Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, by Foster Hirsch (New York: Limelight Editions, 1999), Trade paper, $20.00, 358pp, ISBN 0-87910-288-8.
Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, published in 1981, is one of the classics of what’s become a cottage industry: books about film noir. With Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, Hirsch moves into trickier territory — trickier because surprisingly little has been written about neo-noir, and there’s been no consensus (as there has been with classic noir) about the value of these later films, their place in film culture and the culture in general, or what constitutes a pantheon.
Detours and Lost Highways goes considerable distance in remedying this situation. Hirsch begins by refuting Paul Schrader’s dictum that noir ended in 1958 with Welles’s Touch of Evil, noting that noir itself has always been an elusive entity, claimed by competing camps as a style, a genre, or a movement. His idea that “noir-like lighting, mise-en-scene, characters, and themes appeared long before they coalesced into a 1940s style retroactively called film noir and has continued to circulate long after classic noir’s official expiration date” is surely proof that there are pervasive motifs, characters, etc. that underlie and inform noir and transcend it. Too, when Variety refers casually to L.A. Confidential as a “film noir,” as if stating a fact, it’s hard to take seriously Schrader’s idea that noir is an historical phenomenon that no longer exists.
One of Hirsch’s strategies is to lay out the template of classic noir and then apply it to neo-noir. In the chapter “The Wounds of Desire,” he traces the femme fatale from Stanwyck’s enameled vixen in Double Indemnity to Kathleen Turner’s sensual double-crosser in Body Heat to Lena Olin’s hitwoman in Romeo Is Bleeding. Hirsch is eloquent on such characters: “Noir’s femmes fatales continued the vamp’s nefarious campaign against masculine structures of order and power… Regardless of the story’s point of view — and in the high neo period the evil sister is just as likely to be admired as condemned for her craftiness in subduing prey — the character type is marked by her monstrous threat to a ‘civilized environment.’”
In “Beyond Noir: The Roads to Ruin,” the author is provocative in examining the connections between film noir and horror movies, corralling such examples as de Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn. Hirsch’s strong, transparent writing style, too rare in such books, is also colorful and droll: he calls de Palma “a Hitchcock ‘mime’” and Robert Rodriguez “a south-of-the-border John Woo whose specialty is succulent violence.” The author tellingly cites Lynch’s Lost Highway as “the termination point for noir-become-horror” with its “purely uncanny spectacle” and dismantling of “noir’s historical dependence on internal logic and consistency.”
Other chapters thoroughly discuss the “French connection” to noir, the “boys in the back room” whose pulp writings fueled the genre, motifs such as the “innocent” man drawn into a vortex of crime or the hardened criminal whose pursuit of crime becomes the film’s worldview, and in a surprising touch, the ‘70s blaxploitation film and later manifestations of the urban black experience such as Boyz N the Hood and Juice. Hirsch’s persuasiveness in mapping the most far-flung regions of noir and neo-noir makes this book an essential addition to the cineaste’s shelf.