Hotel Noir

I. Vacancy

All the rooms are the same. There is always a skeletal bedstead with an uninviting mattress; a scuffed chest of drawers; a grimy little sink; a naked light bulb; bare walls on which the memory of night terrors creeps like mold. The windows are barred with Venetian blinds, and outside them an electric sign blinks on and off all night, giving the whole chamber a stuttering pulse like an anxious heart. Noir is filled with people who live in cheap hotels and furnished rooms, drifters like the title character in TV’s The Fugitive (1963–1967) for whom life means just “another shabby room, another lonely night.” Alan Ladd checks into one such dump while on the lam in The Blue Dahlia (1946); when the desk clerk promises clean sheets every week, Ladd quips, “How often do you change the fleas?” The dingy room where Robert Ryan wakes up at the beginning of Act of Violence (1949) matches his own cipher-like existence. He is a man without a home, without friends or belongings, without personal tastes or interests apart from his obsessive mission of vengeance. A man, to quote Raymond Chandler, who has only “a coat, a hat, and a gun,” the last of which he pulls out of a dresser drawer before setting off across country on a Greyhound bus.

Even a better class of hotel, minus the fleas, can be quintessentially noir, corroding the soul not with squalor but with impersonality. “I like this: Early Nothing,” Gloria Grahame says to Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953), commenting on the generic décor of his room. He has retreated there after gangsters murdered his wife, leaving his suburban bungalow and taking refuge in numbing anonymity, becoming another of noir’s nowhere men. There is a kind of amnesia built into all but the cheapest hotel rooms: they are designed to make you forget that a stranger was sleeping in your bed and washing in your tub the night before. Hotels, like airports, are “non-places,” in the term coined by Marc Augé, who defines them as locations “where people are always, and never, at home.” The sameness of hotels is deliberate and reassuring: the original motto of the Holiday Inn chain, founded in 1952, was “No surprises.” In “Travelin’ Blues,” a song with music by Dave Brubeck and lyrics by his wife Iola, an itinerant musician on a tour of one-night stands shrugs: I check into a hotel, and then forget its name. / Guess I could ask, but oh well, / Aren’t all hotels just the same? 

Non-places proliferated in postwar America, with the growth of homogenous suburban tract housing, interstate highways, and car culture. In road-movie noir, people on the run take advantage of motels and auto courts designed for transients, places where people don’t look too closely or ask too many questions. The lovers in Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948), after marrying in a quickie ceremony at a neon-lit roadside chapel, move through a succession of tourist cabins and boarding houses, and come to the end of their tragic road at the bleak Prairie Plaza Motel. The couple in Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951), adulterous lovers who marry after the man kills the woman’s husband, spend their wedding night in the sterile twin beds of a motel room, listening to the roar of traffic on the highway. And in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), the hapless Al Roberts (Tom Neal) and the venomous blackmailer Vera (Ann Savage) enact a kind of sick, hilarious inversion of a honeymoon, cooped up together in a chintzy suite where every pattern and texture is repellently ugly (“Home, sweet home,” Al sneers).

Top of post: The Big Heat; above: Murder by Contract

All hotels may be just the same, but the sense of déjà vu in these films also comes from the fact that the rooms are really studio sets. In B movies, sets were frequently recycled and tend to be under-dressed, giving them the cheerless, Spartan quality of cut-rate hotel accommodations. But even in bigger-budget movies, the conventions of studio-era Hollywood decor give interiors a predictable sameness, lacking the clutter and the personal touches of places where people really live. Like hotel rooms, they are replicas of homes, at once instantly familiar and vaguely uncanny.

As the classic noir period reached its burnt-out, bitter end in the late 1950s, a mood of freeze-dried amorality seeped into crime movies, expressed in flat-lit, banal environments. In Irving Lerner’s thrillingly spare Murder by Contract (1958), a professional hit man, played by the thuggishly handsome Vince Edwards, starts out in a small furnished room in an unidentified eastern city. Waiting for a job, the killer-for-hire kills time—doing pull-ups, reading the paper—against a backdrop of busy floral wallpaper and “early nothing” furniture that advertises his indifference to his surroundings. To his boss, he boasts that he is so careful he “doesn’t even carry a room key.” Transplanted to Los Angeles for a contract, he moves into a blandly modern hotel suite, where he holds forth to his handlers about how “the only type of killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger,” and how he has “trained [himself] to eliminate personal feeling.” This cultivated remoteness and refusal of emotion—belied by his almost hysterical misogyny—perfectly suit a loner who lives in hotel rooms, paying tips instead of having friends.

In Touch of Evil (1958), Orson Welles creates a geography in which the Mexican border divides day from night and present from past. But one thing is the same on both sides of the border: the very worst things happen in hotels. In the deserted and isolated Mirador Motel, a cluster of bare cabins in the middle of a dry, empty sweep of land on the U.S. side, the room where Susie (Janet Leigh) tries to sleep is gradually invaded, first by loud music and a noisy party next door, then threatening whispers through the wall, figures looming up outside the windows, and finally a gang of menacing, leather-jacketed Mexican youths surrounding her bed. She wakes up in another hotel, a seedy establishment on the Mexican side where she opens her drugged lids to meet the bulging eyes of a corpse hanging above her bed. (You would think that Leigh would have learned her lesson, but no: two years later, as Marion Crane, she checked into the Bates Motel.) These scenes play on the darkest vision of hotels: places where you are not only sleeping among strangers, but where you might wake up in someone else’s nightmare.

Touch of Evil

II. Under One Roof

If hotels can represent the erasure of identity and the rootlessness of modern life, they can also be layered with the past, the traces of innumerable travelers lingering in the hallways like smells. The hotel as a nexus of criss-crossing stories became a genre, pioneered by Grand Hotel (the source for the 1932 MGM movie was a German novel from 1929 called Menschen im Hotel). The most poetic entry is Marcel Carné’s noir-flavored Hôtel du Nord (1938), set in the small inn of the title, on the banks of the Canal St. Martin in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. The waters of the canal introduce a motif of fluidity and circulation that is reinforced in the first scene by the topic of blood transfusions, debated by hotel guests sitting around a festive table. The portly and comically self-serious Prosper (Bernard Blier), a lock-keeper, declines a glass of wine; he must keep his blood pure because he picks up extra money by selling it. Some guests are disgusted by the idea of their blood in another person’s veins (“It’s not decent,” one woman huffs), while others retort that blood is blood. The hostess complains, with unconscious irony, that the subject is inappropriate for a First Communion celebration.

As the party grows livelier, a morose young couple, Pierre and Renée (Jean-Pierre Aumont and Annabella), check into the hotel, planning to commit double suicide. Pallidly beautiful, they lie on the lace bedspread in their little second-story room in an ecstasy of morbid romanticism, imagining their deaths as a honeymoon trip, an escape from lives of disappointment and failure. All the inhabitants of the hotel are frustrated dreamers in confining quarters, constantly dreaming of travel and transformation. The prostitute Raymonde (Arletty) says that the happiest day of her life was when she “embarked” on a boat ride on the Seine. Her lover, Edmond (Louis Jouvet), a photographer with a mysterious criminal past, talks constantly about needing a change of air, a change of atmosphere. But no one ever goes anywhere; like the waters of the canal, they stir and mingle, but never escape to the sea.

Pierre bungles the suicide, shooting Renée but then losing his nerve when he is interrupted by Edmond. Surviving the shot, she is ready to forgive Pierre, but he can’t overcome the shame of his cowardice, telling her through the wire mesh of a prison visiting room that “it takes two to forget.” She returns to the Hôtel du Nord to work as a maid, where she is pursued romantically by Edmond, the film’s strangest and most complex character. Selfish and abusive, even sadistic, he harbors a surprisingly gentle side and a fatal passivity. In the end, Raymonde complains that Renée has “infected” Edmond with her suicidal ideas, another image of transfusion and the dangers of intimacy. The movie comes full circle with another celebration, a street party for Bastille Day—commemorating a mass escape from prison—at which the revelers perform a chain dance in front of the hotel, clasping hands and kissing one another. Despite its dark elements, the film is dominated by a 1930s mood of communal life, filled with bickering and discord but also with warmth—even if it only comes from the body heat of too many people crowded together under the same roof.

Hôtel du Nord

III. Haunted Rooms, Lonely Nights

In 1972, Chantal Akerman and her cinematographer Babette Mangolte spent a night filming a single-room-occupancy hotel in Manhattan, constructing an hour-long film named for its setting, Hotel Monterey. Long, mostly static shots gaze dispassionately at the lobby, the elevator doors opening and closing, the dingy ochre hallways, the small rooms, tiled bathrooms, fire escapes, windows. People appear, sometimes as reflections in mirrors, sometimes passing in front of the camera, sometimes sitting motionless, looking stranded in space and time the way people do in Edward Hopper’s paintings. To some viewers, Hopper’s pictures suggest stories—generally in a noir vein—but to me they evoke people realizing their stories are “all used up” (to quote Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil), that they will never move and nothing will change. The same feeling suffuses the formalist experiment Hotel Monterey. The film is silent, which adds to the hushed, spellbound mood of wee-hours melancholia. Some images are dark and murky, others are saturated with color, like the startling vision of a vermillion bed framed by autumn-hued drapes in a narrow empty room with walls painted robin’s-egg-blue. There are also glimpses into messy rooms with unmade beds. This is not a hotel where people are passing through, traveling or vacationing, but a place where people are hanging on, going nowhere, in the lowest rung of shelter.

Because there are no recurring characters in the frame, no narrative to follow, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the camera itself. Watching the movie, you feel yourself as a presence in these spaces, a ghost haunting the hallways and rooms. Many shots have no windows or clocks, but it feels like night because of the quiet and the harsh glare of artificial light. As Mangolte said in a 2016 Village Voice interview, about the films she and Akerman made in New York: “Night was very important—night is where the lonely people are.”

Hotel Monterey

In the 1950s, the artist, cinephile, and filmmaker Joseph Cornell—the loneliest of men—made a series of his signature shadow-boxes that referenced old French hotels and the constellations of winter night skies: works including Hôtel du Nord, Hôtel de l’Etoile, and Hotel Andromeda. The boxes are austere and mostly empty, their interiors covered in thick layers of cracked, abraded paint, pasted with cut-outs from astronomical atlases and the names of imaginary hotels in elegant, antique fonts. Sometimes, spatters of white paint on a dark blue background suggest both the stars and the drips left by sloppy painters. Cornell’s boxes were often shrines or offerings to the unattainable objects of his desire, ballet dancers or movie stars (for instance, his Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall). The hotel series is not directed at any particular woman, but expresses a complex of longing and nostalgia, simultaneously evoking the melancholy of small, decrepit rooms and the distant splendor of the heavens. 

Twice in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the private detective Scottie (James Stewart) watches a woman go into a hotel and then appear in the frame of a window. The first time, he is tailing the mysterious Madeleine (Kim Novak) and sees her enter the McKittrick Hotel, to which she is apparently drawn, as in a trance, because it was once the home of her ancestor, Carlotta Valdes. The rich Victorian interior, with its polished chestnut panels and ornately patterned carpets, walls, and ceilings, lit by a glittering crystal chandelier and a stained-glass skylight, gives off a suffocating perfume of the past. By contrast, the Empire Hotel, where he later follows Judy (also Novak) because she looks like Madeleine, is tawdry and pathetic, with loud orange carpets lining the bare hallways. Judy’s cramped little room has flimsy furnishings in pastel shades; a paper fan dangles from a wall lamp with bare bulbs; a pink painting of flowers hangs crookedly over the bed. But at night the green light from the hotel’s electric sign converts this room into a haunted portal.

It is here that Scottie sits, near the end of the film, bathed in that eerie ectoplasmic glow, waiting for Judy to return having completed her metamorphosis into Madeleine. He has bought her a simple grey suit and taken her to have her hair bleached blonde, instructed her on the tasteful, restrained makeup to wear—his overbearing need turning a simple discussion of hairstyles into an episode of agonizing emotional violence. As he waits for her to emerge from the bathroom he can hardly breathe: he is waiting for the return of the dead. She appears at last in a column of misty green light, a ghost gathering substance and color as she walks towards him. The camera circles around them as he enfolds her in the most rapturously disturbing kiss in the movies.

Scottie fashions Judy into a copy of Madeleine, only to discover that the Madeleine he loved was always “the copy, the counterfeit,” as he accuses her. Herein lies the movie’s profoundest irony: Madeleine’s possession by Carlotta is a hoax, a charade, but it ensnares the man who witnesses it in a true possession by the dead. To break the spell of his inconsolable longing, he must turn a real woman into a fake one, make life imitate the artifice that entranced him. This is how movies work, making illusion more vivid than reality, making our little rooms into observatories from which we gaze at distant false skies.