They stopped making films noir 50 years ago, yet the books on film noir keep on coming. The study of film noir is career-defining for many academics and noir pundits, and the selling of all those books and scholarly treatises must rake in the readies.
But sorry guys I am starting to get cynical about this plethora of prognostications and chatter about film noir. Let me tell you why. I will have to follow some currents and eddies but indulge me.
A new film noir encyclopedia has just been published, and I have been privileged to preview the galleys on-line. ‘A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide’ by prolific film author John Grant, is a 512 page behemoth that boasts capsule reviews of over 3,500 films. As you would guess the net has been cast far and wide to get this tally, with the publisher’s blurb telling me that the book covers “3,500 movie entries, including not only classic US film noirs from the 1940s through 1960s, but also modern manifestations like neonoirs and erotic thrillers. Films from every continent (except Antarctica)”.
I doubt even Eddie Muller has seen this many noirs, and my current list is only a bit more than 300. So I will have to take Grant at his word. Flipping through the book on my iPad, I see all the essential noirs are there, and Grant gets the stories right – something Silver & Ward in their pioneering effort, The Film Noir Encyclopedia, achieve only occasionally in their longer and rather overwrought entries. One thing Grant does do is avoid spoilers and this is definitely welcome. His entries for the more important movies are longer, and provide some background and snippets on a movie’s aesthetics. At US$50 it is a pricey but useful reference.
I just don’t believe there are that many noirs! Let’s be honest. Most b-movies were b-movies: cheap and nasty. There are no doubt some forgotten gems still to be discovered, but not that many surely. If you want a more manageable program of films that you can actually get hold of savour my list of essential films noir.
Hot on the heels of Grant’s book is a new academic treatise edited by UK academics Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson, ‘A Companion to Film Noir’, presenting a new range of essays from the usual suspects from both sides of the Pond, and prefaced with an introduction by James Naremore. If you thought Grant’s book was beyond your budget, then this number is strictly for the birds at just below US$180 for the hardcover and US$160 for the Kindle e-book. No prizes for guessing that mere mortals don’t get a review copy. But the publisher Wiley has made the Introduction and a chapter titled ‘The Ambience of Film Noir’ available free on-line here.
A segue that may justify my increasing suspicion that we have an overload of books on film noir. In the introduction to Grant’s book he makes reference to the seminal film journal article in 1946 by French critic and existential intellectual Nino Frank, in which Frank coined the expression ‘film noir’. That year a backlog of Hollywood product hit Paris screens. (During the Nazi Occupation of France from 1941 to 1945 American films were banned). Frank was struck by the darkness and ambience of a clutch of films that were radically different from Hollywood’s pre-war output. The films Frank wrote about were The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945). Wanting to know more about Frank I started searching for references to his writing on film noir, and thanks to Google, I discovered a web site devoted to Nino Frank which hosts an excellent paper on just what was written and discussed in Paris in 1946. Frank’s original article appeared in the French film journal L’Ecran français on 28 August, 1946, and he wrote a follow-up article in another French film journal La Revue du Cinéma in November of that year.
The paper is comprehensive, providing a detailed history with citations. What struck me was that the intellectual ferment in Paris in 1946 produced a synthesis and comprehension of film noir that has hardly been added to since by the myriad books and journal articles that have appeared in the wake of Frank’s first distillation. I commend readers to the paper titled ‘Nino Frank and the Fascination of Noir’ available here, and best of all it is free.