Miracle Mile: Film Noir in the Doomsday Decade

ESSAY by Kyle Barrowman

In a recent examination of the “open ontology” of film noir, Ben Tyrer managed to synthesize the past two decades of scholarship on film noir with a four-word sentiment that is at once polemical, paradoxical, and perceptive: “Film noir doesn’t exist.”[1] The proliferation in film studies of essays and books devoted to film noir over the last half century led Tom Gunning to postulate that film noir may be the discipline’s greatest achievement,[2] a notion that would seem to be (yet, strangely, is not) at odds with Tyrer’s claim that film noir does not exist. The seductive lure of film noir has captivated scholars for decades; indeed, so popular is film noir in the field of film studies that there are two distinct branches of inquiry, the first of which can be called “classical” and the second of which can be called “revisionist.” The classical studies prefer limiting observation to the Hollywood films made in the roughly ten-year period from the mid-1940s (usually post-World War II) to the mid-1950s,[3] while the revisionist studies interrogate the presuppositions guiding classical studies in an effort to either broaden the horizons of or redefine entirely the concept of film noir.[4] The unwieldiness of the concept of film noir dates all the way back to its inception as an ex post facto critical category. The concept was first developed by post-World War II French film buffs in response to the Hollywood films they had missed during the German occupation, films they observed were far edgier and bleaker than the standard prewar Hollywood fare to which they had been accustomed. The term was coined by the French critic Nino Frank in 1946 and subsequently elaborated in the 1950s by the critics of the renowned film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma. This French interest in film noir culminated in 1955 with the first book-length study provided byRaymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton entitled A Panorama of American Film Noir. In the years since, film noir has become a vague and disputed catch-all for the dark Hollywood mystery/crime films of the 1940s and 1950s.[5]

The ultimate paradox of film noir scholarship is this curious fact that the very category of film noir did not exist (and certainly was not known to Hollywood filmmakers at the time) until after the films that qualify as such were produced, a paradox which has inspired slippery equivocations as to whether film noir constitutes a genre, a cycle, a style, etc. Such equivocations opened the door for revisionist studies interested in confronting, rather than repressing, the open ontology of film noir. One of the most provocative revisionist studies was conducted by Slavoj Žižek, who questioned whether film noir was an independent, fully constituted genre with definable and concrete criteria (e.g. the oft-cited list which includes Expressionistic cinematography, characters including cops/private detectives and femmes fatale, and plots revolving around adultery, robbery, and/or murder) or if it was more akin to “a kind of anamorphic distortion affecting different genres.”[6] He points out how, even in the classical period, film noir was not limited to hard-boiled crime narratives, that “reverberations of film noir motifs are easily discernible in comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace [1944]), in Westerns (Pursued [1947]), in political (All the King’s Men [1949]) and social dramas (The Lost Weekend [1945]), etc.”[7] These “reverberations” result in cracks in the foundation of the film noir discourse, giving rise to the question: “Do we have here a secondary impact of something that originally constitutes a genre of its own (the noir crime universe) or is the crime film only one of the possible fields of application of the noir logic?”[8] And it is important to note Žižek’s emphatic assertion that such questioning is more than “hair-splitting sophistry,” for if film noir is conceived not as a genre but as a “logical operator introducing the same anamorphic distortion in every genre it is applied to,” then arguments can be made for which genres are best equipped to accommodate film noir. For Žižek, film noir “arrives at its truth” only “by way of its fusion with … science fiction or the occult.”[9]

Despite his tantalizing break with classical studies, Žižek’s revisionist account of film noir is put on hold as he spends almost the entirety of what remains of his analysis elucidating the philosophical background of classical film noir, featuring extended excursions into the labyrinth of Cartesian subjectivity with detours into Lacanian psychoanalysis. Brief references are made to Blade Runner (1982) and Angel Heart (1987)—his chosen exemplars of sci-fi noir and supernatural noir, respectively—but ultimately, his project becomes less an investigation to explore how exactly the “noir logic” operates in individual films from particular genres and becomes more an elaboration of the (frequently noted) predominance in film noir of issues of memory and identity.[10] In other words, Žižek discovered the key to a door that has remained locked since the inception of the film noir discourse, but upon unlocking the door, Žižek was distracted by philosophy and forgot about film. Indeed, even his notion of noir logic, perhaps the most intriguing thread in his entire discussion, remains vague and undefined. Nevertheless, it is possible to pick up the disparate pieces of the argument towards which Žižek was gesturing en route to a clearer understanding of noir logic.

In addition to his discussion of memory, Žižek provides a subtle account of the subject’s relation to the external world as one of despair and alienation, and it is with reference to this aspect of his argument that one may come to understand what he means by noir logic. As assiduously explicated by Andrew Dickos, the main through-line in film noir,regardless of how it is ultimately defined and regardless of which stylistic/narrational elements are taken to be constitutive, is “its psycho-philosophical stance as a modern experience, with the corresponding formal depiction of bleak mood; the hardened and nihilistic attitudes of its characters, with their often obsessive drives; and an aura of hopelessness and doom that envelops their lives.”[11] Žižek understands the noir world similarly as one which reduces the subject to a “passive observer … witnessing with incredulity the strange, almost submarine, succession of events in which he remains trapped.”[12] This marks (as Dickos elegantly sums up in as precise an articulation of noir logic as one is likely to encounter) the “impossible division between freedom and entrapment as it reminds us that one cannot truly be defined without the other and that each is the incomplete part of the existential equation befitting the noir world.”[13] This is precisely the noir logic that introduces the “anamorphic distortion” Žižek finds so curious in classical and post-classical films noir, and his notion of noir logic as against more traditional and rigid understandings of genre can serve not only to stimulate further evolution of the film noir discourse, it can also serve to provide a critical context for a reappraisal of Steve De Jarnatt’s apocalyptic noir thriller, Miracle Mile (1988), an oft-ignored and overlooked though reemerging film.

Along with the sense of fatalism inherent in noir logic, there is also an aspect of genre subversion noted by both Žižek and Dickos, although the subversive potential of noir logic did not fully blossom until the post-classical period. Dickos observers how, even in the classical period, film noir was recognizable primarily “in relation to or juxtaposition with other kinds of film stories … peculiar in style and standing apart from, although perhaps alongside, familiar genre narratives.”[14] A hallmark of post-classical film noir in particular is not only a proliferation of fatalism, which links it to classical film noir, but also a degree of self-consciousness regarding the existence of film noir as a particular stylistic/narrational strategy. This is paradigmatically indicated by the name James Cameron chose for the nightclub where the first action set-piece takes place in his groundbreaking, The Terminator (1984), “Tech Noir,” a label that has since come to define the group of films noir dealing with themes prevalent in science fiction, particularly the threat of nuclear war in an increasingly technological epoch. While the 1970s seemed to promise the return of film noir with such films as The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974), it was up to the 1980s to extend the noir rebirth beyond pastiche, and it did so by infusing genre films with noir logic. Paul Schrader asserted that the hardening American political mood of the 1970s was sure to render classical film noir “increasingly attractive” to filmmakers of the era, impelling him to postulate that “the forties may be to the seventies what the thirties were to the sixties.”[15] Curiously, this mirroring continued into the 1980s, a decade that functions remarkably well as an analogue of the 1950s. For Schrader, Robert Aldrich’s bleak apocalyptic mystery, Kiss Me Deadly (1955),marked an “end-of-the-line” film noir with its depiction of the absurdity and meaninglessness of a world “in which the Bomb has the final say.”[16]

With its noir-ish absurdity and nuclear paranoia, Miracle Mile shares a similar narrative trajectory with Kiss Me Deadly. Originally written in 1978, Miracle Mile became the stuff of legend in the industry over the course of the next decade. After dropping out of the American Film Institute, De Jarnatt wrote Miracle Mile for Warner Brothers, but like Sylvester Stallone refusing to sell his script for Rocky (1976) unless he could play the titular hero, De Jarnatt was determined to direct Miracle Mile himself. By 1983, it had been chosen by American Film magazine as one of the ten best unmade scripts, and over the next six years, De Jarnatt would buy it back from Warner Brothers himself, rewrite it, turn down their half-million dollar offer to buy it back (without him attached as director), and set out to direct it himself with the support of the independent Hemdale Film Corporation (which also produced The Terminator), which gave the film a half-hearted theatrical release in 1989 before dumping it on home video. Unlike the sleeper hits Blade Runner and The Terminator, though, Miracle Mile never quite made up the ground on video that it lost with its short-lived theater run, and it has since been largely forgotten by fans and entirely missed by scholars.[17] In recent years, thanks in large part to the prevalence of forums, blogs, and online film criticism, Miracle Mile has become something of a renaissance film, inspiring several perceptive reappraisals and analyses culminating in an accomplished monograph recently published by Film Freak Central critic Walter Chaw.[18]

In the 1979 Postface to their founding film noir text, Borde and Chaumeton observed a new “coldly technological” worldview operating in post-classical film noir, “a vision of the ailing United States” that was “close to nightmare,” a “harbinger of apocalypse” beyond traditional political discourse and far in excess of anything observable in the classical period.[19]Blade Runner and The Terminator are still the examples of choice when it comes to tech-noir, but it is Miracle Mile that best exemplifies the impact of the noir logic on Hollywood genre films of the 1980s as well as the return of the nuclear paranoia of the 1950s that earned the 1980s the moniker of the “Doomsday Decade.” The Odyssean quest undertaken by De Jarnatt to get Miracle Mile made spanned the entire Doomsday Decade, during which time such dystopian and/or (post-)apocalyptic films as Outland (1981), Escape from New York (1981), Blade Runner, WarGames (1983), Testament (1983), The Day After (1983), The Terminator, Land of Doom (1986), The Seventh Sign (1988), and They Live (1988) were fanning the fin de siècle flames. Within this context, Miracle Mile—the last and most quintessentially noir of the 1980s apocalyptic thrillers—marks another “end-of-the-line” film noir akin to Kiss Me Deadly, warily standing at the end of a long epochal cinematic tradition of “purgatorial destrudo.”[20] More than all of its predecessors, Miracle Mile offers the most confounding genre hybridization, a conflation not only of noir logic with the standard technophobic rhetoric of science fiction, but also of romantic comedy and the recourse to naïve optimism that tends to permeate such films. Miracle Mile is adored by its fans for the anachronistic romanticism of its central meet-cute in the face of nuclear annihilation as well as for the healthy dose of ‘80s cheese, and it is precisely this weirdly sentimental “of-its-time” quality that contributes to its quasi-anthropological nature, as if it were a filmic time capsule of the Doomsday Decade that housed all of its desires and fears in a product as stylistically and thematically bewildered as the decade itself.

primary indicator

The primary indicator of noir logic in Miracle Mile is the motif of, colloquially, the “ticking clock,” but more accurately, what Tom Gunning calls the “Destiny-machine.” In his unparalleled examination of the films of Fritz Lang, Gunning extrapolates from the ubiquity of clocks in Lang’s cinema a central device he terms the Destiny-machine, which “corresponds in many ways to the theme of fate or destiny” but which significantly does not involve a mythological “fight against the gods.”[21] Gunning is emphatic about distinguishing the Destiny-machine from any sort of God concept, but a crucial distinction to be made is that Lang’s early silent allegories did often posit some sort of controlling Agent, be it Death as God’s collector of souls in Der müde Tod (1921)[22] or the theistic God-Satan-Christ triad between Joh Fredersen/God (Alfred Abel), Rotwang/Satan (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and Freder/Christ (Gustav Fröhlich) in Metropolis (1927). It was not until his American films noir (The Woman in the Window [1944] and Scarlet Street [1945]) that Lang banished Masters (of either the appointed variety, e.g. Death, or the self-appointed variety, e.g. Dr. Mabuse) from the Destiny-machine, now become a mercilessly mechanical “crushing force” set in motion not by Promethean acts of human hubris, but by mere chance, and with no regard for the innocent and futile actions of those in its path, for “there is no tyrant that reveals his hands on the puppet strings; simply an impersonal order of things” from which there is neither the possibility of escape nor the promise of salvation.[23]

The logic of the Destiny-machine is clearly at work throughout Miracle Mile. De Jarnatt makes use of a framing device that foretells the film’s end in its first few images, precluding the hero’s journey from being successful before the hero is even aware there is a journey to be undertaken. In classical film noir voice-over, Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards), the hapless “wrong place, wrong time” protagonist, ponders, in anticipation of recounting the whirlwind romance of the afternoon, where to begin his story. On cue, De Jarnatt cuts to a video presentation at the George C. Page Museum in Los Angeles detailing the Big Bang and the process of evolution that led to the emergence of humanity. Killing time before his jazz band plays a concert in Pan Pacific Park, Harry wanders through the museum and comes across Julie Peters (Mare Winningham). The meet-cute begins, consisting of a cheesy montage replete with slow-motion gazing into one another’s eyes and romantic voice-over where Harry confirms her status as “the one,” all scored to the schmaltziest portion of the evocative Tangerine Dream soundtrack, but this inclusion of the standard “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” pattern ultimately serves neither to provide laughs as in romantic comedies nor to provide a cathartic “happy ending” after the trials and tribulations of a dramatic courtship. This cinematic coupling, with logic long understood and enjoyed by audiences of Hollywood cinema, is merely one of many conventions to be turned on its head by a perverse noir logic that first obstructs the star-crossed lovers via an ill-timed power outage.

In the first of many failed attempts to control time (and, by extension, the Destiny-machine), a cigarette Harry discards on his hotel balcony is snatched in the beak of a bird and taken up to its nest on the hotel roof, where the bird proceeds to set its nest afire and in the process burn the cables providing electricity to the hotel. This, in turn, knocks out the power controlling the alarm clock Harry had set for himself to wake him up in time for his rendezvous with Julie later that night. After their blissful afternoon, Julie told Harry to meet her outside of the diner where she was scheduled to work until midnight, but as time is not on Harry’s side, he wakes up late and does not arrive until 4:00 AM, armed with flowers on the off-chance Julie is still waiting and furious at him. The most interesting aspect to note in this scene is the payphone ringing out in front of the diner upon Harry’s arrival. Despite being wrapped up in his own thoughts, Harry considers the oddly ringing phone for a brief second before continuing into the diner, and even once inside, the ringing phone is still audible, invading the fantasy space of Harry’s mind reminiscent of the endlessly ringing phone in Once Upon a Time in America (1984).[24] Harry confirms with Susie (O-Lan Jones), the waitress on duty, that Julie had already left after he failed to make their date, and after convincing her to give him Julie’s number, he goes outside and leaves a message for her on the previously ringing payphone.

After hanging up, still desperately clinging to the illusion of the success of his fairytale romance, Harry is stunned when the phone begins to ring seconds later. In an uncanny moment that will serve as the narrative bridge between the meet-cute and the noir apocalypse, Harry surveys his empty surroundings, with the uneasy feeling that the ringing payphone is meant only for him, before he warily approaches the ominous phone booth.[25] Upon answering, a frantic young boy on the other end of the phone claiming to be a soldier in a missile silo in North Dakota immediately launches into a panicked rant about how nuclear war is about to commence, with U.S. missiles to reach their unidentified target(s) in 50 minutes and with the projected time of 70 minutes for the return fire to devastate the country.[26] Harry, of course, is utterly confounded, convinced he is the victim of some sort of practical joke, at which point the boy on the other line realizes he mistakenly dialed the wrong area code while trying to warn his father in Orange County. Before Harry can receive any more information, he hears what he thinks is the boy being caught using the phone by his superiors and being executed by military personnel. Harry, shocked and terrified, is instructed by a sinister new voice to forget everything he had heard and to go back to sleep.

astutely observes

As Chaw astutely observes (in another commonality between the 1950s and 1980s zeitgeists), “sleep is a central metaphorical concern in film from the 1980s—denial, the willful suppression of truth, the exaltation of a specific candy-colored vision,”[27] and the power of Miracle Mile, similar to the noir narrative of They Live, is in its “visionary moment.”[28] Contrary to the notion that “the gaze is always already determined by the ‘infrastructural’ network, which delimits what can be seen from what remains unseen and thus necessarily escapes capture by the gaze,”[29] a film like Miracle Mile depicts the window framing the fantasy of peaceful existence, through the open slit of which the noir subject beholds the unsettling Magrittean reality of a world controlled by the Destiny-machine.[30] As articulated by Gunning, the visionary moment is a dramatic pivot in the narrative, a moment of revelation for the character who is forced to behold “a new dimension to reality”[31] and for whom his/her previous belief in a harmonious, ordered, and fundamentally positive world is forever destroyed, replaced by “a world of death writhing beneath the skin of appearances.”[32]

The lurch in tone in Miracle Mile, from the beginning of a relationship to the end of the world, rivals (indeed, arguably exceeds) the sudden explosion of violence into Professor Wanley’s (Edward G. Robinson) safe and ordered world in The Woman in the Window, while the contingent nature of the “wrong place, wrong time” phone call is reminiscent of Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) unluckily happening upon an incident of domestic violence in Scarlet Street. It is as if all of the bad luck experienced by Robinson, Lang’s quintessential noir dupe, had been dumped on Harry just when he thought his life was finally looking up. Following the phone call, Harry reenters the diner and gathers the early morning patrons in a Hitchcockian team effort to determine the veracity of the anonymous caller’s claims of impending doom.[33] It is at this point that noir logic begins to dominate. Borde and Chaumeton, in their original film noir treatise, identified the “disappearance of psychological bearings” and the predominance of a “sense of malaise”[34] as the primary indicators of film noir, and the noir logic of Miracle Mile picks up this thread as Harry is threatened with the complete loss of sanity as he struggles to reunite with his “one true love” before the end of the world.

With the Destiny-machine ruling the narrative proceedings, the framing device of the Big Bang establishing the narrative limits, and the archetypically “goal-oriented” protagonist’s quest to retrieve his soul mate motivating the narrative action, the entire middle section of Miracle Mile features a bizarrely nightmarish nocturnal adventure as Harry desperately tries to reunite with Julie. After the Hitchcockian meeting with the diner denizens, Harry sets his mind on immediately abandoning the fleeing nightcrawlers—who are hurriedly making their way for the helipad on the roof of the Mutual Benefit Life building, from which they will fly to the airport so as to bypass the panic in the streets with the ultimate destination of a remote area of Antarctica where they believe they will be safe from the nuclear fallout (and where they plan to restart civilization in a hysterically incompetent manner recalling Dr. Strangelove [1964])—to retrieve Julie from Park La Brea, whereupon the two of them will rejoin the diner crew for the South Pole trek. Harry’s nighttime run through the streets of Los Angeles shares much with Martin Scorsese’s hallucinatory After Hours (1985), although the importance of distinguishing between Scorsese’s familiar setting of New York City and De Jarnatt’s Babylonian Los Angeles cannot be overstated.

As Dave Saunders posits in a stirring reading of The Terminator, Los Angeles “offers an eschatological gift to the cataclysmically inclined, or those who seek a coherent worldview via beliefs in” a “free will corrupted by knowledge, bound eventually to bring on a pre-ordained doomsday.”[35] Saunders notes how Hollywood has a long history of “testing by fire the United States’ final frontier, the physical Outer Limit at which a once seemingly unlimited land expires,”[36] and this historicity implicit in the narrative of Miracle Mile is explicit in its very title, which is taken from the famous stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax Avenue and Highland Avenue. This Los Angeles district received the nickname Miracle Mile in reference to its unlikely rise to economic prominence with retail, commercial high-rises, and museums, and the aptness of the title extends to the miracle of humanity’s contingent existence as the result of millions of years of evolution, and the setting of the film—right in the middle of, on the one hand, the La Brea Tar Pits and the museums that provide the final resting place for a multitude of extinct species, and, on the other hand, the thriving contemporary American society representative of the vitality of life itself—contributes a tragic irony that will display its full effect in the film’s final sequence.

Throughout his Kafkaesque quest to reunite with the girl of his dreams and avoid the apocalypse, Harry comes into contact with a number of oddball Angelenos, chief among them an electronics “entrepreneur” named Wilson (Mykelti Williamson) and a homosexual, bodybuilding, Vietnam veteran and ex-helicopter pilot whose name Harry never has time to learn (played by Brian Thompson). Wilson is the first person Harry meets after abandoning the fleeing diner patrons. At gunpoint, Harry commandeers Wilson’s convertible and directs him to Park La Brea. On the ride over, Harry promises to pay for any potential damage to his car and any emotional suffering “if it doesn’t happen.” Significantly, Harry evidently feels he would be remiss in telling this stranger that the world was going to end in an hour, so instead of telling him about the phone call he had received, he confirms Wilson’s erroneous suspicion of a power plant meltdown to still convey the requisite urgency.

Before getting to Julie, Harry is informed by Wilson that they have to stop for gas. Though this is ostensibly a simple task, noir logic proves it to be anything but, first with the appearance of a shotgun-wielding gas station attendant (played by Eddie Bunker) and second with the appearance of two police officers who just happened to be cruising by the gas station. The attendant is worried that he will get arrested for his sawed-off shotgun, while Wilson is worried that he will get arrested for all of the stolen electronics in his trunk. As the cops are preoccupied with the armed attendant, Wilson grabs the gas pump and sprays the cops to deter them from firing their weapons, but as Harry and Wilson flee, the female cop nevertheless fires her gun, setting herself on fire. Her partner runs over to help her, but he merely gets lit up himself, and the two of them ignite the gasoline all around them and the entire gas station explodes. While Harry is desperate to retrieve Julie, Wilson, for his part, is desperate to retrieve his sister, and upon arriving at Julie’s apartment, Wilson refuses to wait for Harry to return and drives off in the cop car in which he and Harry had fled from the gas station.

Later, after arriving with Julie at the helipad, Harry is informed that there is no pilot to fly the helicopter, so he goes in search of one and winds up in a stereotypically colorful and musical fitness center complete with aerobics classes, weightlifters, and more than enough spandex to go around. Running through the gym, waving his gun and demanding the gym patrons point him in the direction of a helicopter pilot, Harry encounters a gruff man who informs him he would be willing to be Harry’s pilot provided he gets paid enough. Harry agrees but urges him to move quickly as time is winding down, and when he asks Harry what the problem is, Harry again avoids giving the real story and claims the wind is blowing toxic fire with cyanide in the direction of Los Angeles.

insane whirlwind

Throughout Harry’s insane whirlwind journey from his hotel to the diner, then with Wilson from the diner to Julie’s, and finally from the helipad to the gym to find a pilot, the most frequently recurring image is of the revolving digital clock outside of the diner. Aside from its function vis-à-vis the Destiny-machine, the fact that it is constantly spinning in a circle points to the cyclicality of this narrative universe, which began with a Big Bang and is destined to end with another one. Now at the point in the narrative where everything seems to be falling into place—Harry successfully reached Julie, got her to safety, secured a helicopter pilot, and by all accounts appears to have formulated a solid escape plan in time to survive the allegedly approaching nuclear strike—the noir logic returns with a vengeance.

While nearly the entirety of Chaw’s monograph consists of admirable analysis and intriguing insights, there are a few problematic interpretations relating to key elements of Miracle Mile, the most important of which is Chaw’s perfunctory interpretation of the opening shot and its accompanying narration. The film opens with a view of the nighttime Los Angeles cityscape before zooming out to encompass a trombone on the end of which is a small picture of Julie. Harry is revealed as the trombonist, and the first line of his first voice-over is him admitting that he “never really saw the big picture before, not till today.” In Chaw’s view, this introductory scene “makes no sense” given Harry’s presumed “high state of anxiety,” leading him to surmise it was nothing more than a pick-up shot with no possible thematic connection to the narrative that follows.[37] Oddly enough, while Chaw’s conclusions regarding the (impossibility of) significance would lead one to believe he would give nothing in the scene any credence whatsoever, he nevertheless takes Harry’s voice-over at face value, his claim that he had finally gotten the “big picture” upon meeting Julie, the subject of the “little picture” visible in the narration’s accompanying imagery, representing for Chaw evidence for the claim that Julie is “the key to the larger sense of the work.”[38]

On the contrary, however, this is precisely the worldview penetrated by the noir logic of the Destiny-machine, the worldview Harry is forced to abandon subsequent to his visionary moment. Harry absolutely believed Julie was the “big picture,” but upon answering that payphone, the “insistence of the Real” shattered his fantasy framework. Harry erroneously believes and Chaw erroneously confirms that Harry’s “subjectivization” occurred the moment he met Julie, when in the noir reality of Miracle Mile, the subject emerges “not via subjectivization/narrativization (that is, the construction of the ‘individual myth’ from the decentered pieces of tradition), but at the very moment when the individual loses its support in the network of tradition.”[39] The noir subject “coincides with the void that remains”[40] after the traditional fantasy framework has been destroyed, after the visionary moment has wrenched the subject from out of the fantasy of romantic bliss and into the reality unfolding according to the machinations of the Destiny-machine, and the fact that Harry is referring to a little picture while claiming to see the big picture is an indication of the vicious irony with which the noir logic operates.

solipsistic attempt

After this initial solipsistic attempt by Harry to claim the unfolding of the Destiny-machine as helping him realize his romantic fantasy, as if “everything which has happened in the universe since its origin came about so as to converge on this thing which thinks, creation of life, unique, precious being, pinnacle of creation,”[41] another attempt is made (and is once again fiendishly thwarted) by the characters to commandeer the Destiny-machine. Ignoring Harry’s pleas to wait for him at the helipad, Julie decides to conduct her own search for a helicopter pilot. Harry notices her running down the street and gives chase, but before he can get to her, both he and Julie stop and watch as a cop car racing down the street jumps a median and goes crashing into a mall. Harry and Julie follow the trail of destruction and find Wilson, bloody and near death, removing his bloodier and even nearer death sister from the wreckage. Disoriented and badly injured but determined to save his sister, Wilson tries to walk up a down escalator in the most perversely painful image in the film. Giving up his final futile escape attempt, Wilson sits down to die with his sister in his arms. Outside, the police who had been chasing Wilson demand the “cop killer” inside surrender, and Harry informs Julie of what happened with him and Wilson at the gas station.

This scene features the most explicit intervention of the Destiny-machine in the mise-en-scène, as the setting for this scene wherein Harry finally informs Julie of what has transpired since he missed their date is the mall’s clock shop. Surrounded on all sides by clocks, watches, and hourglasses, Harry and Julie attempt to delude themselves into believing Harry’s visionary moment was merely a glitch in the Destiny-machine, that there is no nuclear apocalypse approaching, that their fate has not been sealed. For Roger Ebert, this is the aspect of the narrative that is responsible for the film’s “diabolical effectiveness,”[42] the uncertainty with regards to whether the soldier on the phone was right and the world is going to end, whether he was wrong or they somehow aborted the strike, or whether the whole thing is just a nightmare from which Harry will soon awaken. Close examination of the mise-en-scène, however, ensures that there is only one conclusion to be reached; as De Jarnatt said himself, the film “does have a dreamlike quality where that is sort of your out, that maybe this was all a dream, but I didn’t give you that out.”[43] Expecting a Twilight Zone ending where Harry wakes up to his alarm clock at midnight flies in the face of the carefully constructed mise-en-scène, from the Big Bang video at the museum, the prominence of the Tar Pits, the recurring revolving clock outside the diner, and finally to this clock shop, the first entrance into which is signaled by the audible sound of a cuckoo clock alerting the characters that the inevitable end has arrived.

julie does her best

Julie does her best to be optimistic and convince Harry that everything had been a tragic misunderstanding and that everything was going to be okay, but discernible in both of their faces is the wish for this to be true despite the knowledge that it is not, a sentiment reinforced aurally by the sounds of the ticking clocks surrounding them and capped off visually by Harry, who only joins Julie to surrender themselves to the police after picking up an hourglass and placing it on the shelf with all of the sand on the bottom, another indicator that time has run out for this Don Quixote and his Dulcinea. Emerging from the mall expecting a full SWAT team with itchy trigger fingers, Harry and Julie instead find a city in chaos. The sequence that follows is anarchy on an extraordinary scale considering the meager budget, with Harry and Julie navigating their way through a city apparently determined to destroy itself from within before the outside world gets the chance. Once Harry and Julie finally make it back to the helipad, the pilot returns to pick them up, but the missiles are already on their way, and the Electromagnetic Pulse from the impact kills the helicopter’s control panel and Harry and Julie go crashing into the Tar Pits, the microcosm and the macrocosm merging as the narrative comes full circle.

The ending of Miracle Mile, where Harry tries to convey the peace of death to Julie by invoking Superman’s ability to turn coal into diamonds, offering her the image of the two of them as beautiful artifacts to be preserved, discovered, studied, and admired by the intelligent life that will inherit the vacated Earth from the soon-to-be-extinct humans,[44] shares the sentiment of the ending in Der müde Tod. Comparing Lang’s tragic allegory to D.W. Griffith’s comparatively tepid Intolerance (1916), Gunning argues that the “sense of catastrophe” in Lang’s film surpasses that in Griffith’s, for whereas Griffith “exempts his central modern story from the grim ending of death and destruction found in each of the tales of the past,” Lang makes his modern story “the central allegory of death’s power.”[45] Despite this similarity, however, to read the ending of Miracle Mile as Gunning reads the ending of Der müde Tod, as evidence that “love is as strong as death” and that it can act as a counterweight within the Destiny-machine,[46] is to ignore the debt Miracle Mile owes the science fiction genre and, by extension, to deny the film its larger allegorical function.

While the film noir aspect of Miracle Mile informs its oneiric atmosphere and fatalistic prerogative, it is the science fiction aspect that informs its depiction of Babylonian Los Angeles as an “electronically infused enclave perched on the brink of the world, pushing at the boundaries of hope and torn between possibly inextricable drives to preserve and exploit the environment.”[47] As outlined by Dan Dinello, “at its most pessimistic, science fiction depicts humans as the victims of a ubiquitous, oppressive technological force,” and “despair, cynicism, and fatalistic thought often rationalize capitulation to the apparent inevitability” of humanity’s return to the primordial ooze represented by the Tar Pits. But this is merely the thematic prelude, for science fiction can do more than simply reflect cultural despair (which was at once the raison d’etre and the thematic cutoff point for classical film noir). Unlike classical film noir, science fiction carries with it a moral imperative, offering the potential to transcend fatalism and acquiescence; it calls for a “progressive political agenda” that implores the audience to put their bodies upon the gears of the Destiny-machine and create a better future than that which has been depicted.[48]

De Jarnatt’s laudable achievement with Miracle Mile is the way he allowed film noir to extend its affective power beyond despair, allowing the noir logic to “arrive at its truth” by way of an inspired fusion with science fiction, which produced a remarkably complex tech-noir vision densely packed with political and metaphysical themes of particular relevance in the Doomsday Decade but that reach far back throughout the history of cinema and remain relevant and resonant today. Chaw calls Miracle Mile a “media artifact,” one that, like its protagonists, has been “drowned, lost, recovered, and observed, but not often enough.”[49] If, as Gunning postulated, film noir is the greatest achievement of film studies at its most proudly cinephilic, and if, as Marc Vernet famously claimed, the power of the film noir discourse is its function as a “collector’s idea” for which “there is always an unknown film to be added to list,”[50] then let film studies embrace this diamond excavated from the Tar Pits of cinema history and add Miracle Mile to the list.[51]


Kyle Barrowman (MAPH’14) has previously published essays in the online journals OffscreenThe International Journal of Žižek Studies, and Senses of Cinema, on subjects ranging from Michael Mann and Alfred Hitchcock to Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal.  His most recent publication was a contribution to the special issue of the JOMEC Journal devoted to Martial Arts Studies.


[1] Ben Tyrer, “Film Noir Doesn’t Exist: A Lacanian Topology,” in Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society, ed. David Henderson, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pgs. 127-141.

[2]Tom Gunning, “More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (review),” Modernism/Modernity 6.3 (1999), p. 151.

[3]Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir, trans. Paul Hammond, San Francisco: City Lights, [1955] 2002. This is the founding film noir text to which all scholarship on film noir, even of the revisionist bent, is to some degree indebted.

[4]Joan Copjec, ed., Shades of Noir, London: Verso, 1993. This text still stands today as an exceedingly challenging reconceptualization of film noir, and many of the issues raised by the anthology’s contributors have still yet to be sorted out by film noir scholarship.

[5]Borde and Chaumeton include a “chronological index of the main series” in their original text (pgs. 161-163), but the timeline to which practically all film noir scholarship is indebted is generally attributed to Paul Schrader from his influential essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” which can be read, among other places, in Film Theory & Criticism, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pgs. 581-591. In this essay, one of the foundational English-language writings on film noir, Schrader established atimeline which stretches from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941 (which is also the starting point for Borde and Chaumeton) to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958 (Borde and Chaumeton mark the end of film noir at 1953, and while Schrader does follow Borde and Chaumeton in placing the end of the third and final “phase” of film noir at 1953, he maintains that Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly [1955] is “the masterpiece of film noir” and claims Welles’ Touch of Evil is film noir’s “epitaph” [p. 589]) and which includes but is not limited to such exemplars as Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), and The Big Heat(1953).

[6]Slavoj Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks’: The Kantian Background of the Noir Subject,” in Shades of Noir, p. 199.

[7] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” pgs. 199-200.

[8] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” p. 200.

[9] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” p. 200. Interestingly, this potential for influence beyond crime narratives was recognized by Borde and Chaumeton, who observed how “the noir style doesn’t disappear, it tends to be absorbed into adjacent series” (p. 114). Žižek merely alters the emphasis, claiming that film noir is not passively “absorbed” into other genres but actively transforms them.

[10]In all fairness, Žižek’s discussion of the antinomies of memory and identity from classical to post-classical film noir, while taking his essay down a different path than the one on which he originally set out vis-à-vis the vicissitudes of and the problems with genre,is nevertheless a fascinating path and his argument is remarkably nuanced.

[11]Andrew Dickos, Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2002, p. 4.

[12] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” p. 223.

[13]Dickos, p. xiv.

[14]Dickos, p. 2.

[15]Schrader, p. 581.

[16]Schrader, pgs. 588-589.

[17]Due to the absence of Miracle Mile in the film studies literature, little research has been done by scholars into its production, therefore credible sources of information are difficult to find. In an effort to avoid errors of facts, dates, names, etc., there has been no information included in this essay that has not been substantiated by De Jarnatt himself, primarily from a question-and-answer session following a 2011 screening of Miracle Mile (which was recorded by an audience member and which can be viewed here) and from quotes included from an interview with De Jarnatt conducted by Film Freak Central critic Walter Chaw for his monograph on the film. See Chaw, Miracle Mile, Self-Published: 2012.

[18]Besides Chaw’s monograph, online film criticism and blog write-ups from the following authors, while by no means exhaustive, are particularly admirable: Joe Baltake, “Cinema Obscura: Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1989),” The Passionate Moviegoer, 2008. ; “Great Movies You’ve Never Seen: Miracle Mile,” Cineleet, 2009. ; Vern, “Miracle Mile,” The Life and Art of Vern, 2011. ; J.D. Lafrance, “Miracle Mile,” Radiator Heaven, 2013.

[19]Borde and Chaumeton, p. 159.

[20]Dave Saunders, Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies, London: I.B. Tauris, 2009, p. 64.

[21]Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, London: BFI, 2000, p. 10.

[22]While the German translation of the film’s title is Weary Death, its U.S. release title, Destiny, is even more felicitous.

[23]Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, 297. The fact that a motif from the films of Fritz Lang proved integral for Miracle Mile is hardly a surprise given the large influence Lang had on the formation of the film noir discourse, having created a number of seminal films noir during the classical period. Additionally, his unique tech-noir vision was also a perfect fit for the 1980s, as evidenced by the revival and subsequent popularity in the mid-1980s of Metropolis (chronicled by Gunning on p. 53), the technophobic narrative and conflagrative imagery of which is right at home in the Doomsday Decade.

[24] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” pgs. 225-226 (note 30). The significance of the ringing phone in Once Upon a Time in America was originally theorized by Žižek as a Lacanian “insistence of the Real.”

[25]The notion of the uncanny object returning the subject’s gaze is taken from Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. In a discussion of Psycho (1960), Žižek asserts that the anxiety induced by the site of the Bates house stems from the enactment of the dialectic of the eye and the gaze: “The subject sees the house, but what provokes anxiety is the indefinable feeling that the house itself is somehow already gazing at her, gazing at her from a point that totally escapes her view and thus makes her utterly helpless” (p. 126).

[26]In his review of Miracle Mile, Vern perspicaciously points out how, “These days nuclear war seems like kind of an abstract threat. If anything we’re concerned about some fanatics stealing a bomb and setting it off somewhere. That’s a terrifying idea but back then ‘mutually assured destruction’ was pretty much assumed—if one went off then a whole bunch went off, fired back and forth between two sides until everybody’s dead.” While the narrative stays within the U.S. and limits itself to one particular city, the implications, as Harry well knows, are apocalyptic in the full sense of the word.

[27]Chaw, p. 44.

[28]The concept of the “visionary moment” is developed by Gunning throughout The Films of Fritz Lang.

[29] Žižek, Looking Awry, p. 125.

[30]In, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” Žižek explores the work of René Magritte, in particular, “The Looking Glass,” the painting of a half-open window with a bright blue sky visible through the glass but also with a black emptiness visible through a narrow opening. In terms of the noir universe, “the frame of the windowpane is, of course, the fantasy frame that constitutes reality, whereas the narrow opening between the panes opens onto the ‘impossible’ real” (p. 219). For Harry, the phone call is the proverbial opening of the window that forces him to confront the black emptiness for the first time, a visionary moment that “shakes [his] sense of reality and is as such correlative to the subject qua void” (p.220).

[31]Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, 23.

[32]Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, 25.

[33]Credit goes to Baltake for noting the connection between the diner scenes in Miracle Mile and The Birds (1963).

[34]Borde and Chaumeton, p. 13.

[35]Saunders, p. 71. For a more extensive examination of the significance of the urban frontier in post-classical film noir, see my, Collateral: A Case Study in Ethical Subjectivity,” Offscreen 15.9 (2011).

[36]Saunders, p. 72.

[37]Chaw, p. 7.   Chaw’s interpretation is unconvincing primarily because he appears confused regarding the chronology. Since the opening scene would have taken place before Harry and Julie’s date and thus before Harry went to the diner and received the phone call warning of the apocalypse, there would appear to be no reason for him to be in a “high state of anxiety” and therefore no reason to consider this opening sequence implausible or incongruous.

[38]Chaw, p. 8.

[39] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” p. 212.

[40] Žižek, “‘The Thing That Thinks,’” p. 212.

[41]Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli, New York: W.W. Norton, 1988, p. 48.

[42]Roger Ebert, “Miracle Mile,” rogerebert.com, 1989.

[43]De Jarnatt quoted from the previously cited screening question-and-answer session.

[44]The irony is not missed by the characters, as Julie is prompted to sardonically quip,invoking the setting of their initial museum encounter, “Maybe they’ll put us in a museum.”

[45]Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, 27.

[46]Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, 22.

[47]Saunders, p. 72.

[48]Dan Dinello, Technophobia!Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin:University of Texas, 2005, p. 275.

[49]Chaw, p. 200.

[50]Marc Vernet, “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom,” in Shades of Noir, p. 1.

[51]I would like to thank Professors Dan Sutherland and Dan Dinello, whose lectures at Columbia College Chicago on film noir and science fiction, respectively, informed much of my thinking for this essay, which was originally conceived in Professor Sutherland’s class on film noir. I would also like to thank my fellow MAPHer, Vincent Caputo, whose thesis work on the influence of French Poetic Realism on American film noir also helped me to shape some of the formulations in this essay.

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