Domesticity That Never Sleeps: the Emergence of the Suburban Thriller

Roger Westcombe

Less than a decade after World War II, the urban crime thriller had transmuted into the suburban crime thriller. But almost no one noticed [1].

pitfallCrime films, particularly 'Bs' (since they're less self-conscious and more reflect the audience they need to connect with [2]), reveal the postwar 'white flight' from the cities with unbeatable accuracy and purity. Because this movement was so incidental to the filmmakers themselves it went unremarked. Half a century later it's the very incongruity of criminal plotting and scheming in settings straight out of Home Beautiful that lets us track the changes taking place.

Urban Prerequisites

The first major crime genre to emerge in Hollywood was the Gangster flick. Balancing censorship requirements against their subjects' undeniable charisma, the studios turned Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar plus their lesser progeny into each way bets, hedging the star turns of Cagney and Edward G. with po-faced pronouncements that Crime Doesn't Pay, despite all the celluloid evidence to the contrary [3].

The prevailing zeitgeist strongly linked such malfeasance with slum life [4], as if tenement squalor was the petri dish that hoodlums depended on for their breeding ground. A corollary was the city/country divide, and the dichotomy between rural purity and urban degeneracy is a strand which can be seen running, somewhat unevenly, through Hollywood for decades, often within the one film [5] as it passed from city to country, from darkness into light. This dichotomy sowed the seeds for the 'suburban drift' after the War, and mirrored it.

"Swell Layout Ya Got Here"

The next major genre in crime flicks, film noir , found its oxygen in the urban milieu. (For a largely German-derived aesthetic this is ironic, but that's Art for you.)

Noir could happen anywhere, but it lent matter-of-fact acceptability to showing the same brownstone walkups where family life often occurred to be simultaneously the backdrop and setting of the most anti-social criminal behaviour and planning. With everyone living on top of each other in these tenements, a criminal caper could be hatched around the same table from which the kids were sent packing to bed.  Not even a thin membrane separated criminal speculation from family life in numerous 1940s scenarios and no one batted an eyelid. That petri dish was now taken for granted.

Thus when the 'B' crime film continued on unrepentant and largely unchanged postwar [6], its makers seemed unfussed by the social upheavals they were chronicling and reflecting. They just adapted their tried and true tropes to the new realities and settings.

Two films epitomize this.  Don Siegel's minor gem Private Hell 36 (1954) offers a striking illustration of how old criminality fit into new lounge rooms while Andre deToth's Pitfall (1948) gathers almost its entire energy from this clash of texts - urban noir impulses versus emerging suburbanism. Spanning nearly the entire ten year 'B' thriller cycle ('46 - '55 [7]), both show crime moving out to the 'burbs along with the newly minted middle class majority, even as old concepts like the urban petri dish died hard.

Private Hell 36

Private Hell 36 is a late effort from Filmmakers, production vehicle of producer Collier Young and ex-wife Ida Lupino, who handed over director duties here to Don Siegel due to her marital problems at the time with one of Hell 's stars, Howard Duff.

It's a brisk 80 minutes of typical Siegel efficiency strengthened by the crisp visual sense of cinematographer Burnett Guffey ( Bonnie and Clyde [1967, for which he won an Oscar] and the unsung Robert ( The Hustler ) Rossen noir, Johnny O'Clock [1946], among many others).

Duff and Steve Cochran (the saturnine gang member who aroused Cody Jarrett's jealousy in White Heat ) are detectives of differing corruptibility, a contrast mirrored by their taste in women. Duff's wife (Dorothy Malone) is an anxious suburban mother, while Cochran transforms nightclub chanteuse Lupino from initial suspect to eventual squeeze.

Each cop has dame-driven money problems. So when a large chunk of stolen cash comes their way they can't resist skimming off one third, though Duff acquiesces to the scam only grudgingly, egged on by Cochran, and wallows in guilt thereafter.

Domesticity, and its different versions, is one of the most influential determinants of the story. On hearing of the death of a fellow detective in his opening scene Duff worries about the impact his own demise would have on his young family, establishing a domestic angle in him from the outset. Soon we have our first sighting of Duff's suburban bungalow - in darkness, as is his wife, in a very noir visual which establishes the shadows which hang over their dream home.

Early contrast is set up as Cochran grills Ida at her place, an apartment whose unmistakable noir ish associations revive the 'petri dish' distinction, now between 1940s-style urban habitats (lowlife) and 1950s suburbia (anxious families). The divide is subtly reinforced when Duff invites Cochran, on behalf of his wife, to "come out to the house sometime" (emphasis added).  Lupino's shift to the good guys' (relatively speaking) side of the law is symbolised by her waking up in Cochran's suburban house (admittedly on the couch), where they subsequently consummate their new allegiance.

All of this is groundwork preparing us for the key domestic scene, when the two suburban couples socialise in the Life magazine living room of Duff and Malone. This is an incredible scene, with its style - all polo shirts, casual chilling with the neighbours - totally at odds with its content: guilt and criminality.

The placement in the film of this brightly lit segment is crucial, as it immediately follows the scene where the detectives cross the line into theft, rendering none of its participants (the oblivious Dorothy Malone apart) as pure and clean as the setting. This sense of sanctuary 'polluted' is made explicit when Duff prevents Malone from bringing their child into the lounge room while Cochran and Lupino are sprawled on the new sofa.

Siegel and/or the writers (Young and Lupino) deftly distinguish this from the wider environment's purity when an All-American delivery boy turns up at the door, all freckly innocence and peachy keen.  The impurities here are not society's, they've been imported. Strengthening this, in this setting open criminal conspiracy can only occur when the women - the cops' 'others' - are absent from the shiny room.

The theme is maintained. The lovers' final abscondment into a fugitive lifestyle is hatched back at Ida's apartment (where else?), while the final conspiracy between the detectives is cemented in a sleazy diner where Cochran absent-mindedly acknowledges a 'lady of the night' in passing. But before this, the penultimate scene of criminal conspiracy returns us to Duff's house, outside in darkness again in a shot remarkably echoing a near identical scene in Pitfall , following the transgression which that film revolves around, adultery.


Adultery may not be of the same order of magnitude as theft, but its impact on the nuclear 1950s family is the same, and in these films that's what counts. What's striking about Pitfall 's parallel scene (tarnished 'hero' skulks home to darkened house) is that we only feel the guilt of this protagonist's adulterous tryst when he comes in late to his sleeping household, thus instantly establishing domesticity (rather than love, individual integrity, etc) as what's at stake here.

The protagonist in Pitfall is Dick Powell, still enriched in complexity by his successful turn as Phillip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely some four years earlier. His jowly demeanour here renders him positively Nixonian and, as insurance investigator John Forbes, this saturnine countenance instantly conjures up echoes of MacMurray's Walter Neff in Double Indemnity .

Powell's Forbes is introduced going through the ennui of what we would now call a mid-life crisis but instead of turning to a meno-Porsche it's a femme fatale, the sultry Lizabeth Scott, for him. Extra complication materialises in the form of Raymond Burr (in one of his earliest roles) who stalks the aforementioned Scott - with less successful results than Powell. Burr, a wrong-side-of - the-tracks private eye, is the best thing in Pitfall , with a chillingly understated menace that would have done Laird Cregar proud.

Throughout Pitfall it's the home where threats are most keenly felt. It is here, after Forbes returns home in darkness again from his second assignation with Scott, that he and the jealous Burr violently tangle. Shortly thereafter Scott brings the same threat home in a different form, parking outside the house in daylight but moving on after assessing the serenity of the scene and speaking to Forbes' wife Sue (Jane Wyatt).

As femme fatales go, this one is quite pro-domesticity, giving 'Johnny' Forbes the kiss-off after the above encounter: "If I had a nice home like you did, I wouldn't take a chance with it for anything in the world", she opines (only in the 50s!). That Scott means it becomes apparent soon after when Burr gets her to play ball with him by threatening Johnny , not her. We're constantly reminded that what's at stake here is the nuclear family, rather than the individual; we never see guilt individualised in a reaction shot or one-shot, only in the family context at home.

Visually there's some angular noir ish framing: in a prison scene, in a cocktail bar where Powell encounters the usual suspects of noir world and in the reunion between Scott and her jailbird boyfriend Smiley, where she's framed in venetian blind shadows showing her imprisonment is of the metaphysical variety. Like the previous year's Bogey/Bacall Dark Passage ,there's an evident day/night symbolism operating throughout Pitfall .

But the suspense here is all domestic, not noir ish. It's a domestic situation - when Burr packs away the dresses and shoes of Scott's wardrobe - which provides the climactic tension between these two characters, resolvable only by a slug from a .45.

Pitfall by now has become an odd clash of texts with each - domestic/ noir - given its head without finding a common ground, until it all comes together in a wonderful fusion when Smiley seeks out Forbes in his house (natch) which he, tipped to the threat, has thrust into shadows and darkened, finally uniting the two strands in one powerful and violent symbolic realization: suburban noir .

Oh, Hank...

Now that Mr and Mrs Public had a slice of the American Dream in the affluent postwar years, they had something to lose. Domestic bliss of this new, materialistic variety was such a novelty that maintaining it seemed a jittery, fraught process [8]. That quintessentially 50s 'B' genre, the alien invasion sci-fi flick, springs partially from this locus too. Thrillers of a more 'A' provenance ( The Desperate Hours [1955]; Cape Fear [1962]) occasionally made this threat explicit, but as their budgets rose so did their self-consciousness. Even merely sexual predators could threaten the suburban split-level, as Kim Novak found courtesy of Kirk Douglas in 1960's Strangers When We Meet .

Then, as suburbia gradually became entrenched and normalised in the brave new 1960s world of Camelot, such depictions faded. The 1960s was a rotten decade for thrillers, but interestingly one of the few exceptions, 1967's In Cold Blood , draws on a harsh noir look in black and white and extends its throwback nature by centering its threat on the site of the nuclear family under attack - their comfortable home.

The next time thrillers took on a similar vitality - the early/mid-70s - their audience was also feeling fresh anxieties which key films reflected. This was seen in the conspiracy theory/covert threat scenarios of The Parallax View [1974], The Conversation [1974], Three Days of the Condor [1975], Capricorn One [1978] et al (can it be mere coincidence that a Kennedyesque assassination, in long shot a la Zapruder, is seen played out at the climax of WUSA [1970], The Parallax View and Nashville [1975] ?).

Smart filmmakers have always intuitively recognised the value of incorporating our collective (albeit unconscious) concerns in their plotlines, as thrillers take us on vicarious rides from destabilised uncertainty to resolution. Embedded as they are with the unresolved anxieties of their era, it makes the thriller movie a natural window into some of the deepest underlying currents of our times.  These hidden subcurrents of the shift to suburbia are the faultlines which numerous postwar thrillers [9] revolved around and are still revealing to us today. 

Copyright © 2003 Roger Westcombe


[1]  single exception is Paul Schrader who, in his landmark 1971 essay, Notes on Film     Noir (Film Genre Reader , ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1986) recognised that in the Eisenhower and McCarthy years "crime had to move to the suburbs". Schrader saw this as a function of Americans' increasingly bourgeois aspirations, rather than a reflection of new 1950s anxieties, as this essay argues.

[2]  Blame The Audience , Manny Farber, 1952, reprinted in Kings of the Bs , ed. McCarthy & Flynn, published by E.P. Dutton, 1975, at 45.

[3]  We're In The Money, Andrew Bergman, Harper & Rowe, 1971, at 11.

[4]  Crime Movies , Carlos Clarens, 1997, Da Capo Publishing, at 20 and 15; see also Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the Abandoned City of the Forties, David Reid and Jayne L.Walker in Shades of Noir , ed. Joan Copjec, publ. Verso, 1993, at 67.

[5]  See Nick Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1951) for one of the more extreme illustrations, but it's fundamental to Capra, Hitchcock would mischievously toy with it in Shadow of A Doubt (1943), and I believe it underpins the previous year's Cary Grant-as-fugitive vehicle, Talk of the Town , with the Supreme Court representing urban functioning. 1937's Nothing Sacred inverts it for comedy but without the naivete, the country town being shown as a prickly, monosyllabic backwater (which is probably pretty accurate), contrasted against the gleeful, freewheeling corruption of New York City. (It was written by Ben Hecht, after all!)

[6]  Kings of the Bs , at 34.

[7]  Despite the death knell to the double ('A'/'B') feature format     levelled by 1948's anti-trust Paramount case ( Movie Made America , Robert Sklar, Vintage Books, 1975, at 272-274), the slow phasing out of the studios' monopoly over exhibition enabled the classic 'B' to hang on until the mid 50s - see The Economic Imperative in Kings of the Bs , at 16.

[8]  Woolrich , Reid and Walker, at 67.

[9]  Other, mostly 'B' thrillers which make rich texts in this vein include Undercover Man (1949), Act of Violence (1949), The Reckless Moment (1949), Tension (1950), Mystery Street (1950), Clash By Night (1952), The Big Heat (1953), Shield For Murder (1954), The City That Never Sleeps (1953), The Wrong Man (1957) Cry Terror (1958), etc.