Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, 4th edition; edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio. Hardcover. $49.95. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2010. ISBN 1-59020-144-2.
The consensus is clear: noir is a style, not a genre. This reading links noir to national movements, like Italian neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague, while clearing room for the neo-noir entries and others beyond what is described as the classical era (marked out as 1941-1958, though the reemergence of Allen Baron’s 1961 Blast of Silence and Fuller’s 1964 The Naked Kiss may extend the endpoint). If defining noir has historically proven hard enough, tracing the tradition proves to be a never-ending task — noir’s DNA is easily found in contemporary crime films like No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s perhaps the fullest of American cinema traditions.
Yet we don’t need to move past the classic age to find multitudes. Even the golden age seems to be continually yielding new treasures. Lost B films of the majors or forgotten releases from Poverty Row studios show up at every turn, through online searches of streaming videos, late-night viewings on cable television, or multi-disc bargain editions that cram three films onto one DVD. The rich backstock means continual reward for the fan. While rediscoveries are made in other movements, they pale in comparison to the flow of postwar crime films.
This delirious multiplicity fuels the need for a comprehensive reference. Film Noir: The Encyclopedia (originally released as Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style) has stood out in noir culture since its original publication in 1979. Just about all texts I’ve encountered on the subject cite this benchmark work, though I suspect that more noir fans seen the title than have actually looked inside. A glance at any edition proves the work to be comprehensive, containing enough discussions of both noir themes and specific titles to keep us busy indeed.
The Encyclopedia, especially in its new revised edition, reflects the vertiginous feeling of noir itself — still unspooling even if contained in the silvery hues of the past. The book’s fine print marks it as a reference work, and the entries themselves show it’s a reliable one. I love dipping into this book, now in its 4th edition, as much as revisiting Barry Gifford’s giddy Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. A reading of one entry in The Encyclopedia may stick in the mind but may also melt away once the page is turned — The Killers turns into Killer’s Kiss, with The Killing right behind — which is not a bad thing. All the subgenres are here, such as “Black Widow” noir — not excluding the deliciously titled Blonde Ice. And if noir’s multiple guises make it seems somewhat elusive, The Encyclopedia aims, mostly successfully, to clarify it. According to the text’s introduction to “The Classic Period,” noir is “a body of films that not only presents a cohesive vision of America but that does so in a manner transcending the influences of auteurism or genre, studio policy or social context.” The intro makes clear that the style’s variations in different films always return to a consistent theme. The darkness remains, even if the shadows change their shape.
The text’s pedigree, and commitment to it even in its updated form, help it to remain traditionalist — celebrating the history more than modern viewpoints. Critics and academics may yearn for new takes on an immortal film like Wilder’s Double Indemnity, but The Encyclopedia stays to the classical heart of noir, providing revisionists with a launching area instead of direct leads. The editors wisely devote extra space to a landmark like Wilder’s, with the entry serving as a standard critical introduction. Others in this section and a new one on neo-noir (earlier editions combined all the entries while including an essay on the newer style) still expand beyond capsule length: a quick read lays the germ of the film into the reader’s mind. As with all film writing, we may imagine something different (or perhaps better) than the actual film, but this fact argues for film culture as a pleasure in its own right.
The Encyclopedia never lets us forget the feeling of the subject, yet understands the importance of narrative structure and shape. Most entries begin by detailing the plot before assessing its rendition of the crime at its center. Content trumps style, as each entry rushes to summarize and critique in the space allotted. Perhaps only a wordsmith like Gifford can sustain both with flair, though The Encyclopedia‘s pace also serves its subject. Under this editorial team (who also created the essential Film Noir Reader series), sundry contributors cover the films. The magnitude of such a project may have caused some of its errors in grammar: you’ll see more than the occasional sentence fragment, and some sentences run on like the sometimes convoluted plots under discussion. Thankfully, these mechanics are the only drawbacks.
This revised edition boasts new material and contributors, and a wealth of atmospheric images well reproduced. Owners of an older edition will admire the new book’s presentation, an elegant, weighty hardback, with plenty of updates to the 1992 edition. Equally inviting for verifying a detail or discovering a new work or sampling old favorites, The Encyclopedia makes an ideal guide through the shadowy realms of cinema’s arguably most enduring style.