The box office and critical reaction to many of these film noirs varied wildly and widely, especially with viewers in the middle of the country. “The picture is too long and talky,” says one theater owner from Dewey, Oklahoma. “It title is meaningless. Bogart is miscast. My patrons tell me they like him best as a crook.” The movie that drew his ire is The Maltese Falcon.
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Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950 by Mark A. Vieira (Philadelphia: Running Press/TCM, 2016, 336 pp., $40.00) is a lovely book, a stunning example of specialty publishing at its best. Published under the sponsorship of Turner Classic Movies, it also includes a foreword by the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, providing his usual thoughtful commentary.
Photography dominates this lavish large-format tome, a luminous gallery of staged publicity shots, taken by the best studio photographers, and scenes from the films. They add up to a near-epic portrait of the new look birthed, in part, by the hard shadows thrown by World War II that stretched through the postwar era. They glow with the silvery, smoke-filled, airbrushed glamour of the past and shimmer with the alluring grit of the subterranean world portrayed in crime films.
But behind that war-begrimed glamour that continues to draw us in nearly seventy years later lay a nuts-and-bolts reality that few film books covering any genre touch on. And it’s here that Into the Dark shows some additional ingenuity.
Most film history books look at movies of the past through the lens of now. What does The Maltese Falcon mean to us in the 21st century? How is it “relevant” to today? While that often provides perspective, it can be an unfair question and lead down some crazy rabbit holes. (“How exactly does Double Indemnity’s portrayal of the insurance business foreshadow Obamacare?” we might well ask!)
Author Vieira takes a different approach: “[H]ow was the film regarded in 1944?” he asks in his preface. “By the industry? By the press? By audiences?”
We may call it “film noir” now, but back then no one called it that, except for Nino Frank, a French critic writing in 1946. (His coinage would not enter mainstream discourse until the 1970s.) Most industry people were more concerned about box office matters, so these films simply reflected a shift in public taste, and, as they most always did, the moguls went where the money was.
Yet there were some American critics who sensed that a new game was afoot. Among them was Edwin Schallert, who asserted that this darkening began with both Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, both from 1941. There was also a very astute L.A. Times critic named Philip K. Scheuer. The old bright-ribbon and candy box approach to Hollywood movies was drawing to a close.
Vieira’s book carefully, if incompletely, follows this idea through eighty movies, stopping in 1950 when the genre started to sputter, both from communist witch-hunts and natural creative exhaustion.
Eighty movies represent a lot of footage to cover. Vieira, the author of books on Hollywood Golden Age photographer George Hurrell and Hollywood’s “golden year” of 1939, seems to have been faced with the choice of style over content. Understandably, he went with style, resulting in page after page of incandescent photographs, arranged with artful delight. The book beckons you with the smoldering confidence of a femme fatale.
When it comes to demonstrating its historical thesis, however, the book takes a scrapbook approach. Each film is represented with a handful of selected quotes from various people involved in each production, including studio heads, writers, directors, actors, then moving on out to include critics of the day and regional theater owners, maybe the toughest audience of all.
The text works like a brief overview, where some readers might prefer that it cover fewer films with more background material to flesh out its thesis. Nonetheless, there are plenty of surprising nuggets, factoids that stick nicely in the mind. The box office and critical reaction to many of these film noirs varied wildly and widely, especially with viewers in the middle of the country. “The picture is too long and talky,” says one theater owner from Dewey, Oklahoma. “It title is meaningless. Bogart is miscast. My patrons tell me they like him best as a crook.” The movie that drew his ire is The Maltese Falcon.
“Big stars wasted on a gruesome murder subject,” grumbled another exhibitor from Columbus, Kansas, about Double Indemnity. “Business was way way off, yet we were charged stiff prices. The indemnity we paid was indeed double.”
Most curious of all are the comments of Bosley Crowther, the New York Times chief critic and Roger Ebert of his era, on an actor who seems to have been his bête noire rather than a femme fatale, Joan Crawford. “For not only does Miss Crawford resemble nothing so much as a waterlogged cadaver,” he writes of her performance in Possessed, “but her attitude is that of a desperate woman’s ghost wailing for a demon lover beneath a waning moon.” Crawford never gets a break from Crowther.
While the attitudes found here may be dated, I found myself agreeing with the naysayers on at least a couple of beloved classics (Gilda, for one, a film that makes me drowsier every time I see it.)
Caveats aside, Into the Dark is a fine book, a triumph of design and a loving tribute to one of the movies’ most enduring and beloved genres.
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We thank author Mark Vieira and the publisher, Running Press, for permission to reproduce the above images, all of which appear in the book.