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Boston is a city of venerable neighborhoods, rich cultural history and academic distinction. But lately, at least on film, it seems as if it’s a city of melancholy. It has taken a turn for the bleak on the big screen, where in little more than a decade, films like “The Town,” “The Departed” and “Mystic River” have depicted a sense of corruption and unrest, with characters often at a breaking point. The darkened streets and bad behavior are once again illuminated in “The Equalizer,” opening Sept. 26 and featuring Denzel Washington as a man with a mysterious past who seeks solace, and an ordinary life, in the city. But trouble is often nearby (mostly in the form of Russian gangsters and crooked cops), and he must take matters into his own hands in an effort to make the dark side of the city a little brighter.

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Granted, “The Equalizer,” inspired by the 1980s television series, is a vigilante drama in which Mr. Washington’s character, Robert McCall, single-handedly takes down swaths of bad guys. But the film is often introspective, showing the city as a tough, wounded place that could use some fixing. A few scenes are set in a diner, occasionally lit and framed as if Edward Hopper had set up the shot, while the rest of the city broods around it. The moody approach, with characters fractured by loss, consumed by crime or burdened by the heavy weight of unfortunate circumstances, was also used in Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” based on Dennis Lehane’s novel. Both that film and the adaptation of Mr. Lehane’s “Mystic River” are populated with haunted characters harboring secrets.

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Interactive Feature: Fall Arts Preview - Times 100 The city is no stranger to crime films: “Mystery Street” (1950), “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) and “The Brink’s Job” (1978) were all set there, and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973) used locations all around the city to tell the story of a gangster turned informant. But an aura of sadness didn’t hover over those films as it does over the recent spate of movies.

The Boston of television has mostly sidestepped the dread. “Cheers,” perhaps the show most associated with the city, kept things upbeat and comic. And other Boston shows have tended to involve academia (“Boston Common,” “Boston Public”) or the more seemly side of the law (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal”).

So how did the meditative crime drama become the most consistent motif for Boston in the movies? Mr. Lehane pointed to the court-ordered desegregation of public schools through busing in 1974 as a significant turning point. What followed were protests, riots and acts of violence, souring the mood of the city, deepening racial tensions and breaking age-old neighborhood boundaries.

Interactive Feature: Fall Arts Preview - Times 100 The city is no stranger to crime films: “Mystery Street” (1950), “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) and “The Brink’s Job” (1978) were all set there, and “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973) used locations all around the city to tell the story of a gangster turned informant. But an aura of sadness didn’t hover over those films as it does over the recent spate of movies.

The Boston of television has mostly sidestepped the dread. “Cheers,” perhaps the show most associated with the city, kept things upbeat and comic. And other Boston shows have tended to involve academia (“Boston Common,” “Boston Public”) or the more seemly side of the law (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal”).

So how did the meditative crime drama become the most consistent motif for Boston in the movies? Mr. Lehane pointed to the court-ordered desegregation of public schools through busing in 1974 as a significant turning point. What followed were protests, riots and acts of violence, souring the mood of the city, deepening racial tensions and breaking age-old neighborhood boundaries.