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Small-Town Noir, ‘The Lookout,’ and Truman Capote

Small-Town Noir, 'The Lookout,' and Truman Capote

Maybe it’s from growing up in Texas, but one of the things that appealed to me instantly about The Lookout was its small-town setting for a film noir tale. Noir films are (almost by definition) set in urban cityscapes, so it was something of a revelation when the Coen brothers broke through big time with their classic 1984 Texas crime saga, Blood Simple. It was not the first small-town noir thriller, nor would it be the last. IFC News’ Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore take a cue from the March 30 release of SXSW opener The Lookout, to run down a list of classic small-town noir films. Many of them take the typical noirish skyscrapers, and replace them with falling snow. This list is just some of the good ones, because Lord knows there have been bad ones (the 1994 crime comedy Trapped in Paradise), questionably campy ones (John McNaughton’s Wild Things), and still-unreleased ones (David Schwimmer and Simon Pegg’s Big Nothing).

And, one thing Singer and Wilmore do not mention is the hard and fast influence of Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood, as well as its film adaptation and subsequent behind-the-scenes adaptations Capote and Infamous. For my money, Capote’s book has had more of an influence on small-town noir than just about anything else. Here’s where Singer and Wilmore begin with their list:

Kansas City might not be an obvious place to set a heist film, but Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” makes atmospheric use of the wide spaces at its outskirts and surrounding farms to tell a compellingly neo-noir tale of an unusual recruit in a bank robbery. Film noir may have been born in an urban world (Los Angeles, perhaps, with a few childhood visits to San Francisco and New York) and defined by the look of a labyrinth of seedy bars, dark alleys, mansions in the hills, crowded lunch counters and broad sidewalks, but modern noir is just as likely to be found in Midwestern suburbs as in your pick of America’s big, bad cities. There may in fact be more punch in seeing the less expected suspects of a small town get pulled in to dark intrigues. In “Out of the Past,” Robert Mitchum’s Jeff fled to far away Bridgeport, CA to escape his misdeeds and lead a quiet life, only to have the city find him. These days, small town life is no more benign than downtown New York — here’s a look at films noir both old and new that venture further along down the highway.

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