For every Stallone or Schwarzenegger, the late 70s and 80s were littered with dark, complex cityscapes and morally ambivalent protagonists, who typified the noir genre and the concept of urban loneliness. The city becomes a character in itself, dark and vast, the enemy of the anti-hero who walks the thin line between doom and redemption, sanity and madness.
The cult classic Blade Runner paints a caliginous, nihilistic view of the world to come. The stark contrast between the black city backdrop and the glaring neon lights makes the dystopian Los Angeles seem alienating yet somehow thrillingly alive. Filming techniques such as the inclusion of lens flare add a sense of realism, yet create the feeling of being dwarfed and disorientated by the dystopian cityscape and our urban future. Interestingly, although the city on the outside is washed with rain and swathed in darkness, inside the rooms are pale, sensual and almost archaic in style; men are trying to cling on to softer, more womblike surroundings in a world so stark and stifling.
JF Sebastian, the main character, embodies the concept of loneliness as a sympathetic and isolated character who literally ‘befriends’ his slave replicants. His kindness is offset by his assumed superiority over the replicants, but he seems to want what humanity has lost in its technological advancement and social decay; he seeks community and companionship in a world that strives only for individualism. It reiterates the human desire to be noticed in our fleeting existence when we are surrounded by millions of others, even if it means sacrificing something more meaningful with other human beings.
Angel Heart is another stellar film that illustrates unforgivingly what loneliness can do to people. Set in 1955, and fully embracing the Gothic Noir style, director Alan Parker draws the light and colour from every shot. The opening sequence in Harlem shows a city that has fallen from grace with its smoky, faded aura. The movie is sewn together with shadowy scenes down narrow corridors, light deprived rooms and alienating long-distance shots. This is also typical of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where horror and beauty are merged together completely during Beaumont’s investigation into the seedy, sadomasochistic underbelly of his idyllic town.
The city becomes the perfect counterpart to the protagonist of Angel Heart, Harry Angel (portrayed by Mickey Rourke); the greyed architecture around him with its maze of pipes, twisted stairways and traces of ruin illustrates perfectly Angel’s pull away from his rational mind, and foreshadows his bleak and paranoid descent into the dark underworld of mysticism and satanic capture. Harry Angel is one of the characters within this genre to not be redeemed at the end of the film, and he epitomises metaphorical concepts that were rife in film noir decades before: crime, urban loneliness and paranoia.
The character of the driver is also one that is prevalent all the way through American film folklore, but became a true vessel for isolation in an urban scape in the 70s. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s direction focuses relentlessly on Travis Bickle, a troubled, psychotic war veteran and his lone, obsessive task to clear the city’s streets of lowlifes, paired elegantly with Herrmann’s moody and noir-esque score. Bickle encompasses the driver archetype entirely: “Loneliness has followed me all my life, everywhere…There’s no escape.” Rain, as in Blade Runner, adds a biblical edge to Bickle’s mission – for as long as there is abuse of power and corruption lining the streets, the water will try to wash away the people’s sins.
Dystopian cities can leave us wallowing in the recesses of our minds; these films of the 70s and 80s understood completely that there is nothing more isolating than questioning your own humanity. For every individual case of redemption that we witness, from Bickle to Beaumont, we’re still left with the question – is mankind ultimately doomed?