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Dark Passages

Hotel Noir

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).

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