Film Noir Reader

Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996)

This collection of essays on film noir covers broad territory and, as such, was not something I read all the way through. The essays include attempts at defining and delimiting film noir, arguments for or against it as a genre, analyses of specific films or directors, and some on modern noir.

The first grouping essays includes seminal attempts to define noir. As one moves through the book these authors invariable reference the essays one has just read, which helps in following the thread of their thoughts, but this is hindered by the lack of any cross referencing by the volume’s editors. When an essay in the book is cited they neglect to provide a reference to the essay’s location in the reader (surely, this wouldn’t have been too much work). There is a frustration in reading these attempts to hash out definitions over noir and over the concept of genre. These are the kind of arguments that never end. In the group of essays we do get extensive lists of noir films (as defined by the author), analysis of noir visual style, noir as existentialism, and the “causes” of noir, both social and economic.

The second group of essays mostly look at specific films: The Killers, Kiss M e Deadly, Angel Face, Night and the City, etc. The third group covers a wider territory and includes essays on Miami Vice, neo-noir, and fugitive couples.

A few of the pieces stood out for me. Robert G. Porfirio’s “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” (1976) takes noir and adds another one of my favorite things, French lit. In this case he looks at the existentialist character of film noir, which he traces back to the influence of “tough guy writers” (Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett, etc.) on both. His motifs include the anti-hero, existential choice, alienation and loneliness, “man under sentence of death”, meaninglessness and the absurd, chaos and violence, and ritual and order. It is the kind of analysis that seems obvious once one sees it. The existential aspect of film noir is one of the things that attracts me to it. The persistent unhappy endings are still a welcome change from the often too happy endings of contemporary Hollywood.

Paul Kerr’s “Out of What Past: Notes on the B Film Noir” (1979), among other things, looks at the way the film noir style was created due to the confines of the B movie studio and theater system. I learned a good deal about the early movie system, though one can’t easily accept that such economic factors are the driving cause of the style. A striking passage he quotes is worth requoting: “One way of looking at the plot of the typical film noir is to see it as a struggle between different voices over the telling of the story.” (Sylvia Harvey in “Woman’s place: the Absent Family of Film Noir”)

In his essay “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal” (1978), James Damico offers his generic example of a film noir plot:

“Either he is fates to do so or by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings abuot the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literaly destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself.” (103)

It covers a number of the plots I can think of, though in many cases the movie itself only dramatizes a small portion of the story. Though, it is hard to apply to a number of classics of the style. Still, I appreciate the attempt.

Alain Silver’s “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style” (1996) is an excellent essay that analyses one of my favorite films noir. And lucky for you, it is online. He offers a number of stills to discuss framing, lighting, mise-en-scene, camera movement, etc. If you haven’t seen Kiss Me Deadly, I highly recommend it.

All in all, the first section of the reader is the most worthwhile for someone interested in the style. When the book delves into specific and post-noirs it becomes more about which films you’ve seen.