Miami Film Noir

Miami Film Noir

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We have much to learn from Mike Davis, CITY OF QUARTZ (Vintage, 1992) who discusses the paradoxical effects that the representations of Los Angeles in hardboiled novels and their translation into film noir cinema had on the image and myth of that city.

Together they radically reworked the metaphorical figure of the city, using the crisis of the middle class (rarely the workers or the poor) to expose how the dream had become nightmare. . . . It is hard to exaggerate the damage which noir's dystopianization of Los Angeles, together with the exiles' [European intellectuals living and working in L.A.] denunciation of its counterfeit urbanity, inflicted upon the accumulated ideological capital of the region's boosters. Noir, often in illicit alliance with San Francisco or New York elitism, made Los Angeles the city that American intellectuals love to hate (although, paradoxically, this seems only to increase its fascination for postwar European intellectuals). As Richard Lehan has emphasized, "probably no city in the Western world has a more negative image". . . . It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the paramount axis of cultural conflict in Los Angeles has always been about the construction/interpretation of the city myth, which enters the material landscape as a design for speculation and domination (Davis, 20-21).

Miami, most notably in the works of Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, and in the Television series MIAMI VICE, has received some of the same treatment, belatedly, or in a post- or neo- noir modality of the genre. . As Davis noted, "noir was like a transformational grammar turning each charming ingredient of the boosters' arcadia into a sinister equivalent" (38). We need to sort out those aspects of this noir/booster conflict that are generic and those that are specific to Miami. Boosterism is a fundamental feature of Miami's existence. The same paradoxes of attraction are an important part of Florida tourism. However, noir carries with it a state of mind, an atmosphere and mood, that are specific to the genre and may or may not have anything to do with the spirit of place specific to our zone.

In any case, we should keep in mind that a book about the mythical America of crime writers includes some discussion of the Miami River setting. The Interviewer, John Williams, spoke with James Hall, author of the hard-boiled SQUALL LINE, as they rode in Hall's boat on the bay near the river's mouth.

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Hall points out the opening of the Miami River to me: "I took a trip down there the other day; it's where the ships come from the Caribbean. I was looking at these ships that are ready to go back and they're stacked with the strangest stuff...stolen bicycles, plastic buckets...All these things you can't believe another culture places a value on, that they'll all be saying in Haiti, 'Oh, great, a ten-gallon bucket.'" [,,,] Ships flying the flag of Honduras and Haiti are coming in to Miami, bringing in Colombian cocaine, and then returning to Haiti loaded up with items as diverse as school buses, rice, beans, stolen bicycles, all hidden under tarpaulins, stolen from pest-control firms. None of this strange cargo is listed on any manifest, and all disappears on arrival in Haiti. The sinister part is the identity of the people running this Miami River traffic: none other than Baby Doc's infamous Tonton Macoutes. Now minus their trademark sunglasses, they are currently upping the craziness stakes in Miami drug wars. A guy from the Sheriff's Office, quoted in the HERALD says, "The Macoutes don't think they can die. They think they're immune to bullets. They do drug deals based on info from voodoo priests." Echoes here of SQUALL LINE (Williams, 1993: 33)

Since we are concerned with our zone as image, we can learn something about how such atmospheres evoke world views by studying the effects of noir versions of our zone.

MIAMI VICE has many antecedents, but most significant among them is the American cinematic genre known as film noir--the source of many of the program's thematic, narrative, and stylistic elements. [...] Paul Schrader has argued bluntly, "film noir is not a genre...It is not defined, as are the Western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood." [...] Noir visual style is catalogued lucidly by J.A. Place and L. S. Peterson. They argue that film noir is fundamentally "anti-traditional" in its visual style--that it consistently violates the code of classical filmmaking that had evolved through the 1930s, listing Noir violations as: low key (high contrast) lighting; imbalanced lighting; Night-for-night; deep focus; wide angle focal length; dissymmetrical mise-en-scene; extreme low and high angles; foreground obstructions. They argue that these stylistic elements are as responsible for the film's "meaning" as are conventional components of plot and theme. "The characteristic noir moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed not through the films' terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through their confusing, often insoluble plots, but through their remarkable style. In effect, unbalanced composition equals an unstable world view. [...] Noir thematics are assumed to be the dark side of the American dream, a negative image of the 1940s status quo. Men are the ostensible heroes of most films noir. Most commonly they a re men with an indiscretion in their past and unpleasantness in their future toward which the present rapidly carries them. The noir protagonist is alienated from a combustible, hostile world, driven by obsessions transcending morality and causality. The obsessive noir protagonist is drawn into a destiny he cannot escape; he is impelled toward his fate by exterior forces beyond his power and interior forces beyond his control (Butler, 1996: 290-291).

The most immediately relevant aspects of noir for us are: atmosphere as the definitive quality of the genre; the concern with destiny or fate (alienated disjunctive relations between individual experience and collective structure).


Butler, Jeremy G., "Miami Vice, The Legacy of Film Noir," in FILM NOIR READER, Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1996).


Williams, John, INTO THE BADLANDS: TRAVELS THROUGH URBAN AMERICA (London: Flamingo, 1993).
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