The Mediapolis Q&A: Welcome to Fear City with Nathan Holmes

"Super Cops" photographed by Bob Adelman.
Nathan Holmes discusses his new book Welcome to Fear City: Crime Film, Crisis, and the Urban Imagination with Mediapolis Reviews Editor Noelle Griffis.

In this installment of our continuing series of conversations with authors of new books on cities and urban culture, reviews editor Noelle Griffis talks with Nathan Holmes, Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at Purchase College – SUNY. His book, Welcome to Fear City: Crime Film, Crisis, and the Urban Imagination, was published  by SUNY Press (hardback edition October 2018; paperback forthcoming in July).

Noelle Griffis: Nathan, in Welcome to Fear City, you do a really impressive job of weaving close analysis and rich historical source materials together in a way that’s not only compelling and convincing, but also a pleasure to read. I truly enjoyed your book and found that your analyses of films – from well-known titles like Klute to the obscure Detroit 9000 – offered much more than a new reading of each film. What you provide is a greater understanding of the ways crime cinema reflected, constructed, and reinforced the visual rhetoric, and therefore the public conception, of the “urban crisis” during the early to mid-1970s, often through generic but reimagined tropes ranging from chase scenes to stakeouts.

Could you start by discussing what brought you to this topic?

Nathan Holmes: I’ve been interested for a long time in the idea of urban modernity, especially the type of writings that captured the way people in the 19th century were dealing with new technologies, forms of communication, crowd circulation, and new sensory experiences as well as fictional forms like crime and melodrama that very much reflected or interpreted those experiences. I was interested to see if it was possible to trace the visual culture of crime fiction as it developed through the 1970s to see if these traditions continued in a different era. Part of the idea for the book was to look at the genre during a specific moment when there was an efflorescence of crime cinema, which hadn’t really been captured within film scholarship of as far as I could see.

These films were often grouped within film noir or neo-noir, when in fact they exist at this moment between the end of noir and the the beginning of what people call neo-noir, and they weren’t self-conscious in the way that neo-noir was. So they were in this in between space and I thought there was a possibility to write about them. The other more disciplinary issue that I was interested in was the idea that when you tell someone you work on crime film they immediately say, “okay, you work on noir.” But noir is just this very specific moment in a longer history of crime as a narrative form. And I wanted to argue that these films, on the one hand, sustained the noir tradition by incorporating certain elements, but also extended beyond noir to play their own distinct role in influencing the crime genre into the present.

Griffis: Yes, and so much of the work on noir and urban crime film tends to focus on masculinity, which is woven throughout your book because it’s often integral to the films you discus, but the masculine trope is not a central focus of Welcome to Fear City. Instead, masculinity emerges as more of a cultural effect of the genre and the period.

Holmes: Yeah, I guess that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start with Klute, because it was a film that very much foregrounded an experience of the city that was not male-centered, as the film captured various historically specific spaces — including new kinds of cultural spaces like the disco and the therapist office — where women would pass through.

Part I: Urban Interiors

Griffis: I really liked that your analysis of the locations in Klute gives us different ways of considering urban iconicity beyond streetscapes and sidewalks—to instead focus on urban interiors, which are often differently gendered.

 Holmes: Sure, and that’s the other part of that chapter (“Parking Garage, Apartment, Disco, Skyscraper: Alan J. Pakula’s Banal Modernity”). In a sense, Klute is the story of a single girl in the city in a single girl’s apartment. Pamela Wojcik has done such great work exploring the idea of this interpenetration of the inside with the outside and the way that interior spaces are never entirely separate from the streets or the outside world. So, in Chapter 1, I was also interested in images in which people appeared in front of windows and there’s a sense of what I call “the shadowed self.” This relates to the move towards interiority that 70s cinema is marked by, which always relies on a kind of projection or a projected fantasy of what’s happening outside as well. The projected fantasy is intertwined with the sense of the city as dangerous or filled with these energies, which are both dangerous and exciting.

Griffis: The other thing that really impressed me about the chapter, and the book in general, was the range of materials that you discussed in relation to the films. For example, you give a great reading of mise en scene in relation to Bree’s apartment using a variety of interior design images of the period, including a photo spread of Robert Indiana’s apartment that had a somewhat similar aesthetic to Bree’s bedroom. Could you discuss your approach to research and visual analysis a bit?

 Holmes: Well, the project originated when I was watching the films in Chicago with my roommates and we lived in this very big loft apartment. It was one of those more unreconstructed lofts that was looked like it was filled with the remnants of 50 different art projects and plants, a little like Bree’s apartment. It had been converted into a residential space during a time when deindustrialized spaces, or spaces vacated by small manufacturing businesses, were being inhabited by all sorts of artists and Bohemian types who cultivated a new design aesthetic out of the space and materials available to them. The loft aesthetic at this time is a combination of modernism and an emergent kind of postmodernism, related to Americana. If you look at Bree’s apartment, she’s got a brass bed and some Victorian elements mixed in with an otherwise very sparse aesthetic. And if you look through the magazines during this time they’re picking up on this aesthetic as well as the renewed interest in the city as a space where you can express yourself through decor. One of the significant texts for all of this is New York magazine, which picks up steam in the 1970s and it’s really about renewing a kind of cosmopolitan lifestyle through interest in cuisine and culture, urban culture and design specifically. A lot of the loft imagery comes from New York magazine, which also happened to do a lot of great investigative reporting into things like police corruption during the same period.


To get back to your question about the range of materials, when I was watching these films with my roommates, we were interested in their documentary elements as much as we were interested in their plots, especially the way that they were capturing different spaces that have since become lost to time. Even just seeing the interior of a restaurant or the interior of an apartment, I mean these are all things that get renovated over and over again. We often talk about the way that buildings get destroyed, but these interior spaces have so many more lives than the buildings they’re housed in. I was really interested in the way that these films document a specific type of decor or interior design and how set design reflected what was being featured in urban, design, and lifestyle magazines—as well as other forms of visual media—at the time. I guess my approach to analyzing the films of the period started with an intuition and a desire for historical presence. I wanted to know what it was like to inhabit these spaces.

Griffis: There’s also a lot of nostalgia now for the cinema and the city of the 1970s, especially New York as depicted in the movies, which encourages a desire to spot the documentary elements of these location-shot films. But in your book, you complicate this idea a bit and note that it’s not just identifying authenticity that appeals to contemporary viewers, but also a satisfaction that comes from recognizing of the tension between real locations and set dressings or art design.

 Holmes: Yes, in all of the films I discuss there’s a composite image that’s created because there is that documentary aspect, but then it’s overlaid with a kind of narrative energy. When you’re reading only for the documentary aspects, you’re abstracting out these aspects that vivify the image. Part of my interest in chase sequences, for example, was the fact that you’ve got this montage of spaces, these very interesting interstitial spaces in a city. But the chase itself, with its sense of suspense, and the thriller aspect of the crime film is actually what’s animating our own spectatorial interest. There’s this exciting thing that’s happening in the story and that’s why we’re looking so intensely at this space.

In the book, I wanted to discuss the pursuit and the observation it engenders as a key aspect of a crime narrative. These films often feature detectives looking intently at things or pursuing people within city spaces as a way of grabbing us as spectators and making us look more closely. Of course, there’s also the physical aspect of it, which is the way architecture comes alive to us when we see people moving around it. Like when we see people climbing over walls or peeking around corners. In a way this also comes back to the documentary pleasure. When we watch, we think: this is what New York looked like in the 1970s, but the reason that I’m excited to look at it is because it’s embedded within this crime narrative.

Part II: Urban Blight and Detroit 9000

Griffis: That certainly seems to be the case with Detroit 9000, which I’d like to discuss since it’s the one non-New York film in the book. I thought it was a really interesting move to discuss urban crisis imagery outside of New York, but what inspired you to include an outlier near the mid-point of the book? And why Detroit 9000?

Holmes: Part of the reason I included a chapter on Detroit 9000 was to create diversity in the book to show that it wasn’t really a New York book, but a book about the image of cities in the 1970s. I thought it was important to bring in the significance of the rust belt aesthetic that we see a lot of in this period as well. Detroit 9000 struck me as an interesting film to look at in the context of 1970s crime cinema because it was the most generic version of the period’s location shot crime film. It was basically exploiting the energy for both blaxploitation and the The French Connection style of crime thriller. In a sense, it distilled the most popular elements of various contemporary thrillers.

And then, while investigating the film’s production, I learned of its backstory, which was particularly interesting because of the way that the film involved different people in Detroit as a way of promoting itself. Detroit Tiger linebackers were in the film. Local radio personalities were in the film. The Detroit police department provided helicopters, horses and all sorts of police equipment to be in the film. The police commissioner even appeared in the film. At the same time, the Detroit police department was embroiled in a controversy and faced protest for racist practices. They had a unit called STRESS (Stop Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) that was targeting black Detroiters. It’s a compelling story on its own, but also the one that fits I think within the ambitions of the book.

Griffis: So then the producers begin to market Detroit’s murder rate as something of a unique selling point for the film about the city –something identifiable in a city lacking an urban iconicity (like a recognizable skyline), right? Was there any pushback?

Holmes: The mayor famously spoke out against the film after these publicity materials came out that were exploiting Detroit’s murder rate. But most of the pushback was just from people saying, well, it’s not a very good film. There was a sense of letdown that it wasn’t something on the level of French Connection or Shaft, it was just an exploitation film.

Griffis: I really like the way you discuss the film in relation to generic urban imagery – a desolate street or abandoned lot, for example—and how this generic crisis imagery contrasts with the iconicity of Times Square, 125th Street, and so forth in New York.

Holmes: Yes, because Detroit at time was not a visually iconic city. It had Motown and the auto industry, but not a recognizable skyline. All the films we now associate with Detroit like RoboCop hadn’t come out, John Portman’s Renaissance Center was still under construction, and Detroit itself had yet to become a symbol for urban decline in the way that it is today. Interestingly, Detroit 9000 was written for any city that bordered Canada, since there was a border crossing plot point, and Cleveland and other cities were considered, which speaks to the generic aspects of the location even though the production integrated the city into the story once production began. (The original script was called “The Holly Hill Caper.”)

Griffis: In relation to generic crisis imagery, you also discuss “anti-romantic mise en scene” and “zero panorama,” which might be easier to achieve by filming in Detroit rather than New York or San Francisco.

Holmes: Yes, the thing I think that I was interested in was the idea that all of these crime films use images of urban blight, which just means a site of ruin, abandoned warehouses or landscapes in the Bronx, for example, where neighborhoods had been destroyed for the creation of freeways or urban renewal projects. There was a sense that you could take a picture of any type of architectural detritus and that would have a kind of resonance for viewers. And, of course, this idea of urban blight was also racially coded. You could use an image of dilapidated buildings and it would connote to viewers that this is the inner city, this is where the “underclass” lives. So, these images of blight become shorthand for the idea that American cities are in decline.

But what was interesting to me was the fact that in crime films you couldn’t just use a static image of urban blight like you would see in a newspaper or magazine– it had to be incorporated into a plot line. And by doing this, filmmakers were vivifying this urban blight. You could find images of blight anywhere from Galveston, Texas to Detroit to Youngstown, Ohio, so these were familiar spaces that people in any of these places would recognize, particularly suburban viewers. And so it became a kind of mass cultural phenomenon, when filmmakers seized on the visual pleasure of seeing familiar imagery of urban blight come to life, recontextualized through sensationalized narratives.

Part III: Law and Order

Griffis: In Chapter 2 you discuss what you call the “super cop” cycle, which includes hip cops like Shaft and Serpico— outliers in an otherwise corrupt system. Chapter 4, “Bystander Effects: Death Wish and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three” focuses on films that feature a total breakdown of policing, bureaucracy, and government in New York City. How do you see this theme of policing and the lack thereof play out or evolve in the crisis crime film?

Holmes: One of the tensions in the book is crime narratives as a form, which involves certain recurrent motifs and iconography and plot lines, vs what’s happening within cities in the 1970s and specifically what’s happening in relation to broader discourses of law and order. “Law and Order” rhetoric and policy become mobilized through the 1960s and in the 1970s and are the benchmarks of a reemerging conservatism that we now live with every day. Within the national imagination, there’s a recurrent reference to crime in the streets. Politicians could just say “crime in the streets” and it would resonate among constituents in a host of ways, but generally it connoted an inner city racialized underclass. And then another common trope that emerges during this period involves mugging. I see the films as adding a more fantastical narrativized world around expressions like “crime in the streets” and “a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet.”

Griffis: Yes, and the cops are either too much or not enough depending on your social position and political leanings — presented as corrupt and overly aggressive or apathetic and ineffective.

Holmes: Yes, well, on the right we have the law and order discourse and then we have the New Left discourse in which police are pigs. Through the civil rights movement and the antiwar protests you have all these images of uniformed police officers using force or wielding a baton, bloodying the nose of a person protesting the establishment. Police become this bad object. And as part of what was basically a public relations effort, we have this emergent idea of the hippie cop and the undercover police officer.

Most trenchantly, we see this in Serpico. Frank Serpico was a whistleblower within the New York City Police Department and became a well-known figure through the Knapp commission hearings into NYC police corruption. In the Sidney Lumet film, he embodies the antiestablishment police officer, which is kind of a paradox, of course. The film was very much about this paradox and the tensions that it produces. Then surrounding Serpico are all these different types of representations of what are called super cops, or a new order of police officer who is not corrupt, is entrepreneurial in nature, and who’s typically not wearing a uniform, and operating on the margins of the police precinct in order to bring down criminals. For example, Eddie Egan, the cop on whom Popeye Doyle in The French Connection is based, was labeled as a super cop. There’s a film called The Super Cops, which is based on David Greenberg and Robert Hantz, two police officers in New York. So there’s a flourishing of super cop pop culture, in which cops are envisioned to be heroes. It’s basically the “Mod Squad” idea of policing, that cops could be young, they could have long hair, they could wear bell bottoms.

I was interested in that because this whole notion of undercover can be incorporated into crime narratives in ways that amplify a sense of paranoia about who might be looking at you or who you might be exchanging gazes with, within urban public space. Because around this time there are all these infiltrations of left wing organizations by law enforcement agencies and the FBI. And there’s a sense that the people around you who you think are your friends or your compadres are actually spies. So it’s basically kind of a cold war paranoia filtered into urban public spaces. I think that the French Connection, and the other super cop films are really kind of drawing on that energy.

Griffis: You organize the final chapter around the idea of the “bystander effect,” a sociological term that became popular after the infamous Kitty Genovese murder. The story became a media sensation after newspapers reported that over thirty area residents heard Genovese’s screams but did nothing to save her, perhaps expecting someone else do it. The circumstances of Genovese’s murder helped propel the idea that the city had become a crime-ridden cesspool where no one—not your neighbors, not the police—will save you. In the chapter, you discuss two subway films—The Incident and Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Threeand the Charles Bronson street vigilante film Death Wish. I imagine it would have been tempting to make a chapter about subway films (without Death Wish), but the focus on the “bystander effect” allows you to explore spaces ranging from apartment entryways to subway trains and the interactions or encounters between urban dwellers faced with criminal elements. What made you want to discuss these films—especially Death Wish and Taking of Pelham—in relation to one another?

Holmes: What’s interesting about Death Wish is that the main character is an architect and urban planner. He’s someone whose relatives and friends are constantly trying to convince him to move to the suburbs after the home invasion and rape/ murder of his wife and daughter, but he won’t. Instead, he stays in the city to kill people. There’s this death drive aspect to his characterization that is pretty fascinating, despite the fact that it is just a really nasty film, where the Charles Bronson character essentially encourages all these different people who are depicted as a typology urban degeneracy– interracial gangs and coded gay men— to attack him so that his revenge killings are justified. The film itself is just a very dark right-wing fantasy of the urban encounter.

Alternately, the subways are a space in which all of these different people are smashed together. It’s a great metaphor for life in a big city or life in New York in which you’re forced to get along with all types of different people.The idea for the last chapter was related to The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, which is one of my favorite films in the book. There’s this caper plot, which registered for many as just another New York urban nightmare film, but it’s also a breezy comedy whose crime elements are hyperbolic in a way. Like the criminal gang calling each other Mister Blue and Mister Red. They’re very much villains, but they’re also kind of mellow. Their villainy is very highly fictionalized. You also have the Martin Balsam character sneezing the whole time, and Walter Matthau, so it’s a very sweet and upbeat film, especially in contrast to Death Wish. And what I mean by “upbeat” is that it really is about the way in which New Yorkers get along with each other, despite the subway system that doesn’t work very well or all the difficulties we have relating to each other.

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