Film in Focus: Suburban Noir & Pulp Fiction

11 Oct


The term ‘film noir’ (literally ‘black film’ in French) describes an enduring filmic genre that emerged in the early 1940s, drawing inspiration from both the visual aesthetic and dominant themes of German Expressionism and the stories found in American hard-boiled detective novels. The classical film noir period encompassed “several hundred motion pictures produced… between roughly 1940 and [early] 1960” (1).

 The striking stylistic conventions of classical film noir have made it one of the most easily recognisable filmic genres to date. Directors such as John Huston, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock worked with varying degrees of darkness (2), chiaroscuro lighting, rain-slicked city streets, world-weary protagonists and scheming dames that effortlessly exuded sexuality to tell twisted tales of criminal deeds.

As a genre or stylistic tradition, ‘film noir’ has undergone many reinventions and intensifications since this classical noir period. The ‘suburban noir’ (sometimes referred to somewhat paradoxically as ‘sunshine noir’) emerged during the early to mid 1990s. This sub-genre marked a clear shift from a dark, gangster-obsessed and city-based classical conception of film noir into a noir based in the suburban space.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is a prime example of the suburban noir, violently clashing a sun-drenched suburban setting (specifically, that of Los Angeles) with a dark criminal underworld. Within Pulp Fiction and the suburban noir, the safety and security of the everyday, domesticated suburban lifestyle is infected by the dangerous kind of criminal activity of classic noir. Staple suburban locales such as the family home, local restaurants or even a high school (see Brick) become potential drug dens, murder sites or gang controlled areas. Although there is very little actual violence shown during Pulp Fiction – approximately 2 ½ minutes from a 153 minute running time (3) – the violent acts that occur burst into typically non-violent spaces; for example, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin hold up a diner, an area that is generally frequented by families rather than armed criminals.

As well as meshing criminal and domestic spaces, suburban noir also displaces classical noir figures into the suburban setting. Mobsters such as Marsellus Wallace, hit-man Vincent Vega and his partner Jules Winnfield co-exist with home-based drug dealer Lance, polo-shirted informant Marvin and Vincent’s indignant wife-fearing friend Jimmy.

The displacement of classical noir characters into the suburban realms can often yield arresting results. Although Mia, with her slick red lips, vampy features and seemingly powerful sexuality (4) , appears as a femme fatale character, her largely unspectacular demise suggests that there is no space for fatales in the suburbs. Her failure as an actress and her later overdose leaves her weak, powerless and deathly pale, a far cry from the sexually potent and glamorous fatales of the classical noir period.

Other themes commonly found within the suburban noir also include the demise of the family unit (5) (note the absence of stable, functional familial relations within Pulp Fiction), the destruction of the ‘American dream’ (Mia’s failure as an actress) and the idea that the ‘safe’ suburbs mask hidden danger and perversity (consider what lurks in the basement of Maynard’s store).

Under Tarantino’s gaze, suburban Los Angeles is a potentially dangerous land of failed dreams and alienation. Within Pulp Fiction, as with many suburban noirs, the suburb is constructed as a site of unexpected danger, and criminality.

Taking noir out of the shadows, despite the supposed safety of good clean family living, suburban noir shows that it takes more than mere daylight to expose the hidden dangers of the contemporary world. This perhaps marks the most striking commonality between classical noir and suburban noir; things are not always as they seem.


(1) Silver, Alan, 1996, ‘Son of Noir: Neo-Film Noir and the Neo-B Picture’, Film Noir Reader, Limelight, New York, p 331

(2) Place, Janey, 1998, ‘Women in Film Noir’ in Women in Film Noir, ed E. Ann Kaplan, London, BFI Publishing, p 51

(3) Yaquinto, Marilyn, 1998, ‘The Prince of Pulp and Royal Hoods’, Pump ‘em Full of Lead: A Look at Gangsters on Film, Twayne, New York, p 228

(4) Hayward, Susan, 1996, Key Concepts in Cinema, Routledge, London, New York, p 118

(5) Klein, Norman M., 1997, “Suburban Noir and Cyberspace”, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the erasure of memory, Verso, London, p 296


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