The Big Noir Book, or 300 films and counting…


Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947). Photography by Nicholas Musuraca.

“His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

1: The Big Project
This is a big post about a big subject: the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, also the “neo-noir” revival of the following decades. The project in question was my attempt to watch all the films listed in a comprehensive study of the form, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, which was published in 1979. There are many books about film noir but this one, which I often refer to as The Big Noir Book, is hard to beat, a heavyweight guide in which editors Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward construct a definition of the genre, chart its history, and compile indices for the key creators: actors, writers, directors and cinematographers. The core of the book is a detailed list of 300 films (see below), with production credits for each entry, a précis of each story and a short critical essay.

“Big” is an apposite term; many of these films involve big characters, big passions, big crimes and big predicaments, the latter invariably matters of life or death. The word “big” turns up in a number of noir titles, thanks no doubt to Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep. Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the Chandler book is one of the defining films of the genre, one that was very successful despite the plot being rendered incoherent by bowdlerisation and competing screenwriters. The studios spent the next few years offering picture-goers The Big Clock (1948), The Big Night (1951), The Big Heat (1953), The Big Combo (1955) and The Big Knife (1955). Also The Big Carnival (1951), an alternate “big” title for Ace in the Hole.


The big book. On the cover: Joan Crawford and Jack Palance in Sudden Fear (1952).

I can’t be the only person to have encountered Silver & Ward’s list then thought about trying to watch everything on it. But unless you’re an academic or a film reviewer this would have been difficult until very recently, if not impossible when many of the titles are obscure B-pictures that you wouldn’t usually find on TV. The idea first arose in the 1980s when a friend bought a copy of the noir book shortly after I’d been reading Robert P. Kolker’s Cinema of Loneliness, a substantial analysis of five American directors which, in its first edition, includes some discussion of the noir influence on the films of the 1970s. Three of the films that Kolker examines are examples of neo-noir that make the Silver & Ward list: The Long Goodbye, Taxi Driver and Night Moves. Kolker also acknowledges Stanley Kubrick’s grounding in the noir idiom. Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both on the list, while the film that followed these, Paths of Glory, features hardboiled dialogue by Jim Thompson, and a cast filled with noir actors. My growing interest in the genre happened to coincide with the arrival on British television of Channel 4, a TV station which spent its early years filling the afternoons and late evenings with re-runs of old films. Silver & Ward’s book had the effect of making me pay closer attention to films I might otherwise have ignored or only watched if there was nothing else on. The book also contextualised these films in a way that’s never required with other genres. This period was an introduction to noir as it really is, as opposed to the clichés which still surround the genre today.


Claire Trevor in Raw Deal (1948). Photography by John Alton.

2: The Big Definition
Everyone knows the noir clichés: private eyes, duplicitous dames, lethal hoods, nightclub singers, sardonic voiceovers, light slanting through venetian blinds, the American metropolis, rain-washed nocturnal streets, big cars, big hats, trench coats, guns, cops, more cops, etc, etc.

Hollywood films of the 1940s do, of course, feature all of these things many times over, but the genre definition offered by Silver & Ward is as much about a pessimistic world-view as it is about the aesthetics of life in the American city. The “noir” quality that French critics of the 1950s identified in post-war American cinema was a visual attribute before it was anything else, a realisation that many of the recent Hollywood films were saturated with angled shadows and endless night. But the black (or, more properly, dark) character of these films is as much a set of circumstances as it is a visual style, one where the wheel of fate is often the most important element driving the story. The visual style can contribute a great deal to the storytelling and the overall mood but noir circumstance can exist, as it does in Leave Her to Heaven, in bright Technicolor sunlight miles away from any city. Fate may manifest as blind chance—mistaken identity, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time—or a deterministic inevitability that leads a protagonist to their destruction. A doom-laden finale was frequently imposed by Hollywood’s Production Code which insisted that crime can never be shown to pay, but the Code’s moral stricture is only obtrusive in the films about criminals. Many noir situations concern ordinary people whose attempts to live decent lives are thwarted by bad decisions or unfortunate circumstance. Despite Hollywood’s reputation for happy endings a negative resolution is a noir staple, as is an atmosphere of desperation, entrapment and paranoia; a Pyrrhic victory is often as good as it gets. Meanwhile, the shadow of war hangs over all the films of the 1940s. Many of the wartime pictures refer in passing to events in Europe, while the post-war films are often informed by the recent ordeals of returned veterans. There’s even a sub-class of noir involving veterans with damaged brains whose amnesias or violent mood swings lead them into trouble.

The noir stereotype of the private eye is well-founded when Silver & Ward mark the beginning of the genre with Humphrey Bogart’s appearance as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Many films about private eyes followed Bogart but not all of them are truly noir, while the genre itself is flexible enough to depart from the detective formula. Film noir doesn’t have to involve cities at all: a number of the films on Silver & Ward’s list are entirely set in small towns or remote rural areas. The genre doesn’t have to be set in the USA either: there are London noirs, South American noirs, Caribbean noirs, European noirs and Far East noirs. The films aren’t always black-and-white or filled with shadows: several of the noirs from the 1950s are in colour, as are all the ones from the 1970s.

Continue reading “The Big Noir Book, or 300 films and counting…”

Weekend links 645


Halloween (no date) by William Stewart MacGeorge.

• Couldn’t Care Less: Cormac McCarthy in a 75-minute conversation (!) with David Krakauer at the Santa Fe Institute, filmed in 2017 and recently posted to YouTube. Not a literary discussion, this one is all about science, philosophy, mathematics, architecture and the operations of the unconscious mind. McCarthy’s essay about the origins of language, The Kekulé Problem, may be read here.

• At Wormwoodiana: Douglas A. Anderson finds a 1932 reprint of an HP Lovecraft story, The Music of Erich Zann, in London newspaper The Evening Standard. The story had appeared a few months prior to this in a Gollancz book, Modern Tales of Horror which reprinted a US collection edited by Dashiell Hammett. The newspaper printing includes an illustration by Philip Mendoza.

• New Hollywood Vs Mutant Cinema: The flipside of US cinema, 1960s–80s. Joe Banks talks to Kelly Roberts, Michael Grasso and Richard McKenna about their new book, We Are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon.

• At Bandcamp: Rich Aucoin explains the army of synths on his new quadruple album. The battalion includes the bespoke modular setup known as T.O.N.T.O., a rig that few people get to play with.

• New/old music: Malebox, an EP of Patrick Cowley rarities coming soon from Dark Entries.

• Mix of the week: Samhain Séance 11: endleofon by The Ephemeral Man.

• The surreal photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

• “NASA team begins study of UFOs”.

Ghost Rider (1969) by Musical Doctors | Ghost Rider (1970) by The Crystalites | Ghost Rider (1977) by Suicide

Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka


Do you detect a theme this week? The recent Pragueness had me watching this favourite film again. I unfairly dismissed Soderbergh after his debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), which I found to be two hours of yuppie tedium despite its winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes. The prize did enable him to make Kafka (1991), however, so I shouldn’t complain although I didn’t get to see this until it turned up on TV years after its release. The film was a major flop and put Soderbergh in the wilderness until Out of Sight (1998), his first outing with George Clooney.

Kafka is one of a small group of works wherein well-known writers become embroiled in stories which parallel their fiction. Joe Gores’ Hammett (filmed by Wim Wenders in 1982) did this with Dashiell Hammett while Mark Frost in his novel, The List of Seven, had a pre-Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle becoming involved in a Holmesian mystery. The screenplay for Kafka by Lem Dobbs has the author falling in with anarchist revolutionaries in order to solve the death of a co-worker and a bureaucratic conspiracy. This was obviously too clever for a general audience, being littered with references to Kafka’s life and work and also to German Expressionist cinema with names like “Orlac” and “Murnau” comprising key plot elements. Dobbs wrote a couple of other noteworthy screenplays after this, Dark City, a noirish fantasy that does what The Matrix did only with greater imagination, and The Limey (1999), another Soderbergh film with a great performance by Terence Stamp as a vengeful Cockney gangster on the loose in Los Angeles.


Alan Bennett had already written something similar to Kafka in his 1986 TV film for the BBC, The Insurance Man, which concerns a dye worker becoming enmeshed in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute where Kafka worked as a clerk. Daniel Day-Lewis made a marvellous Franz Kafka in Bennett’s play, and was much more suited to the role than Jeremy Irons is in Soderbergh’s film. This is a shame since everything else about Kafka is excellent, from Walt Lloyd’s moody photography, and the fabulous cymbalom-inflected score by Cliff Martinez, to the cast which includes the wonderful Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm and, in one of his last performances, Alec Guinness.

Kafka is also the Prague film par excellence, making great use of the city’s Old Town and landmarks such as the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, a building which dominates the story as well as many of the outdoor scenes. In fact I find myself watching it as much for the settings than anything else. Soderbergh enjoys cinematic pastiche and Kafka owes a great deal to The Third Man (which did for post-war Vienna what Kafka does for Prague) and—inevitably—Orson Welles’ Kafka adaptation, The Trial. Theresa Russell brings Vienna with her via Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, Joel Grey was in Cabaret, of course, and Alec Guinness isn’t so far removed from his role as retired spy George Smiley in the BBC’s John le Carré films. And halfway through the film there’s a great surprise which I won’t spoil here.

Kafka is available on DVD finally, although if you’re in the US you’ll have to import it. Soderbergh has talked about reworking the film in a longer version which I’d like to see if he ever gets round to it. Not an easy film to find but it’s worthy of your attention.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kafka and Kupka
Alexander Hammid
How to disappear completely
Karel Plicka’s views of Prague
Giant mantis invades Prague
Barta’s Golem

Kiss Me Deadly

Va-va-voom! Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Orson Welles’s great Touch of Evil (1958) both came at the end of the film noir cycle in the late 1950s. Both films look into the dark heart of American life during that decade, with Aldrich tackling nuclear paranoia and Welles dealing with racism towards Latin-Americans and political and legal corruption. Both films have long been favourites of mine and both remain startlingly relevant now, as Alex Cox discusses below. Cox might have mentioned another film that borrows the motif of the baleful nuclear box, his own Repo Man (1984).

* * *

kiss_me_deadly.jpgNuclear-powered nastiness
It’s one of the darkest noirs ever made. But, says Alex Cox, the classic Kiss Me Deadly is a parable at heart

It begins with titles that famously run backwards. Deadly … Kiss Me … Aldrich … Robert … Directed by … Then, two scenes in, a women we have assumed to be the heroine is tortured to death. This is no art film, though; no knowing homage. Instead, it’s the roughest, least compromising film noir of them all – Kiss Me Deadly.

The hero (if we can call him that) is Mike Hammer, a tough, no-nonsense detective created by pulp fiction author Micky Spillane. Spillane’s Hammer was of a different breed from the detectives who had gone before. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe were tough and cynical, but also intelligent, decent and insightful. Spillane’s Hammer was an indecent thug. A product of Senator McCarthy and the blood-lust of the Korean war, he liked nothing better than pounding commie sympathisers’ heads against a wall until their eyeballs popped.

Robert Aldrich’s Hammer – played by the oddly named Ralph Meeker – is worse than Spillane’s. Aldrich’s protaganist is cynical and dumb; a thug without insight, a detective who fails to detect. In a way, he is a prototype for the automaton-hero played by Lee Marvin in 1967’s Point Blank, and done to a turn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. (More.)