“I love this dirty town”.
- J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), Sweet Smell of Success
Unrelenting traffic, slamming car doors, screeching brakes, sirens, footsteps, are all quintessential sounds of the busy modern metropolis. J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) loves New York City for business reasons—he has manipulative control over the media and the public, and he has other people to blame for his activities. But that is just one story—New York is loved for other reasons; its skyline, the rush of its streets, its gleaming skyscrapers and bridges; and for its impressive cinematic presence. This presence is augmented through sound, and for a setting so vibrant and sonorous as the modern city, the envelopment of the spectator through situational sound is crucial to our acceptance of and place in the film world.
When the city is presented on film the spectator becomes a citizen, can move about in the city as a citizen would and can take part in its sensorial environment. One of the most expansive sensations of the city is its array of sounds which comprise an intense soundscape that is crucial to our experience of it as a unique and distinctive space, and sound is something that is notably lacking from the annals of published discussions of film noir. Sound is a definitive part of the city that is always present in citizens’ experiences of it, constantly produced by their movements, thus making it essential to our experience of the city as a space. In Wireless Imagination, Douglas Kahn writes of an affective movement of sound by transmission, which operates with the vibration of sound in space and the inscription of sound in the body itself. Film sound moves as a transmission from the screen to the spectator’s body, structuring space so that we are bodies within the sensorial space of the film. The physical aspect of sound and listening leads to us, the auditor, being “fixed by inscription to the space implied by vibration.” (1) Actual vibrations of sonic transmission fill the space in between the object of sound and the body, making the relationship between the film auditor and film itself fundamentally physiological and deeply affective. Half a decade later, Kahn writes of sound as a terrestrial product—as something of the land, of and belonging to space, and produced by people in the world. He writes, “sound is not only experienced as occurring in between but as surrounding the listener, and the source of the sound is itself surrounded by its own sound. The mutual envelopment of aurality predisposes an exchange among presences.” (2) As visual auditors, how best can city sounds envelop us and create a specific presence for us in the city, and of the city around us? (3)
This question can be approached using Siegfried Kracauer’s argument expressed in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, in which he deals with the human response to aesthetic material as a physical transference from film to audience. Theorising the reception of cinema, Kracauer argues that film’s affect mobilizes the spectator’s visceral faculties and unconscious sensory reception. (4) Using Kahn’s work on the bodily affectiveness of sound and placing emphasis on Kracauer’s theory of physical reality in film, I will discuss the importance of situational sound—that is, sound from the space represented on film—in producing this space of exchange between the spectator and the filmic reality. Watching the city, which is such a huge and visually spectacular cinematic subject, we can be materially connected with the spatial realm through sensory participation in the auditory realm, creating an affective co-presence between film and spectator-auditor. At a basic level, city films can affect the spectator’s sensorial register if they have a completely spatial soundscape, and do not intrude into the space with an extradiegetic audio-track. Such an intrusion will deter our investment in, our relation to, and our experience with the cine-world.
The famous photographer Weegee (Usher Fellig, his real but lesser known name) produced a body of work that had direct influence on the stylistic production of certain films noir after the 1945 publication of his first book, Naked City. Consistent with the theme of criminality and perpetual danger in the city, Weegee had been given his alias in light of his eerily supernatural ability to predict the scene of a crime before it occurred. Weegee is an important figure in New York’s history, not only because of his photographic work but because he created himself through a vision of the city. Weegee’s vision of the city and that pursued by directors of film noir developed on a somewhat similar path, in that both mediums used the city’s unsanitary landscape to construct a dark cinematic terrain. As a result, Weegee’s photographs became a metonymic artefact of New York urban life from the 1930s to 1950s in the same way that the cinema has: they encapsulate and communicate the sense of life itself by transferring a world constantly producing and surrounded by the sonorous.
Weegee’s Joy of Living, April 17, 1942. Films may entertain, but there will always be dark undertones.
The metropolitan soundscape and spectatorial experience
Kracauer has written specifically about film’s ability to create a space of affective perception, that,
“Film renders visible what we did not, or perhaps even could not, see before its advent. It effectively assists us in discovering the material world with its psychophysical correspondences. We literally redeem this world from its dormant state, its state of virtual non-existence, by endeavouring to experience it through the camera.” (5)
Film can draw raw material from reality and has the ability to mobilize multiple sensory registers to help create the filmic space as a physical space for the spectator-auditor. Through the use of image and also sound, the audience of the cinema can be affected by a significant and constant sensorial intensity. Kracauer writes of an endlessness within the cinema, that film presents “all material phenomena virtually within reach of the camera,” so that “it is as if the medium were animated by the chimerical desire to establish the continuum of physical existence.” (6) By creating images, film can visually draw the spectator into its world, but it is through sound as a mobilization of a multisensory register that we can really be transported. Though sensorial rather than distinctly physical transportation, the affection of our bodies through sound is physiological in the sense that sound is a vibration which is felt by the ear.
On the street: exterior soundscapes
Kracauer suggests that film extends beyond artistic representation; its affective machinations form a communication of sensorial phenomena. The cinema can make us physically aware of the physical world by creating an entire sensorial world within the space of the screen, and so for regular film viewers and cinephiles many everyday sounds of the metropolis have been defined by our experience of hearing them on film. Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950) demonstrates the full potential of film to define a space through sound by using it together with, and as a complement to, the image. By anchoring its audience into the metropolis using sounds with which we are familiar—although not necessarily intimate—Where the Sidewalk Ends creates a much more realistic setting than films like Side Street (Anthony Mann, 1949) and The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945) which open on an urban grid from above and outside of our regular perception, as our sensorial register will connect to another space much more readily if it is an accessible one. (7) Once we have been drawn into the city, the established soundscape blends into the background as the camera moves to the interior of the police station and the prime focus moves to dialogue as narrative enhancement. Yet our material inclusion in the city is not broken, as on all levels inside the building, even though we are removed from direct relation to the street, traffic, car horns, and sirens can still be heard. In this way sound contributes to the spatial construction within the film by allowing us to hear what we cannot see, and listen beyond the immediate visual dimension.
It is commonly known that film noir is a perfect medium for the filmic representation of spaces in darkness, particularly by night. Henri Lefebvre writes that “night does not interrupt diurnal rhythms, but modifies them and especially slows them down,” (8) whereas necessarily in film noir it is a prevailingly chaotic and dangerous period, sped up rather than slowed down. The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) introduces New York with an aerial shot in daylight and then begins its story at one o’clock in the morning when, narrator Mark Hellinger tells us, the city is asleep. He says, “There is a pulse to a city, and it never stops beating,” but this is reflected neither in the film’s visual nor aural presentation of New York. As one of the most critically celebrated ‘location films’ of the 1940s, The Naked City is missing a crucial element of its location—spatial sound. Dassin shows us streets that are nearly deserted with streetlights turned off, a lightly populated intersection with no soundscape, and although a solitary monorail and aeroplane can be softly heard as they cross the screen, they are both removed from the street itself. Given such spatial information only verbally, the audience is unable to experience it sonically and not invited to thoroughly experience the nocturnal pulse of the city.
On the other hand, the beginning of Where the Sidewalk Ends gives the audience an intense sonic indication of the city’s nightlife, opening on the streets of Manhattan close to midnight where the energized flow of people and traffic shows no sign of settling. It is here that we really see the opposition to Lefebvre’s statement. In fact, this scene’s soundscape is louder, more constant, and more hectic than any other daylight scene in the same film (of which there are few, fittingly). In another film set at night, Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948), New York City outside Leona Stevenson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) house is always loud and lit up in the darkness, a constant reminder that outside of her quiet room there is a city still awake and very much full of life. This film, of course, ends with Leona’s murder and suggests the victory of crime; as she screams her last sound (significantly, also close to midnight), noir suggests that the night falls victim to a rhythm of danger no slower than the day.
After the nocturnal pulse has been set up in Where the Sidewalk Ends, the action moves to a gambling joint where Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill) voices a key issue present in the film, protesting to Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) that “I got as much right on the sidewalk as you have.” This is an affront to Dixon, the cop trying to do good by attacking New York criminals’ right to life, and also a boiled-down expression of the protestation that fuels the city soundscape—for the entire film he is trying to get gangsters off the sidewalk and into prison. For Dixon, criminals do not belong in the rhythm of the city, but as Preminger and other directors have shown through film sound, criminals (and citizen/authority responses to them) are essential to the metropolitan soundscape and our perception of urban space. In The Naked City the narrator describes a murder as not out of the ordinary ‘”n a city of eight million people,” implicating criminality as much into city life as everything else within it. The unknown yet threatening man who steps off the sidewalk in the credits of Where the Sidewalk Ends suggests that suspicion and criminality belong on the street as much as regular citizenry.
Sounds from without: the perfect interpellation
The Naked City has been discussed extensively in spatial theories of the metropolis, justified not only because its title recalls Weegee’s first published photographic anthology, (9) but also because the film’s aesthetic construction heavily favours visual representation rather than acoustic presence. For the majority of the film there are only short bursts of street sounds, mostly occurring in exterior shots as bridges between scenes. When the film takes the spectator inside a tall Manhattan building, too far above ground-level for audible street sounds, the only sounds which describe the scene are the incidentals of an office, as if they could be from a track belonging to any film. Detective Halloran (Don Taylor) looks out the window, the camera follows, and the narrator says, “There’s your city.” Thus defining the metropolis only by what one can see, without considering what one can hear, this film and the spatial theory surrounding it excludes an entire dimension of film’s affective quality. Only a few scenes represent the sounds from the city, and in many of those scenes the sounds are, to lesser effect, synchronised with the images; the cross section of the city in the film’s opening, already mentioned, eliminates situational sound in favour of voiceover. Otherwise, nondiegetic music in the film dramatizes scenes unnecessarily, blurring the rawness of street noise with the comfort of the score. Toward the end of the film, reaching its climax, there is a scene in murderer Willie Garzah’s (Ted de Corsia) room where we can hear the voices of children playing in the square below, and the sound of someone rehearsing their violin. When Garzah attacks Halloran these noises, which have worked to situate the spectator within the space and transfer the characters’ tension onto us, are removed and dramaturgical score music intrudes on the soundtrack. The audience’s aural envelopment within the scene is broken.
Using Rick Altman’s theoretical discussion of sound, such situational noise is expressed as point-of-audition sound, which “always carries signs of its own fictional audition” and “has the effect of luring the listener into the diegesis not at the point of enunciation of the sound, but at the point of its audition.” (10) Luring the listener into the diegesis by letting them hear what a character can hear, similar to letting the viewer see what a character can see via the point-of-view shot, constitutes the perfect interpellation into the city because it forces an identification with a character and a connection to the actual space of representation. Sorry, Wrong Number employs point-of-audition sound, for example when Leona is on the telephone and the camera pans to her side table, around her room and out the window, or cutting to the subway station, aligning our aural sense with hers through visual exposure to her space. We also experience parts of the film as if we were in the space itself, hearing her voice from the foyer of her house or from outside her window. With this film, the audience has a visual-aural connection with the film space and the characters. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, bar music can be heard through the telephone when Dixon and Ken Klein (Graig Stevens) are talking, connecting the two spaces at each end of the telephone line so that we can identify with Dixon’s hearing. The scene at Garzah’s apartment in The Naked City neutralizes character identification, however, by first introducing point-of-audition sound but then disrupting its identificatory elements with score music, dislocating the spectator from the filmic space. When this happens, we are no longer embedded within the scene and no longer empathising with the internal point-of-view; instead we are outside of the experience, simply observing.
Film sound which is constructed as a singular, stable track can operate as a vector that holds the spectator within the film when the images are constantly changing and cutting (a nearly ubiquitous trait in classical Hollywood cinema) (11) and constantly displacing the viewer in different places around the film’s space. Thus films which are persistently intruding into their scenic soundscape with an extradiegetic score, such as The Naked City, do not have the same affective hold on the spectator than do films which avoid such a constant intrusion because they interrupt the spatial representation with an emotional, non-spatial, representation. Altman writes,
“[W]e know our bodies are anchored by sound, and by the single, continuous experience that it offers. It is thus the sound track that provides a base for visual identification, that authorizes vision and makes it possible. The identity of Hollywood spectators begins with their ability to be auditors.” (12)
Where the Sidewalk Ends offers a stable and untarnished city soundscape, having only a few moments where score music intrudes into the diegesis and none of them overtly disrupting our connection to the film’s spatial elements. Its sounds operate as a constant aural vector into the cityscape, and Cyril Mockridge’s score emerges only at times when there is no exterior soundscape to be heard, or as an accompaniment to the first and last romantic embraces of Mark and Morgan (Gene Tierney). The large absence of score is made apparent also by the significant presence of diegetic music, appearing first in the gambling scene, and then music is made a recurring motif around the second murder scene. Music is audible the first time Mark visits the apartment building, before we even see its source or are aware that it will become a motif. When music leaks out of an apartment underneath the murder scene, incidental though it is to the film’s content, the effect is tense because it introduces an element of unknown spatiality. Music interrupts the urban soundscape and displaces us from the environment—the tension between this music signifying the comfort of home, sensory flood of the street elsewhere contributes to a discomfort within the city space. Because the music originates within the film space, the tension is situational, spatial, rather than extradiegetic. Finally however it is the score music which closes the film and recalls the opening tune, creating a sonic bookend to the film and, without the aid of a visual anchor, sustains our presence within the city.
Preminger is clearly aware of the situational qualities of sound, and the film logically works establishing sound into point-of-audition sound to ensure that a (mostly) continuous audio-description of the city draws our senses into the spatial dimension. The final exterior street sound that we hear in the film is a siren, a sound heard from our presence within the film space but also that we hear through Scalise’s ears as a point-of-view equivalent. As the siren strikes Scalise’s ears his body fills with fear; heard from its point-of-audition we are connected to Scalise and to his corporeality, and are positioned for this sound to affect our bodies with the felt intensity of fear. As the final exterior sound and the last word (so to speak) from Preminger regarding New York City itself, the siren, as a signifier of emergency, danger, and crime, expresses a view of the urban spatial environment as one in which criminals and cops are inextricably entwined.
The visual remains much the same, so our absorption of the scene relies on our ears.
It is notable that this final street sound occurs during the penultimate scene, and notable also that during the final scene in an office at the 16th Precinct police building there are no street sounds that leak into its interior, as there had been earlier in the film. Without these sounds Where the Sidewalk Ends deliberately ceases to be about the sidewalk per se and becomes focused on the romantic storyline, augmented by the final introduction of the thematic score. Yet rather than detract from the urban soundscape, the absence of noise in this final scene makes the siren in the previous scene only more important. The final situational street sound we hear is that siren, a sensorial link with the film’s characters and description of the urban New York environment.
Anxiety in the city: material sound
Edward Dimendberg writes that in many films noir from the late 1940s substitute voice-over narration and nondiegetic music for an actual urban soundscape. With this in mind, Where the Sidewalk Ends’ extensive audio streetscape makes a very important contribution to the history of city sounds in film. Street sounds are always there when they would be audible on the street and in the actual city. Without such sounds, cinema is stripped back only to pictures with voice and music, without any experiential flow or haptic-sonic connection. As with Where the Sidewalk Ends, it is only through the presence of situational sounds that cinema becomes this: an interpellation, a physical experience of the place and space of film.
Sounds from the sidewalk can imbue a film with a sonorous landscape for the inhabitance of the spectator-auditor. Kracauer writes that, “Sounds share with visible phenomena two characteristics: they are recorded by camera; and they belong to the material reality in a general sense.” (13) A third characteristic that sounds share with images is that they are equally important in conjuring up a physical sense of a metropolis within the space of the screen and projecting it outward to the audience. Following an opening credit shot of an extraordinary seventeen seconds duration, Where the Sidewalk Ends features a credit sequence written over an establishing shot of the city at ground-level. First the camera frames an anterior street shot, with a parked car in the centre of the frame, cars driving (slowly, at different speeds, stopping) toward us at the right, and pedestrians on the sidewalk at the left. The diegetic soundscape here is very important, a constant sonic deluge from the city that, because of the framed shot, we have no choice but to absorb.
Once Preminger has situated the spectator on the urban street the camera moves into a car with two detectives, and this trip is memorable not so much because of its simple visual imprint but because of its use of audio phenomena. While the camera remains still on two detectives in their car, with only a slight silhouette of the city skyline in the background, the film’s soundtrack details the surroundings with over sixty seconds of sounds from the city. In light of Kracauer’s writing, this sequence features “asynchronous actual sound issuing from an identifiable source and relating contrapuntally to the synchronised images.” He continues that this use of synchronisation permits a greater absorption of the given visuals, and allows for the exclusion of “images with extrinsic functions.” (14) This sequence in Where the Sidewalk Ends emphasises its asynchronous sound because rather than serving to expand the definition of the visual—as the image remains more or less the same there is little to absorb—it facilitates a deeper exploration of the sonic environment. In fact, the constancy of the image is what anchors us into the space; with only one thing to look at, we are more inclined to listen to what is there.
The above sequence, which gives the first glimpse of the protagonist and introduces the basic premise—detective film—allows us to hear sounds as they are, isolated from narrative intrusions and necessary plot developments. The two introductory street shots mentioned above work toward a similar idea, the remarkably simple use of sound and image already drawing the viewer into the city not just through their eye but also, and very importantly, through their ear. Contrary to many films noir of its time, Where the Sidewalk Ends begins with a moderate high-angle shot of the pavement of New York City, tracking the feet of an unidentified man as he ominously follows another man, the surrounding sounds of the city immediately audible. Whereas the opening extended aerial shot introducing Manhattan in Side Street creates a sense of the city’s unwelcoming expanse, the pavement shot of the later film brings us into close proximity with a city that is equally if not more unwelcoming. By focussing only on feet and leaving the identity of the man unrevealed, Preminger creates the sensation that any person could be followed while walking down the street, and that where sight is unavailable it is listening that becomes essential. So whilst aerial photography instates the delimited metropolis as a space of fearful anonymity, it is a close-up of the pavement, as the camera follows a man’s footsteps, that gives Where the Sidewalk Ends a too-close sense of unease.
Just before the camera frames and visualises the title: where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.
With only the men’s feet in the frame, Preminger has overlaid the sound of someone (presumably the follower) whistling, yet with his face and thus the source of the whistling exterior to the frame the sound becomes disembodied, and its intention sinister. Working in the late twentieth century, Michel Chion uses Pierre Schaeffer’s 1966 concept of the acousmatic (15) to suggest that it can be common to see “evil, awe-inspiring, or otherwise powerful characters” introduced only through sound, and later de-acousmatized in the visual realm. (16) By Chion’s theory this mysterious character could be one whom will appear as the ‘evil’ character in the film, but there is no such character in Where the Sidewalk Ends and the identity of the pedestrian remains anonymous. Mary Ann Doane uses Pascal Bonitzer’s term “voice-off” for such a sonic effect, and: “There is always something uncanny about a voice which emanates from a source outside the frame.” Referencing Bonitzer she writes, “the narrative film exploits the marginal anxiety connected with the voice-off by incorporating its disturbing effects within the dramatic framework”—and film noir exploits this anxiety to its greatest point. (17) Inspired by Chion, a new realm of thought is required to discuss this striking use of sound; with legs onscreen but the rest of his body offscreen, we do not technically see the point of audition even though we can see that it is coming from someone within the frame. This whistling, identifiable by sound but not by source, introduces the spectator to the metropolis not with spatial anxiety but with audio anxiety, producing a claustrophobic affect related to a sense of ground-level surveillance. The materiality of the sound with the image draws the spectator-auditor into a more spatially experiential metropolis and the whistling voice, its owner never revealed, comes to belong to the city itself. Without the image of a person to fixate the whistling it is encompassed by New York; the city is the ‘evil’ character, with the sidewalk and the rest of the urban environment embodying the ominous criminality of its people and the danger of the streets.
An understanding of this can be expanded in light of comparison to other film texts that it references, placing Where the Sidewalk Ends hermetically within the ‘city film’ subgenre. The tune that is whistled during this opening sequence is the theme from King Vidor’s 1931 Street Scene, composed by Alfred Newman, a film which uses the music to present the city in a light of beauty and grandeur. This film does not, however, heavily feature the city itself, only representing it in several establishing shots which introduce Manhattan as the home of the street where the film’s action takes place. Already established as Manhattan’s tune, when the whistling occurs in Where the Sidewalk Ends without an identified source, the uneasiness comes entirely from the sidewalk. (18) As mentioned earlier, this sequence is unlike many others of its time, so its specific aural reference must be considered as essential to its content. Once the man has stepped off the sidewalk, the camera rests on the city’s waste draining into the sewer, recalling a similar shot in the city film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walther Ruttman, 1927) where the camera rests on a drain in the gutter. While the latter is a reference to the former, there is an important spectatorial difference between the two shots—while in Berlin the gutter is dry, in Sidewalk water is trickling into the sewer along with the waste and transporting us visually and sonically down into the metropolitan darkness. (19) A similar opening occurs in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), released in the USA only one month after Sidewalk, (20) in which the camera pans outwards from a gutter-shot of the title as street sign. Comparatively, the titles for both of these films are situated within the diegetic contents of their frame, yet Sunset Blvd. draws all of the remaining credits out of the street and places its text outside of the film space. On the other hand, Where the Sidewalk Ends includes more major credits chalked into its actual sidewalk, igniting the haptic connection: reading and feeling the title. The sense of being in the space is provoked by the tangibility of the footsteps on the footpath, suggesting a similar relationship between actual reality and the experience of film viewing. At the same time, Sunset Blvd. by its very title suggests a place, one where writing on the gutter is not out of the ordinary, but Where the Sidewalk Ends implies an absent place from the very beginning – where the sidewalk ends but where nothing (known) can begin.
Gutters from Where the Sidewalk Ends; Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; Sunset Blvd.
Surveillance is everywhere: police radio in film noir
As an opposing form of the panorama, Dimendberg writes that ground-level representations of the metropolis “capture a criminal’s daily routine, including those traces of spatial practice that serve as clues and facilitate apprehension.” (21) Ground-level filmmaking also serves to capture the lives and spatial practices of the regular urban citizen as in many cases they occupy the same spaces. Film noir is, after all, about the city as much as it is about the crime; and people (and criminals) must constitute the city. People are imperative to a city’s creation, as they were to the arrival of modernism during the early twentieth century, and also are imperative to its operation, to its continuous movement and to its generation of sounds. (22) As films place the citizen and the criminal together in the street, they communicate that crime is equally important to the city’s constitution, and create the sense of all-pervasive crime in the everyday city. In The Naked City, for example, a narrator describes an investigation of a murder whilst the camera records people at ground-level, aligning crime with the everyday. The police radio at the beginning of and throughout Where the Sidewalk Ends is similarly indicative of this spread of crime, as a voice on the radio lists social disruptions occurring widely across New York. The film’s representation of a murder also serves this purpose—immediately following the first murder at Scalise’s gambling joint, the film returns to the street where we are surrounded by city sounds, the police radio, and finally a siren. A mutual relationship is thus determined between the police, criminality and the metropolis; whereas earlier, only the police radio had accompanied the exterior shots of the city, these later moments of sound enforce the delineation of the filmic city as one ridden with both crime and cops. When Preminger introduces New York through the police radio, it is established from the very beginning not only as essential to the establishment and surveillance of crime, but as an intrinsic part of the city. This sonic vector is particularly significant given that a common aspect of noir soundtracks, used mostly to signify criminality and decadence, was jazz. A particularly notable example of such a film is Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957), which features an Elmer Bernstein score that exudes jazz-based depravity from the very beginning. The film does have a significant streetscape soundtrack but its most memorable auditive trait is its musical score, which opens the film and brings the spectator into the metropolitan world of crime, violence, and doom. Jazz forms the basis of many other films, including The Lost Weekend, Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944), The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955), and Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). On the other hand, Where the Sidewalk Ends uses the more sensorially raw sound of the New York police radio to bring us into the same wild metropolitan whirlpool.
In 1949, author E. B. White wrote of New York that, “Police now ride in radio prowl cars instead of gumshoeing around the block swinging their sticks,” (23) and many films of the forties and fifties faithfully incorporate the radio as an unmistakable police presence. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, the male voice on the radio through which we enter the wider expanse of New York City clearly announces its realm of omniscience by continuously listing places that need police attention and calling upon cars to attend crime spots. Furthermore, as he announces that there is a car in the city’s precincts with “out of town license plates”, the auditor is clearly informed that the city is always being watched over and that any outsider or strange business will be surveilled. As a powerful and commanding voice in film, the police radio is an acousmatic presence because it occupies the space in between onscreen and offscreen. The voice on the radio does not constitute a reworking of the acousmêtre in the same sense as the whistling voice in the film’s opening sequence, because its potential to be seen is never offered. Chion finds the acousmêtre’s significance in being a “not-yet-seen voice,” but more significant than this, the power of the police radio’s voice comes from always being out of sight. As Chion writes, the radio is acousmatic by nature, yet in a film the radio is doubly so as the source of the voice is (in most cases) never seen but is completely entwined with our sonic experience of the film. Chion regards the powers of the acousmêtre to be ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence, (24) and the police radio possesses these powers as a device which expresses sound across an entire city and in regards to its entire scope. The acousmatic voice on this police radio thus belongs neither to a hidden nor an unseen body; like the sinister voice whistling a tune on the sidewalk, it belongs to the city.
In the police car, three views of the city: always present in Where the Sidewalk Ends.
It is through the sound device of police radio that the spectator-auditor is affected by a spatial anxiety through auditory means, in the case of films which, without offering a panoramic view of the city, create fear of the chaotic urban expanse. The feeling associated with this comes from the overwhelming sense of surveilled space—and from the awareness that whatever crime we are shown on screen is being replicated over and again across the city. What makes Where the Sidewalk Ends important is that it does this not through a panoramic view, but with ground-level shots of the city accompanied by the widespread criminal reports on the radio. Several other scenes frame the officers against the city while they are tuned in to the police radio, but from the front and back seats rather than the side window; from the police car, the city is presented from three different views. As a result of this framing, where the audience can see the milieu of the city in question as well as hear of the city-wide occurrences of crime, the film encapsulates the entire city visually as well as aurally—and captures us within it—as a vision of the dangerous and vice-ridden big city.
Dixon arrives at his soon-to-be-victim’s apartment in a Sky-View cab.
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952) also makes heavy use of police radio with several interior shots of police cars all accompanied by a police radio in the audio-track, but only during its first segment. (25) The presence of the radio means that Ray does incorporate it as the voice of the city, yet the absence of streetscape sounds breaks an important element of the auditor’s spatial connection. While such sounds are audible in most of the exterior street scenes, their absence otherwise lessens the experiential affect of Ray’s filmic city by disabling access to this key physiological sense. Given sonic access to the street only when we are on the street, and not when we are on its periphery, our movement within and around the city becomes spatially dislocated. In opposition, the image from Where the Sidewalk Ends further indicates that the film offers a broad city soundscape of immediate and distant visuals and sounds. With a prime signifier of city sounds occupying the foreground and the background of the frame, a train and a ship sounding horns in the distance and the taxi’s engine rumbling up close, this particular moment suggests a complete spectrum of sonority.
Police Commissioner Hardy demonstrating the intensity of police surveillance to a roomful of officers and reporters in The Asphalt Jungle.
Dimendberg suggests that The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) defines its metropolitan sensation by a surveillance which “depends heavily upon the police radio transmissions audible in the opening sequence.” (26) Dimendberg’s comments go no further in an exploration of sound, and the opening sequence occurs in an empty lot, so the dual elements of spatiality that are present in Where the Sidewalk Ends are missing. Nevertheless it is important to realise that Huston’s film acknowledges the radio. Shot largely in the studio and set in an unnamed city ‘in the Midwest’, the crime in his city is described as “the same in every city in the modern world.” (27) At the end of The Asphalt Jungle, Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) demonstrates the ubiquity of urban crime to a conference of press and police reporters by turning on four frequencies of police radio—telling them (or perhaps telling us) to ‘listen’—which are each simultaneously reporting different criminal disturbances. This is the most striking auditory description in a film in whose sonic setting is otherwise insubstantial. Using sound rather than image to demonstrate the presence of crime in the city, Huston recognises and augments the vital importance of sound in defining and experiencing the city. Even in a film like Sweet Smell of Success, where New York City is defined primarily through jazz, an audible police radio momentarily becomes present. It comes into the film’s soundtrack about half way into the film, when an NYPD car pulls up outside the famous ‘21’ Club and a voice clearly announces, “Police car 16th precinct, signal thirty.” (28) While the audio focus quickly shifts onto a conversation between characters the radio continues to be audible in the background, used as a constant sensorial vector to maintain the co-presence of the auditor and the space of the criminal city.
Returning to New York’s Side Street, although from a different direction, Mann’s use of the police radio during the film’s climax offers an alternate activation of the voice in communicating the space of New York. The radio appears for less than a minute, but what it offers is distinctive: as police officers are ordered to “cordon off” a specific area of downtown Manhattan, the radio demonstrates a hold over the city that is very different to what the police radio suggests in Where the Sidewalk Ends while remaining powerfully acousmatic. Enclosing an area and thus delineating a specific space for police surveillance, Side Street intensifies the threat of this surveillance by making it more immediate. Inside the car that is the object of the chase, criminal George (James Craig) tells his cabdriver Larry (Harry Bellaver) to “take one of the alleys,” to which Larry replies that the police are “all around us!” With the radio here informing citizens of police inescapability, correlating with the ground-level visuals and occasional high-angle shot narrowing around only a few blocks, Mann’s New York uses visual-aural duality to affect a tight, claustrophobic anxiety.
Weegee’s studio in the trunk of his 1938 ‘Chevy’, photographer unknown, 1943.
With these films the police radio operates as the voice of the city, as a representation of its people, and also as an aural signifier of the city’s spatiality. It literalizes what Doane says of the cinematic voice: “the voice has greater command over space than the look—one can hear around corners, through walls.” (29) Its command is ubiquitous because its spread is not limited by the constraints of sight; it is facilitated by the technological advances of the voice. Like the power implied by the villain at the start of Where the Sidewalk Ends, the power of the police radio can stretch across the scope of an entire city.
The voice of the city
Dedicating Naked City to ‘the people of New York’, Weegee knew that he had created an archive that captured people’s lives and their city, the city he loved. With hundreds of feature films and thousands more experimental and independents made in and about New York City, and books dedicated to them, (30) directors must have known that they too were creating histories of and for the people who love the city. A direct link between Weegee and film noir, and noir’s sonorous contribution to the city, can be found in Weegee’s use of the police radio—he was the first photographer to be granted access to a transmitter. As Weegee searched for urban disasters, so did directors of film noir; in the dark, they sought to bring them into proverbial view through an enunciation of the city’s distinct sonorous landscape.
The creation of an immediate and peripheral sonorous environment is what makes the affective power of the cinema so great. Everyday sounds do occur all around us and if the cinema recreates this corporeality it can affect our spectator bodies to their full potential. Without the cinematic inclusion of spatial sounds from the metropolis, as in films which privilege score music or verbal description over a situational soundscape, films lose their affective hold on their audience. There can be no co-presence of the film space with our body, nothing of the city surrounding us as listeners and creating a sense of enclosure within the filmic space.
In reality, after all, we are not informed of surrounding sensorial phenomena by written or verbal descriptions—such elements pull us out of material association with film—we are actually surrounded by it. And with a film such as Where the Sidewalk Ends we can experience the danger in the city and the city itself as Weegee may have: in its raw material form. Weegee’s photographic content was about crime and surveillance; not only his own surveillance of the city but that of the police department, present in so many of his photographs. Film noir was able to expand upon this portrayal of the city’s surveillance and communicate its intensity through multitudes of sound.
Sound is a pervasive and encompassing sensorial aspect of film; sound can be heard from all around us, not just where our vision is directed, and this makes the co-presence of our bodies and film space so important. So even when coming from the screen, film sound projects behind us and draws us into the cinematic space as we feel its affective presence. Although sound is not more important than image, the reverse does not hold true either. They complement each other, and both are needed to formulate the spatial complexity necessary for an affective cinematic world. Even if only chimerical, the affectiveness of film can be very powerful, and achieving this is what can make the screen world our landscape.
Seen from a window: New York City in Where the Sidewalk Ends.
- Douglas Kahn, ‘Introduction: Histories of Sound Once Removed’, in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, Cambridge, London: MIT Press, 1992, pp. 14-20.
- Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, Cambridge, London: MIT Press, 1999, p. 27.
- A video composed of several recorded shots of a snowy day in New York City can be viewed at http://gothamist.com/2008/12/17/snow_2.php. Notice the sounds: car doors, tyres on the wet bitumen, sirens, reversing trucks, car horns, car doors. These were the sounds of the city of December 16, 2008.
- Siegfried, Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, New York; Oxford University Press, 1965.
- Kracauer, p. 300.
- Kracauer, p. 63.
- This is not to deny the magnificence of both of these films. Mann and Wilder employed location cinematography and, respectively, raw aerial shots and crane tracking shots to draw the spectator into film space.
- Lefebvre, Henri, Writings On Cities, trans. Eleonore, Kofman & Elizabeth Lebas, Osford, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, p. 222.
- See Edward Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity for a discussion of Weegee’s relationship to film noir. For example, he writes, ‘Exploring the nexus of the 1945 book The Naked City by the photographer Weegee and the 1948 film noir of the same title brings into focus the technological, rhetorical, spectatorial, and narrative strategies each employs to represent the city in a direct and unexpurgated manner.’
- Rick Altman, ‘Sound Space’, in Sound Theory, Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman, New York, London: Routledge, 1992, p.60.
- The cut is a common trait of filmmaking. Rowe and Wells write that the cut is an essential part of the Hollywood classical narrative because it places the viewer in a film and allows us to follow the narrative action as the story progresses. The cut, meant so that the camera ‘does not draw attention to itself’, can still do the opposite, by altering point of view and breaking identification with the film space (2003:74-5). Joyce writes, ‘In classical Hollywood cinema, the editing is designed to be ‘invisible’. It is intended to allow the audience closer views and to see the point of view of different characters’ (2003:395).
- Altman, p. 62.
- Kracauer, p. 128.
- Kracauer, p. 130.
- Schaeffer quotes the Larousse dictionary to define the acousmatic: ‘is said of a noise that one hears without seeing what causes it.’ He continues that the term ‘marks the perceptive reality of sound as such [… and] gives back to the ear alone the entire responsibility of a perception that ordinarily rests on other sensible witnesses’ (‘Acousmatics’, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, New York, London: Continuum, 2004, p. 77).
- Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 72.
- Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Voice in Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space’, Yale French Studies, 60, Cinema/Sound, 1980, pp. 40-41.
- How To Marry A Millionaire opens with the same theme—however, it is less affectively played by an on-screen orchestra. Newman’s tune was somewhat of a staple score for gangster films in the 1940s.
- Even though Berlin is not an American city film it remains a significant and very successful in the archive of city films in general.
- In the United States of America, the release date for Where the Sidewalk Ends was July 7. Sunset Blvd. was released on August 4.
- Dimendberg, Edward, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Cambridge, London; Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 70.
- Lefebvre says that the production of the city and its social relations ‘is a production and reproduction of human beings by human beings, rather than a production of objects’ (2000:101). Human beings, and their sonic operations, produce the city. Arguably, this is demonstrated most famously (without speech, but with sound) in the factory sequence in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
- White, E. B., Here Is New York, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.
- Chion, Michel, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman, New York; Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 24.
- Only a third of the eighty-minute film is set in a non-specified city, with the protagonist (Robert Ryan) then moving to a rural location.
- Dimendberg, p. 231.
- Foster Hirsch documents that the opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were actually filmed in New York (1981:79), enabling its inclusion in this discussion of New York based film noir.
- As an interesting simultaneity, the 16th precinct is the same precinct in which Dixon worked in Where the Sidewalk Ends. The 16th precinct is now non-existent, according to the Official New York City Police Department Website (www.nyc.gov).
- Doane, 1980, p. 44.
- Books such as Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York, 1966-2006 by James Sanders, Celluloid City: New York and the Movies by James Sanders, New York, New York: fifty years of art, architecture, cinema, performance, photography and video edited by Germano Celant and Lisa Dennison, Projections 11: New York Film-Makers on Film-Making edited by Tod Lippy, and Street Smart: The New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese, and Lee by Richard A. Blake.