins to suspect something is wrong. Specifically, young Charlie begins to suspect that her uncle – with whom she shares a nearly telepathic bond – might be the Merry Widow Murderer whom the police are looking for. She tells Uncle Charlie her suspicions. In response, Uncle Charlie takes her to the "dark side" of town. (The implication, of course, is that every town has its dark underside.) There, in a restaurant, where they are waited upon by one of young Charlie's less privileged classmates, Uncle Charlie reveals his (very noir) vision of the world:
"You think you know something, don't you? You think you're the clever little girl who knows something. There's so much you don't know. So much. What do you know, really? You're just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares! Or did I, or was it a silly inexpert little lie. You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?"
This astonishing speech, magnificently delivered by actor Cotton, was most likely written by Thornton "Our Town" Wilder, who co-authored the screenplay with Sally "Meet Me in St. Louis" Benson and Alma "Mrs. Hitchcock" Reville. Shadow of a Doubt could easily be considered Our Town's noir twin. (Shadow of a Doubt's young Charlie is more or less the same character as Our Town's Emily. ) As in Our Town, the teenaged protagonist of Shadow of a Doubt is the embodiment of everything positive in life, balancing Uncle Charlie's innate evil. But she cannot combat that evil without a loss of innocence, i.e., until her eyes are opened and she recognizes the evil for what it is.
2. Le Corbeau
What Shadow of a Doubt did for the small towns of America, Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943) does for the provincial villages of France. Le Corbeau opens with a title card identifying the location as "Any town. Anywhere." The catalyst that reveals "the foul sty underneath" the village's quaint exterior is a series of poison pen letters written by someone who identifies him or herself only as le corbeau (the raven). Each letter sent to someone in town accuses the recipient of something sordid – and most likely true. The hidden sordidness is universal, and the letters stir a witch hunting fervor in the citizens. Anyone could be the raven. The film's brilliantly constructed narrative casts suspicion first on one citizen, then another, then another.
Le Corbeau had an enormous influence on nouvelle vague director Claude Chabrol, at least half of whose films, e.g., La Ceremonie and Le Boucher, could be described as provincial noirs.
3. It's a Wonderful Life
It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is not generally acknowledged as a film noir, but it is included here for its Pottersville sequence, as dark a descent into an archetypal noirland as any film you will see from the 1940s. Pottersville is Bedford Falls' twisted mirror image – every man is a criminal or a victim, every cop is a thug, every woman is a whore or a desiccated spinster – and, according to the logic of the film, the only thing that prevents Bedford Falls from turning into Pottersville is the moral authority of the Good Capitalist (James Stewart aka George Bailey) standing in opposition to the Bad Capitalist (Lionel Barrymoore aka Mr. Potter).
4. Some Came Running
Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958) is another film rarely acknowledged as a noir. For one thing, it is in widescreen and color, though it is not, in fact, the first small town noir in widescreen and color – that would be Richard Fleischer's brilliant ensemble noir, Violent Saturday (1955). Some Came Running conforms to the basic structure of the small town noir by first showing us the town's (Parkman, Indiana's) placid exterior and then gradually revealing the hidden side of the citizens and of the town itself. (The film's writer protagonist played by Frank Sinatra likes to hang out in a neighborhood populated by gamblers and bar girls.) It all comes together in the climactically violent carnival sequence where – in place of the shadowy high-contrast black & white photography of traditional noir -- Minnelli visualizes Some Came Running's descent into noir hell with a vibrant color expressionism.
5. Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986) announces its small town noir credentials from the start – the opening shots of red roses against a white picket fence, a fire truck with waving firemen passing by in slow motion, a crossing guard shepherding children across the street, a man watering his lawn with a garden hose. Then suddenly, the man clutches his neck in pain, the garden hose drops, and the camera plunges underground revealing – in disturbingly extreme close-up – savage insect life locked in mortal combat. With just a handful of images and not a single spoken word, director Lynch has told us this film is going to be all about "the underneath."
The film's innocent investigators – soon to lose their innocence – are played by Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern. Exploring the “bad” side of town, they find another couple, unforgettably played by Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini, who are locked in a sadomasochistic relationship as irrationally savage as the battling insects. MacLachlan's eventual involvement with Rossellini's character leads him to confront similarly dark impulses within himself. Blue Velvet's underlying corruption is so pervasive that it leaves no one untouched.
BONUS! – The Naked Kiss
A masterpiece of the small town noir subgenre, The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964) is third in a series of films -- the other two are Underworld U.S.A. (1961) and Shock Corridor (1963) -- that have come to be known as Fuller's "Underworld U.S.A. trilogy."
Reversing the usual pattern of the small town noir, The Naked Kiss's investigating heroine (Constance Towers) is anything but innocent. She is, in fact, a hardened prostitute (with integrity) who leaves the big city to start life anew. What she finds in "Grantville," however, is as dark as anything the big city could provide. Grant, the town's leading citizen, is a secret pedophile. The other citizens are as willing to lynch or jail someone they distrust as the French villagers in Le Corbeau. Ultimately, she leaves Grantville in disgust.
Small town noirs are inherently disturbing, but like the hidden truths they uncover, they remain irresistibly fascinating.