Thursday, 19 June 2008


I don't watch anywhere near as many films as I mean to: the siren call of the books is too strong, and I tend to enjoy reading a lot more. However, I have a real addiction to film noir, and was thrilled when the slightly clumsily titled Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style finally arrived at my home yesterday.

This is a very useful and gigantic book: a comprehensive guide to pretty much every American noir movie from the 1930s to the 1970s, with critical commentary and technical details. It explores what is best about these films: their murky morality (sometimes ruined by studio-enforced 'happy' endings), the beautiful cinematography, the funky jazz scores, the subversive stories, the femme fatales...

Noir was powered by the emigre film directors and writers who were refugees from Germany and the collapsing Austria-Hungary, who brought their often expressionistic style to hardboiled US crime movies. They're the perfect mixture of European and American, low and high culture.

The cover to this encyclopaedia is a still from a minor noir, featuring two of the less noir-associated actors of the era--Joan Crawford and Jack Palance in Sudden Fear. If you want to see a man whose head appears to have been modelled on an Easter Island statue, the young Palance is your first port of call (see also Panic in the Streets).

Co-editor of this volume is the ubiquitous Alain Silver: he's produced numerous film noir books, some of which I own and have thoroughly pored over. One of the best is The Noir Style, essentially a photographic coffee table book of arresting, gorgeous black-and-white stills from noir movies. The cover features Rita Hayworth in that famous dress from Gilda.

Of the four books of essays on noir that Silver has edited, I have only the third (they're priced like academic textbooks). It has a lot of intriguing interviews with some of the genre's best directors, and the cover shows a behind-the-scenes shot of Barbara Stanwyck and Billy Wilder on the set of Double Indemnity.

Silver also put together this book for art publisher Taschen's film series. The cover is a detail from The Night of the Hunter; Robert Mitchum's compelling psychopathic lay preacher turned woman-killer has 'HATE' tattooed on one hand and 'LOVE' on the other.

The Rough Guide to Film Noir is a good beginner's guide, well-written and surprisingly comprehensive: it also makes use of Double Indemnity, with Stanwyck's partner-in-crime being Fred MacMurray.

Then we have Virgin's more in-depth guide to the genre. This has Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, and captures the sleepy-eyed charm that, as it aged and turned puffy and sour, Mitcham would turn to such good effect in the original Cape Fear.

Finally, we have Death on the Cheap, a useful but somewhat erratic to the lesser-known noir B-movies. I have no idea what the cover is drawn from, besides it being an RKO production, but it's a great image.


Ian Koviak said...

Michael Kellner does some nice work in this genre...

JRSM said...

Wow! Thanks for that link--I'm going to have to post about him!