Known for its expressionistic lighting and shadows, tight, claustrophobic urban settings, and frequent use of dream sequences and flashbacks, film noir and its dark, ambiguous look at life are routinely discussed from a visual perspective. A number of scholars pay attention to how the films of this period in America (roughly the late 1930s to the middle of the 1950s, depending on who you ask) construct themes of paranoia, madness, secrecy, and disillusionment through their use of shadows, visual space, and innovative cinematic techniques. And rightly so as film noir marks a distinct period in American filmmaking that has its own visual flair and unique tendencies. However, as Robert Miklitsch argues in his latest book Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Noir, if we only consider these films visually, we are missing out on what film noir has to offer us on the sonic level. Of course, there are plenty of books and articles on film noir’s use of the voice-over, but Miklitsch takes a different approach, primarily focusing on sound effects and music’s contribution to the overall dark ambience of the films of this period. As a result, Siren City provides an insightful look into some of the more neglected areas of film noir study, while furthering larger discussions about film sound and film music as a whole.
Siren City begins with an introduction to sound and music theory in the cinema, which places this book in a larger critical context of the study of sound and music in film. For those unfamiliar with the terminology or theorists of this burgeoning field, the introduction serves as a helpful starting point. Additionally, it functions to situate Siren City in a discourse that does not just comment on film noir, but connects to larger issues in the field of film studies, foregrounding Miklitsch’s audiovisual approach to studying film. Moving from the introduction, Miklitsch establishes the foundation for the remainder of the book in his first chapter, ‘House Sound’. In this chapter, he discusses RKO and their sound team, specifically James G. Stewart, who he largely credits for laying the groundwork for the trademark qualities of film noir sound through their pioneering work in post-production sound techniques. To illustrate this, Miklitsch points to Stranger on the Third Floor (Ingster, 1940), a RKO B picture, and its “audacious dream sequence, pervasive atmosphere of paranoia, and inventive use of interior monologue” as a forerunner of classic noir (p.36-37). With this chapter, Miklitsch makes the case that film noir’s beginnings are as indebted to new sound techniques as visual innovation, a claim that he will support over the course of the book by providing numerous examples of how sound adds to our understanding of film noir and its thematic preoccupations.
Miklitsch unpacks this variety of sound effects in his second chapter, ‘Sonic Effects’, which is encyclopedic in its breadth, covering a multitude of sound effects that pervade the soundscapes of film noir. In order to set up his discussion of ambient sound in film noir, Miklitsch compares it to staples of film noir sound that are typically cited as representative of the period: “Ambient sound may not be as identifiable a feature of film noir as voice-over narration or hard-boiled dialogue, but one could not imagine the genre without it” (p.56). Throughout the rest of the chapter, he details a number of sound effects and how they help create film noir’s characteristic sense of ambiguity and darkness. Miklitsch always provides at least one, though normally several, filmic examples of the sound effect he is discussing, giving ample evidence to back up his identification of various typical noir sound effects: urban sounds, gun fire, footsteps, screaming, sirens, and car horns, just to name a few. The third chapter, ‘Audio Technologies’, continues by looking at new technologies that were becoming available at this time, and how film noir employed their sonic abilities for a number of purposes. For example, Miklitsch highlights the different ways the radio was used in the diegetic space of film noir: as a dispenser of music, a source of breaking news, a method of surveillance, and a space for commercial messages. By shedding light on technologies that we often isolate to the background, Miklitsch elucidates film noir’s inherent distrust of these technologies, but also its embrace of them, especially in his discussion of the phonograph and new sound recording technologies in this chapter. In this manner, film noir is tied to social and cultural anxieties about these technologies, and expresses these through the sonic register as well as through the visual.
Miklitsch ends ‘Audio Technologies’ by focusing on the jukebox, creating an easy transition to his next chapter, ‘Blues in the Night’, as he begins to discuss diegetic music in film noir. Throughout this chapter, Miklitsch provides an overview of various types of diegetic source music used in noir, paying close attention to jazz and classical music, illustrating how a better understanding of music can provide insight into film. He raises several intriguing points throughout the chapter about music’s functions in film noir: music’s connection to “scenes of physical violence” (p.128), the “certain dignity” afforded to black musicians in their role as musicians (p.139) and the idea of “the musicalization of noir as a genre” (p.158). Although the chapter illuminates how music in film noir is often used as a way to show a character’s mindset or emotion, I was hoping Miklitsch would look at some of the issues he raised in this chapter in detail throughout the rest of the book. While he touches on the racial discourse of film noir in his fifth chapter, ‘Singing Detectives and Bluesmen, Black Jazzwomen and Torch Singers’, the other topics lack a more detailed analysis which may have been outside of the scope of this particular book. In the fifth chapter, Miklitsch draws our attention to the varied ways that music is performed in film noir and how those performances can signify different modes of being and thematic considerations. Especially effective here is his analysis of Gilda’s (Rita Hayworth) solo rendition of ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ from early on in the film Gilda (Vidor, 1946), as Miklitsch will return to Gilda’s later performance of this song in chapter seven. The differences between the two renditions (the former on acoustic guitar, the latter backed by a large band) are sonically and visually striking, giving Miklitsch a perfect opportunity to illustrate the benefits of an audiovisual approach to film analysis.
The book comes to its conclusion in the last two chapters, fittingly entitled ‘The Big Number (Side B)’ and ‘The Big Number (Side A)’, in which Miklitsch takes a look at several of the show-stopping musical numbers that often take place in films of this period. He begins these two chapters with a provocative question, countering the traditional visual understanding of women in films of this period: “Is it possible that the musical number is dramatic site in film noir, a place where women ‘speak,’ as it were, with a certain discursive authority?” (p.192-93). Considering the examples in the rest of the book gives us the opportunity to reassess the typical, visual understanding of film noir through sound and music, and, in some manner, reconsider the trajectory of film studies. Miklitsch takes us on a comprehensive tour of how these musical numbers operate in film noir over these two chapters, wrapping up his book by demonstrating the advantages of his audiovisual approach. In a brief epilogue, Miklitsch comments on silence, perhaps laying the groundwork for another book that takes the lack of sound as its starting point. It ends the book on a curious note, perhaps appropriate for a book concerned with film noir.
Siren City never fails to be accessible, yet remains thoroughly scholarly and critically relevant. Miklitsch’s book fills an important gap in the study of film noir sound, and, at the same time, demonstrates some of the advantages to be gained by considering sound and image when analyzing film, further adding to the conversation about film sound that has been growing over the past couple of decades. Yet, Siren City is not just a book for an academic audience, as its sheer amount of information about film noir and its accessible tone would appeal to any knowledgeable aficionado of film noir or classic film more generally. The scope and breadth of knowledge in Siren City is impressive, even if it left me wanting some more depth at times. Miklitsch has crafted an engaging read that asks some important questions about film noir and film analysis, providing a firm ground for future scholarly endeavors into film noir and its use of sound and music.