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The best books on Film Noir

recommended by Barry Forshaw

Film writer Barry Forshaw plunges us into a world of dangerous women in ankle bracelets, flawed heroes silhouetted against a dark rain-swept street, smoky jazz scores and very unhappy endings.

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Before you start talking about the books, could you actually define film noir for me?

Film noir is a genre that had no definition in its own day other than ‘crime film’. All of those who were making films noirs, such as Robert Mitchum and similar great stars and directors of that era, wouldn’t have called what they were working on film noir. They were making crime movies and dramas. So, the title ‘film noir’ defines the moment when we started to take such films seriously and it was given a French moniker because that nation was the first to grant it serious academic attention.

“The title ‘film noir’ defines the moment when we started to take such films seriously.”

The films were made largely in the 1940s, which is the defining period, and they’re steeped in all the imagery we know so well – crisp black and white photography, the glistening rain-swept streets, the femme fatale with the marcel wave smoking in a bar, and the hero who’s going to end up in a bad way if he’s seduced by her. It’s interesting that film noir has so many female followers, because it’s not a progressive genre when it comes to women. Either they’re the repository of all that’s good and they stay at home, or they are the dangerously attractive femme fatale and the hero ends up dead after having sex with them.

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

This is the book that kick-started appreciation of film noir. It’s a massively influential book that introduced the ‘auteur’ theory into English writing. Sarris made us take the key directors seriously, as well as the genre itself. The French had already been taking popular genres seriously for years, but this was the book that ignited the touch paper here.

Sarris is a writer you will pick up if you have any love or appreciation for cinema. You will be inspired by the book – and you will also be throwing it across the room, because, along with the great enthusiasms and the famous pecking order of directors, he has some notable blind spots. There are directors like Hitchcock, of course, who are canonised, but Sarris writes off film-makers who are now held in very high esteem, such as Stanley Kubrick, who made one of the very best films noirs, The Killing. But the book takes the genre seriously and suggests we can look at these films in the same way as ‘art cinema’ directors such as Fellini and Bergman, who were automatically taken seriously. It was an incredibly influential book. People like me almost started writing film criticism because of this book.

Do you agree with him about Stanley Kubrick?

No, not at all, and I spend most of my time disagreeing with him when reading the book. Andrew Sarris was talking about people like Otto Preminger, who was basically considered to be a studio director, but for Sarris the director is the absolute king and this is now a contentious issue. If you look at Otto Preminger’s wonderful film Laura, the screenplay and the acting are vitally important. So there needed to be a redressing. Things needed to settle down, but Sarris started the ball rolling with this book.

Your next choice is The Rough Guide to Film Noir.

More ambitious than most of the other entries in the field, this volume sports more sections, including informative sidebars. The interesting thing about film noir is that, although it’s a quintessentially American form, it wouldn’t exist but for German expressionism – an issue addressed here.

“Although it’s a quintessentially American form, film noir wouldn’t exist but for German expressionism.”

So, a director like Fritz Lang comes across from Germany, having made films such as Metropolis, and is definitely an important director. In America he thought he was making cheap crime movies but now we see that is not true. Now we appreciate that The Ministry of Fear, set in Britain, is one of the great films noirs, and German expressionism was a huge influence on the whole form. Another ex-pat was Robert Siodmak. These two great German directors came to America and gave a visual style to film noir. Hitchcock, of course, was English – so the look and style of film noir was mostly defined by foreigners such as these. The Rough Guide to Film Noir discusses all those elements, including the cinematographers (one of the sections I worked on in this book).

Who is the greatest cinematographer of film noir?

John Alton. He is a genius who made the work of directors such as Anthony Mann look even better. The classic image of men in trench coats and hats silhouetted against smoky, rainy streets.

Who’s making film noir now? And is it another word for thriller?

No. It’s most often the innocent man led astray. The theme was done as recently as Body Heat, and many times since then. The great modern film noir is Polanski’s Chinatown. People went in their droves to see this wide-screen colour film, which, nevertheless, is a film noir transformed, with its sun-baked Las Vegas landscapes. And, of course, The Dark Knight and Batman Begins both have that look. Gotham City is basically a film noir landscape. So Rough Guide takes in films like this in a way that the other books don’t. The others mostly concentrate on the 1940s.

Next on the list is Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens.

Carlos Clarens is one of the most perceptive writers on film. With great skill, he puts things into context, politically. So films are talked about in the context of, say, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and how such things are reflected in James Cagney and Edward G Robinson films. Clarens’ coverage reaches into the 1960s and beyond; he identifies the fact that those set in the 1930s, Bonnie and Clyde, for example, are really about the 1960s. You could argue that that’s a film noir in sensibility, even though it’s in bright colour. Of course, it ends with the bloody death of the hero and heroine, a standard end to a film noir.

Which films does he include?

On the front cover is Bogart in High Sierra, a classic film noir. Do you know the essay ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’? It’s a famous American essay by Robert Warshow, an incredibly influential essay. He notes that the gangster is the modern tragic hero, who has to have his moment of fame, like Macbeth, and at one point is at the top of the tree but has a tragic flaw that will destroy him.

On the back cover is The Godfather, a great modern film noir. In many ways Coppola’s film shows the development of the theme because it’s more ambiguous. We knew exactly how we were supposed to feel about the gangsters in the 40s but we’re not quite sure of how to feel about Al Pacino, so by the modern era the films have become more ambiguous.

I am very sure how to feel about Al Pacino. But that’s another matter. Why do we like the gangsters?

We like them because we are shown that they are achievers. Whenever we try to achieve something there is always someone in our way, or someone who should have promoted us, should have seen how good we are. There are jobs we should have got that we didn’t get. Somebody else got them. The gangster just cuts through all the crap – violently – and establishes himself.

But the films are all fairly moral. Though, ironically, Scarface, one of the great modern films noirs, has become so iconic that the young men who admire him don’t see that he is a tragically flawed person who dies violently. To them he’s just a hero. He has an enviable lifestyle, lives in a mansion, hoovers cocaine up his nose and his girlfriend is Michelle Pfeiffer in a low-cut dress. Maybe we always just enjoyed the gangster at the top, but we realise a price has to be paid.

100 Film Noirs.

Notably academic, as you’d expect from BFI Publishing, but this differs from the others in this selection in that it takes into account the fact that film noir as a genre has influenced films in France, Japan, Germany, Mexico and India, so there is welcome inclusion of films other than the classics, showing how diverse the influence is.

Which are the top films noirs?

I think you’d have to say The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In many of these films we encounter the slightly gullible hero seduced into committing a murder. Fred MacMurray should have spotted the ankle bracelet on Barbara Stanwyck in the supermarket – it clearly gave her away as a dangerous sexual force. I think that is the aspect of them that is not very liberated. Even in Body Heat Kathleen Turner is just a modern version of Barbara Stanwyck who wears less underwear.

“Every one of these books will make you quickly aware that you should be watching Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The difference is that the early films gave just a hint of what was going on in the bedroom – The Big Sleep does that very cannily. There’s that famous conversation between Bogart and Bacall about riding, where she says it depends who’s in the saddle. The audience got the metaphor but by the time of Body Heat we’ve got to see William Hurt and Kathleen Turner actually having sex. That’s a problem, because by hinting at sexual passion, which the 1940s movies did, you could make it more powerful. On the other hand, modern film noir is more specifically about sexual frenzy.

Film Noir: The Encyclopedia.

A handsome, arm-straining book which has massive, ambitious coverage. This is an A-Z encyclopedia and is probably the most useful in terms of tracking down more obscure items. This is a book that is very up to date with lots of modern films noirs. It boasts some surprising entries and, as a shopping list to the films you might want to watch, it’s among the best.

But how do you know which ones to watch? Does it rate them?

Well, every one of these books will make you quickly aware that you should be watching Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Having said that, much of the fun lies in the fact that there are so many of them. A lot of films noirs are on DVD now and you can easily track them down. Once you know the directors and stars whose names are a guarantee of quality – Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Cagney, Mitchum, etc – you really can’t go wrong.

I like L’Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.

Louis Malle and the French directors of the nouvelle vague took film noir very seriously. Malle asked Miles Davis, who was living in Paris at the time, to come in and improvise the soundtrack to that one, so it’s got that lovely smoky jazz score. Miles Davis just watched the film and improvised as he watched. And again you’ve got the tragic hero…

I love the premise. Of committing a crime and getting stuck in a lift. A cautionary tale.

November 27, 2010

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Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw is a writer on books and film, whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, along with books on Italian cinema, and a biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon.

Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw is a writer on books and film, whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, along with books on Italian cinema, and a biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon.