Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Siren City

Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Noir

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Siren City
    Book Description:

    Hailed for its dramatic expressionist visuals, film noir is one of the most prominent genres in Hollywood cinema. Yet, despite the "boom" in sound studies, the role of sonic effects and source music in classic American noir has not received the attention it deserves.Siren Cityengagingly illustrates how sound tracks in 1940s film noir are often just as compelling as the genre's vaunted graphics.Focusing on a wide range of celebrated and less well known films and offering an introductory discussion of film sound, Robert Miklitsch mobilizes the notion of audiovisuality to investigate period sound technologies such as the radio and jukebox, phonograph and Dictaphone, popular American music such as "hot" black jazz, and "big numbers" featuring iconic performers such as Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake, and Rita Hayworth.Siren Cityresonates with the sounds and source music of classic American noir-gunshots and sirens, swing riffs and canaries. Along with the proverbial private eye and femme fatale, these audiovisuals are central to the noir aesthetic and one important reason the genre reverberates with audiences around the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5392-4
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preview
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. Credits
    (pp. xxi-xxiii)
  5. Introduction: SOUND AND (SOURCE) MUSIC
    (pp. 1-18)

    Despite the pervasive presence of musical numbers in classic film noir, not to mention the use of voice-over and hard-boiled dialogue, the genre—like the medium in general,motion pictures—has been viewed primarily in visual terms, whether it’s high-contrast lighting or night-for-night shooting, oblique angles or claustrophobic framing, “dissonant” deep-focus compositions or the “archetypal noir shot”: “the extreme high-angle long shot.”¹ While film noir has also been defined in terms of, among other things, its mood and motifs, plot and mode of narration, sociocultural significance and conditions of production, the emphasis on visual style, an emphasis that’s especially pronounced...

  6. Prologue: SMALL WORLD, BIG SIGN
    (pp. 19-23)

    While it might be appropriate to begin a book on sound and source music in forties noir with a film whose effects are exorbitant, I want instead to open with one that is arguably structured around its other: silence. The film is Jacques Tourneur’sOut of the Past,and although it exhibits most of what might be called the genre’s sonic semantics (music, effects, hard-boiled dialogue, voice-over narration), part of its uniqueness derives from the eloquent pantomime of the deaf-mute boy, the Kid (Dickie Moore), who has, as it were, the last word.

    However, even before the Kid appears on...

    (pp. 24-52)

    In the wake of Warner Bros.’s sound-on-discDon Juan(1926) andThe Jazz Singer(1927), “Hollywood scrambled on to the bandwagon of sound,” Richard Jewell writes, “and gave birth to a new child of the revolution,” RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum).¹ Another, related result of the sound revolution in American cinema was that, under the stewardship of President David Sarnoff, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) invented the Photophone system of optical sound-on-film to compete with the current, near-monopolistic Western Electric system and, to showcase it, acquired a “substantial interest” in Film Booking Offices of America, Inc. (FBO).² After FBO merged with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum...

    (pp. 53-83)

    With respect to sound I think it’s safe to say that, in addition to voice-over narration, the most distinctive aspect of film noir is, as a number of compilation volumes attest, its hard-boiled dialogue.¹ For example, one of my favorite exchanges inOut of the Pastoccurs late in the action when Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), having killed Whit Sterling, tells Jeff Bailey, “Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?” Jeff’s response couldn’t be harder, “Build my gallows high, baby,” a line that echoes the film’s original title,Build My Gallows High(filched, according to Daniel Mainwaring,...

    (pp. 84-127)

    As Nicholas Christopher observes inSomewhere in the Night(1997), there is an “ongoing fascination in film noir with electrical devices,” a “galaxy of new machines and luxury” accoutrements such as the radio and hi-fi phonograph that rapidly became essential to the lives of Americans in the postwar period and that, in the “hands of both criminals and the police, altered the urban landscape in a way that could beheard.”¹

    In John Farrow’sThe Big Clock(1948), the “noir universe is the office building.”² The Janoth Building becomes the labyrinthine space or maze in which George Stroud (Ray Milland),...

    (pp. 128-163)

    In the form of scores as well as emanating from various sources, radio and record player and jukebox, music in forties noir and classical Hollywood cinema more generally is employed to accent almost every conceivable kind of action. One of the most distinctive, though, is the use of diegetic music to underscore scenes of physical violence. “Beatings are interludes of spectacle, like song-and-dance numbers in musicals,” Manohla Dargis writes in her BFI volume onL.A. Confidential(1997), “and as in the musical, they have a sub textual function.”¹

    Robert Wise’sBorn to Kill(1947) is an “excellent example” of the...

  11. 5 Singing Detectives and Bluesmen, Black Jazzwomen and Torch Singers
    (pp. 164-191)

    The death of Keith Vincent inNocturne, murdered while he’s composing a popular song, is unique in classic noir, but singing itself is not uncommon in the genre. For example,The Naked City(1948), an early semi-documentary that derives from the work of Robert Flaherty and based on the book of the same name by the famed crime photographer Weegee, features a singing detective.

    Despite Mark Hellinger’s booming voice-over narration and William Daniels’s Academy Award–winning photography, it’s also something of an anomaly due to the casting of Barry Fitzgerald, an actor now primarily remembered for his musicals, as Detective...

  12. 6 The Big Number (Side B): KILLING THEM SOFTLY
    (pp. 192-221)

    It’s safe to say that the musical numbers one remembers most from classic—in this case, forties—noir are those in which a woman sings while backed by a combo or orchestra. Although there’s something to be said for female performers who accompany themselves, whether on guitar (as Rita Hayworth does inGilda) or piano (as Ida Lupino does inRoad House), there’s also something about a woman who’s free to move while she sings, unencumbered by an instrument,

    One way to frame this sort of performance would be to argue, as Laura Mulvey does in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative...

  13. 7 The Big Number (A Side): SIREN CITY
    (pp. 222-250)

    Unlike Coral Chandler, who’s responsible for the deaths of both her husbands, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) in Vincent Sherman’s 1947 film of the same name is selflessly devoted to her husband to the bitter end. (In This, her character’s estimable, albeit very nearly masochistic, commitment to her spouse, like Elizabeth Hintten’s inThe Bribe, no doubt allayed male postwar fears about marital infidelity and female promiscuity.) If one difference betweenNora PrentissAndDead ReckoningIs that the former film, likeGilda, revolves around a woman who lives to sing another day, the fact that Nora and Coral perform their...

  14. Epilogue: SILENCES
    (pp. 251-254)

    This book,Siren City, has been all about sound effects and source music and, to some extent, dialogue and voice-over and scores. It’s also been, if only tacitly, about silence since none of these sonic phenomena would exist without it. Silence is the ultimate source, the matrix and fountainhead, of the audible. However, even in silent film, not to say in noir, it’s a relative thing. Which is to say, there are different kinds of silence.

    Take, for example, the silence that graces the ending ofOut of the Past.It is darkest night and the film dissolves from a...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 255-274)
  16. Index
    (pp. 275-288)