Image Analysis – CN

The chosen visuals are two connected images: a production shot and a finished movie still from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940s film Shadow of a Doubt featured in a Life Magazine article from said decade.  The photographs together feature the Pulaski Skyway looming over the Hackensack River as a backdrop for Hitchcock’s vision of [the city of Newark as] a decaying urban slum in one of the opening scenes of the film.  Although my chosen site is the Newark Sewage Treatment Plant that was selected as the basis for a 1993 X-Files episode, this image from fifty years prior of the same sewage and watershed system provides further evidence supporting the argument that Newark was and remains the classic, quintessential icon of urban deterioration, hence its use in many examples within American popular culture.

Alfred Hitchcock chose this particular location for the authentic industrial feel and affordable cost as opposed to hiring a construction crew to build a complete movie set from scratch.  The Pulaski Skyway, despite having been newly completed at the time, only added to the industrial feel which the filmmaker was attempting to convey as the antagonist of Shadow of a Doubt seeks refuge in a dilapidated boarding house in the nearby Ironbound neighborhood.  Local factory workers from the area were recruited as extras portraying homeless men in the newsreel-esque scene.  The point of view is taken from the Newark side, as the audience’s eye moves across the bridge to Jersey City on the other side of the Hackensack River.

The idea of Newark as being the stereotypical deteriorating city has long been the standard alongside New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other notable film noir (a popular cinematic trend ranging from the 1940s to 1960s that almost always take place in dark, grimy, and seedy urban settings) locales.  To highlight and enhance the blighted atmosphere, two extras dressed in destroyed clothing are carefully placed in the forefront of the movie still, seemingly relaxed and unstressed, perhaps without prioritized obligations.  The viewer could properly assume that the men are homeless and unemployed, which explains their loitering during the middle of the day instead of conducting tasks at the workplace.

The main focal point of the two photographs is the monumental and domineering General Pulaski Skyway that overlooks the scene.  The position and time of day in which Hitchcock chose to film this opening sequence is interpreted from the point of view being seen from the shadowy side of the bridge, therefore draping the city in darkness.  Visually it is angled in such a way that it creates an almost panoramic optical illusion to emphasize the gargantuan scope of the structure.  Being seen from the literal and figurative darker side, the gloomy bridge and enormous mass now have an intimidating presence over the observer on the ground.

An overlying theme of the choice of location and final photograph is the barren, unsafe and perilous nature of the scenery.   One detail that the viewer may notice is the lack of recreational boats on the river.  This is likely due to the fact that the Newark/Jersey City/Kearny area is a major industrial port zone and therefore does not accommodate local or residential use of the waterways.   Secondly, the Pulaski Skyway has had a tumultuous and overall ineffective history since its completion in 1932, deemed as “the sixth most unreliable road in the United States” by the Texas Transportation Institute in 2011[1].  Poor design that results in countless accidents, unsafe conditions, and the inability to handle large industrial vehicles are all indications of failed infrastructure, which then in turn, further augments the undesirability of the area.

Although seemingly completely unrelated to the The X-Files television series in the 1990s, this snapshot of the earlier, more primitive days of the American film industry both share a common theme: utilizing the city of Newark, New Jersey as the eternal icon of urban decay.  It is clearly documented by the “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock – an English-born filmmaker whom acknowledged this idea of the city in such manner, far before X-Files creator Chris Carter’s use of the same setting fifty years later for his own story about “grimy business” going on in a degenerative inner city.  The crumbling status of the city has remained relatively unchanged for the entirety of the Postwar period.


[1] (Wikipedia n.d.)