Film Noir: The Encyclopedia

Image of The Film Noir Encyclopedia
Release Date: 
May 12, 2010
Publisher/Imprint: 
Overlook Hardcover
Pages: 
464
Reviewed by: 

Film Noir: The Encyclopedia is a joy for noir enthusiasts—a must-have for scholars, students, filmmakers, and fans. Even jaded enthusiasts who complain of its flaws, omissions, and inconsistencies will love this magnificent volume.

Edited by scholars Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio, this encyclopedia is the first completely new and updated edition of the 1979 bible of film noir, then titled Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.

In the preface, Silver explains the new two-part structure. Part One, “The Classic Period,” provides 400 entries, from The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) to The Naked Kiss (1964). Each entry begins with production information (such as director, producer, editor, cast, studio, date released) followed by a plot summary including any surprises as well as the ending. (You might not want to read an entry before viewing a film.) Then the individual contributor of that entry (there are nearly 50 including the main editors) presents any combination of analysis, facts, or a review.

Part Two is “Neo-Noir.” Entries number 150 for these films, ones that emerged some years after the original noir cycle ended. Most are new to The Encyclopedia. In addition, informative sidebars discuss topics such as “Proto-noir,” “Fatal Men,” and “Retro-noir.”

Silver’s “Introduction: The Classic Period,” a dense academic essay, traces, defines, describes, and analyzes film noir from its roots through its classic period. This essay is a difficult yet worthwhile read. It would be easy to criticize a piece so intellectual and, at points, so difficult to untangle. But the essay is perfect for teaching about film noir. As Silver explains, film noir “resists facile explanation.” Is it a genre—most definitely not. But why not? A style? A vision? An ethos? A movement? (All are words used in the essay or elsewhere in the book.)

Silver’s definitive (or closest to definitive) term is the “noir cycle”— classic noir films produced from shortly before World War II to the years after the Korean conflict, bounded by The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Touch of Evil (1958).

To Silver, these films present a vision of wartime and post-war America—paranoia, guilt, and gut-level unease, a “blank slate” where the culture could display its ills and “produce a catharsis to help relieve them.” Silver describes the years after the war as the “most visually homogeneous of the noir cycle.” And through these films he gives his view on the identifying characteristics of film noir.

Protagonists and visual style are two major elements of film noir. The protagonist, says Silver, is most often a person with a normal life “assailed by twists of fate in an irrational universe.” The “key character motifs” are alienation, or feeling dead inside; and obsession, such as idealizing a femme fatale without realizing the danger involved.

Regarding noir’s visual style, some might disagree with Silver—a disagreement that can fuel useful debate. The style of film noir has a vast body of conventions, Silver states, that have come to create meaning for the noir viewer. Obsession for example, can be shown by a point-of-view shot that focuses on one lone woman in a crowd. Furthermore: “Early in the cycle the audience came to understand that the dark streets were emblems of alienation . . . the unrelenting gaze was obsessive . . . a visual environment full of shafts of light, deterministic, hostile, and chaotic.”

One might argue instead that these conventions were so powerful that they simply worked successfully to convey alienation, obsession, and chaos, thus evoking the “common ethos” Silver speaks about of the American public at that time:

“[Films of the noir cycle] consistently evoke the dark side of the American persona. The central figures . . . caught in their double binds, filled with existential bitterness, drowning outside the social mainstream, are America’s stylized version of itself, a mirror of the mental dysfunction of a nation in uncertain transition and a distillation of an American style.”

Following are some small examples of the wealth of information and analysis in individual entries in Part One:

D.O.A. (1950)
“ . . . may not be a perfect film noir, yet it typifies the hopeless plight of people manipulated by forces they are unable to control or comprehend; and it is through this existential outlook that D.O.A. contributes to the noir canon.”

Double Indemnity (1944)
“ . . . for many the quintessential film noir. . . . The black widow played by Stanwyck is the classic period archetype. In fact, Double Indemnity has a panoply of prototypes beyond a perfect plan that goes awry and a femme fatale.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
“ . . . the strongest paranoid fifties film . . . utilizes the familiar noir fear of an unseen menace prowling nighttime streets.”

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
“Its reputation tends to make one forget that it is more like a caricature than a motion picture, because its characters are so one-dimensional that they are scarcely characters at all.”

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
“One can only imagine the effects of the film’s original opening, which was shot but discarded: It featured the dead Joe Gillis sitting up on his slab in the morgue and telling his story to a captive audience of corpses.”

Silver’s next essay introduces the Neo-Noir section of The Encyclopedia. By this point, Silver seems unconcerned whether critics term film noir “series, style, genre, movement, cycle, or all of the above.” He now terms it “an observable phenomenon.” Understanding this phenomenon, he asserts, comes from looking at the films themselves, films that create a coherent body of work through similarities in tone and mood.

Filmmakers of the neo-noir era recognized the heritage of film noir—this body of work—and attempted to create their own interpretations. As Silver states,

“Echoes of the classic period from its undercurrent of despair to its dark visual style continue to manifest themselves in other types of films, in corruption exposes—whether retro [recreating the classic noir time period] (True Confessions, L.A. Confidential) or contemporary (The Border, Witness)—in the surreal Fight Club or Mulholland Drive, the quasi-docudramas Rush or Murder in the First, or the big-budget comic book series about Batman seeking revenge or Spiderman’s existential anguish.”

The 150 entries that follow range from The Money Trap (1965), Harper (1966), and Point Blank (1967), to Dark Country (2009), and include just about any dark, moody noir film the reader can think of since those earliest entries, with analysis, facts, and reviews equally as instructive and interesting as those for the classic noir films.

Following Part Two is a bibliography that can have any film noir enthusiast reading for the rest of his or her life.

Just a note regarding the physical book: The book is a dark and hefty tome—a noirish object itself. On the front of the dust jacket is an unlabeled still of a man in a suit and fedora emerging from darkness toward a mysterious light. Open the book and the paper is a rough stock. All the striking stills and posters are presented in black and white on that same rough paper—no glossy bookplates. Even the appearance of the book resoundingly shouts “noir!”

The Encyclopedia is an instructive, analytical, intellectual approach to film noir. There are certainly books on film noir that might display more engaging prose, be more accessible to the casual fan, or just out-and-out be more noirish and sexy. And to learn about any film noir that is not American, the reader will have to go elsewhere. (Even The Third Man, a British production, is excluded.)

No book can provide everything a reader desires, but The Encyclopedia certainly sends the reader into a labyrinth on an existential journey through dark streets and alleys, only to emerge knowing a hell of a lot more about film noir—and possibly even about the black depths of the human soul.