Film Noir Encyclopedia

Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, Robert Porfirio (eds), Film Noir: The Encyclopedia (The Overlook Press, 2010)

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

EncyclopediaI first bought this classic reference book in the early 1980s – a battered second-hand copy of the 1979 Random House edition, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.  Without it, I don’t think I would ever have watched and enjoyed as much film noir as I have done over the last quarter of a century. An enthusiasm for some of the great films of the classic period was channeled into a quest to extend my knowledge.  The Encyclopedia transformed my ability to find related films, to grasp the connections between them, to understand central themes and motifs, to follow the work of favourite directors, to check on details of plots and cast lists.  It has ever since remained one of my essential books on the cinema. As Alain Silver says in his Preface to the 4th Edition, theEncyclopedia was always intended to be accessible to casual readers and a resource for scholars, providing both detailed references and an overview of the noir style – and that is exactly the way in which it has functioned.

The new edition has cut down on its lengthier plot summaries and made other economies by removing some of the filmographic data and the very valuable appendices, which cross-indexed not just by chronology and studio (retained in the new edition) but also by directors, writers, directors of photography, composers, producers, actors and actresses.  I don’t think I will actually, as the Preface suggests, “retire [my] early hardcover and its frayed dust-jacket,” because there is still much there that I will want to go back to.  But the new material for which these economies make room is hugely worthwhile.  There are now over four hundred detailed entries on the classic period of film noir, from Stranger on the Third Floor(1940) to Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964). The second main section, on neo-noir, includes nearly a hundred and fifty neo-noir movies, all given the same detailed treatment as the entries for canonical film noir.  There are, in addition, many more stills and film posters.

The longer discussions – Introductions and ‘Sidebars’ – establish a strong analytic framework. Silver has been very influential in defining film noir as a distinctively American style, and his Introduction to the classic period persuasively develops his argument for viewing canonical film noir as “a self-contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form.  In short, it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.”  He sees in its dark images and dark mood an inscription of the ills of American society in the 1940s and 1950s.

I would perhaps myself want to put more emphasis on the influence of various strands of European cinematic modernism and the connections with hard-boiled fiction and literary noir, but this is a minor complaint.  Silver by no means ignores these antecedents and connections, acknowledging the links with hard-boiled fiction, French existentialism and (in a Sidebar, “German Influence and Proto-Noir”) the impact of German cinema.  His primary emphasis, however, is on the immediate historical context of McCarthyism and the cold war, and on forces at work within the film industry (audience response, technical innovations, and so on).  He makes a compelling case for film noir as a cohesive visual style and for the consistency of such character motifs as alienation.  His supporting analysis includes a particularly good discussion of Ride the Pink Horse, with its integration of dramatic tension with “stylistic connotations”.

The section on neo-noir is a very valuable addition, separating the classic cycle of films more clearly from those created by filmmakers deliberately attempting to recreate the noir mood, whether in remakes or new narratives.  The films included here are the work of “filmmakers cognizant of the stylistic heritage from noir’s classic period” and approaching this “with a conscious, expressive intent”. They often underscore the genre’s forlorn romanticism, “the need to find love and honor in a new society that venerates only sex and money…” – in films ranging from Point Blank and Taxi Driver to Sin City and Fight Club.

Entries on individual films are, as in previous editions, a mine of information about plots, themes, contexts and visual style. Each entry begins with production information (director, producer, editor, cast, studio, date) followed by a concise plot summary. Important aspects of each film are then analysed and the film is, in most instances, placed in context – in its socio-political context, or in relation to the evolving canon of films noirs.  So, taking entries from the classic period more or less at random, D.O.A. is located in relation to the defining features of noir: marked out by its unusual degree of cynicism and its “unique point of view”, it “becomes noir through certain key sequences”; its importance as a “dark vision of post-atom bomb America” is emphasized, as is its “existential outlook”.  Murder, My Sweet is related to Chandler’s original novel, and there is analysis of its chiarascuro and expressionistic style, of the disorienting angles and high-contrast lighting of the opening scene, its use of flashback narration, its atmosphere of paranoia and its vision of corruption and decay.  In the section on Night and the City, there is close discussion of the opening scenes, the urban setting, the ways in which characters (particularly Harry Fabian) are shot, and the position of director Jules Dassin, “enmeshed…in the congressional investigations into Communists in Hollywood.”  The accumulation of detailed analyses of such a large number of films offers readers an extraordinarily rich and nuanced resource, consistently illuminating a huge range of films that, as Silver argues, come from diverse hands but achieve a cohesion that “is clearly not coincidental”.

As more and more examples of film noir have become available on DVD, theEncyclopedia has grown to be an even more useful guide.  Alain Silver and James Ursini have themselves contributed numerous DVD commentaries to accompany some of the key films of the classic period.  So, for example, there’s a splendid reissue of Nightmare Alley, in the Masters of Cinema series.  It offersa newly restored high definition transfer, with Woody Haut introducing the film and a full-length audio commentary by Silver and Ursini, plus the original theatrical trailer, a 157-page continuity and dialogue script, a new essay on the film and rare production stills.  Others reissues to which Silver and Ursini have contributed include BoomerangCrossfireKiss of DeathOut of the Past andThe Dark Corner.  All highly recommended.

Copyright © 2011 by Lee Horsley

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