The Worldwide Film Noir Tradition: The Complete Reference to Classic Dark Cinema from America, Britain, France and Other Countries Across the Globe by Spencer Selby. Ames, Iowa: Sink Press, 2013. Hardcover. $80.00. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0962380662.
This is essentially a book of lists. But they are great lists.
What author Spencer Selby has done here is to compile what is probably the most comprehensive list of classic and pre-classic (or proto-) noirs ever assembled, including not only 796 films from the classic “American Film Noir Cycle,” but 338 examples of “Classical British Film Noir,” 177 examples of “Classical French Film Noir,” and 257 film noirs from “Other Countries” including Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Czechoslavakia, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, East and West Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey. Got that?
Each film listed includes a brief synopsis, the year and studio of its release, the names of the director and screenwriter, the composer, the cinematographer, the cast, and the film’s running time.
Of course, one cannot compile a list of film noirs without defining, either implicitly or expressly, what a noir is. Though many have mistakenly referred to noir as an “American style,” its roots are international. “Film noir,” as I wrote here, “arose from the collision of German expressionism with documentary realism, paralleling the emergence of ‘the city’ as a character.” Some of the earliest and greatest German pre-classic noirs include films by Fritz Lang (M) and G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box). Equally seminal to the development of noir as an international phenomenon were the influences of American hardboiled fiction and French “poetic realism.” Part of the problem, i.e., the reason why noir was once considered to be strictly an American phenomenon, was a lack of access to foreign noirs. As Selby notes in his Introduction: “Without direct access to all, or at least most, of film history, one cannot make reliable conclusions about it . . . . Many theories and generalizations have been elevated because the evidence against them was buried in the vaults.” However, with the new millennium came DVDs, DivX compression technologies, Bittorent, and the Internet “that made the hurdle of film access increasingly less difficult to overcome.”
Another area of controversy has been when the classic noir era began and when it ended. “I too was guilty of such misjudgment,” writes Selby, “most notably in specifying the classic period as 1940—1959. After decades of viewing countless thousands of related movies, it became clear that the noir period stretches well into the 60s. I now mark the end of the classic period as 1965.”
Selby’s book includes a 4-page “Film Noir Lit Montage” consisting of quotes from various noir authorities – from Nino Frank writing in 1946 (credited with first applying the word “noir” to film) to William Luhr in 2012. These attempts to limn the parameters of noir make it clear that noir is neither, strictly speaking, a style or a genre, but rather a tone, an attitude, or vision that expresses itself through style and various narrative motifs. Quoting Paul Schrader in 1972, “Since noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?”
Within Selby’s alphabetical list of 796 films from the classic 1940-1965 “American Film Noir Cycle,” there is “a group of 250 films dubbed the noir canon, and that group is narrowed further to 50 masterworks.” (The “American Noir Canon” and “50 American Masterworks” are also listed as separate appendices – without synopses – for your reading convenience.) There are also sub-lists of “30 Brit Noir Masterworks” (including Brighton Rock, They Made Me a Fugitive, and The Third Man) and “30 French Noir Masterworks” (e.g., Elevator to the Gallows, Bob le Flambeur, Rififi, and Eyes Without a Face). The American, British, French, and “Other Countries” alphabetical synopses are also repeated – in the appendices sans synopses – listed by year.
Two of my favorite lists are: “Appendix A: Classical Noirs in Color” (26 films, including Leave Her to Heaven, Rope, Violent Saturday, and Party Girl) and “Antecedents” (85 international examples, including The Lodger (Hitchcock ’26), Blackmail, The Docks of New York, M, Two Seconds, La Chienne, Fury, Sabotage, and Le Jour se Leve).
The book includes 65 pages of (small, non-glossy) photos. If you are interested in reading detailed critical discussions of these films, you will have to look elsewhere, e.g., the Andrew Spicer-edited European Film Noir (Manchester University Press, 2007). But for noir fanatics, film study libraries, or film buffs who simply enjoy reading lists, this book is a must.