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…”

Invasion revisited


More Borges. Recent posts about the Venerable Jorge had me searching again for a subtitled copy of Hugo Santiago’s Invasion, the feature film he made in Argentina in 1969 from a script co-written with Borges and the latter’s friend and frequent collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares. Subtitled copies of Invasion are now easier to find than they were when I wrote about the film back in 2014; there’s one here although this wasn’t the copy I was watching at the weekend so I can’t vouch for the quality of the subtitles. As before, this is the précis:

In 1957, a small group of middle-aged men fight a clandestine battle against forces quietly invading and taking control of their city, Aquilea. Enigmatic in its story-telling, Hugo Santiago’s once-lost film obscures the motivations of either side, leaving only a series of moves and counter-moves that evokes past dictatorial oppression and those still to come.


Don Porfirio (Juan Carlos Paz).

“Aquilea” is Buenos Aires masquerading as a fictional city, with a name borrowed from Roman history. For Borges readers the views of the city are fascinating in themselves since they show us the streets and café interiors which are settings for many of the writer’s stories; we also see one of his books, El Hacedor, prominently situated on a shelf. Beyond this, the fictionalising of the city pushes the story away from Argentina’s turbulent political history towards the fantastic and the mythic, as does the lack of any background information about the life-and-death struggle we’re witnessing.


The writer visits the set. Left to right: Hugo Santiago, Ricardo Aronovich, Jorge Luis Borges and Lautaro Murúa.

This was Hugo Santiago’s debut feature, made after several years working in France as an assistant to Robert Bresson. For a debut it’s an impressively assured piece of work, a fast-moving thriller of a type you wouldn’t expect Bioy Casares and Borges to be involved with; less time is devoted to dialogue than there is to gunfights and assassinations. Reviewers tend to compare Invasion to Alphaville but this is misleading; Aquilea may be an invented setting but there’s nothing about the place that’s futuristic or unreal beyond the surreptitious invasion which is being staged and resisted in the midst of an oblivious citizenry. A direct influence was a long-running and very popular Argentine comic strip, Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s The Eternaut, in which the surviving inhabitants of Buenos Aires fight against alien invaders; but this is a typical science-fiction scenario, with most of the human beings wiped out and the survivors battling a variety of monsters. Santiago’s film is more elusive than this, although Lautaro Murúa as Herrera, the leader of the resistance, physically resembles the stern protagonist from the comic. Invasion is deadly serious in a way that Alphaville never is, free of the quotation marks that frame all of Godard’s fictional excursions. The photography by Ricardo Aronovich is the high-contrast chiaroscuro of a late film noir like Kiss Me Deadly, as is the atmosphere of doom, paranoia and escalating urgency; characters are shown continually marching or running towards their destinations. Murúa strides through his scenes with the grim determination of Lee Marvin in Point Blank; in fact Boorman’s film is a better comparison than Alphaville, a spare and elliptical neo-noir that was one of the first Hollywood features to embrace the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague.


The harsh separation between black and white extends to the white raincoats of the invaders and the black suits of the resistance, the latter being directed by Don Porfirio (Juan Carlos Paz), an elderly man who spends most of the film in his apartment where he plans operations while talking to his black cat and drinking maté tea (a South American habit frequently referred to in Borges’ stories that you seldom see on screen). Most surprising of all is the soundtrack by Edgardo Cantón, a musique-concrète assemblage of animal cries, metallic shrieks and electronic tones. The inexplicable presence of these sounds complements the inexplicable nature of the scenario while resisting easy interpretation.


Invasion‘s ambiguities may help the film sidestep an overtly political reading but they were deemed threatening enough by the Argentine dictatorship of the 1970s for the negative to be seized and kept from circulation for many years. (Parts of the film are also disturbingly prophetic: the invaders base their operations—which extend to torture and murder—in the city’s athletic stadium; a few years later similar South American stadia were being repurposed as venues for mass execution.) Restoration work on the film in 1999 led to the copies that circulate today. Borges wouldn’t have seen anything of this during his lifetime, his blindness was almost total by 1969, but we’re more fortunate. If you enjoy unusual thrillers this is one I recommend.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Goodfellow and Borges
The Rejected Sorcerer
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance



Looking around at the weekend for Jóhann Jóhannsson concerts turned up a few freely available recordings plus a two-hour mix by the composer that I hadn’t come across before. I must have about three quarters of the Jóhannsson discography on disc by now but a handful of rarities remain stubbornly out of reach. Discoveries like this help me resist the temptation to consider spending £150 on a secondhand copy of End Of Summer, a CD/DVD recording of a Jóhannsson collaboration with Hildur Gudnadóttir and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Given Jóhannsson’s reputation, and that of Hildur Gudnadóttir who worked with him on other albums, I’d be surprised if some of these scarce recordings weren’t reissued eventually.

KEXP (2010).
Jóhannsson with the Acme String Quartet in a 36-minute session for the Seattle radio show. The ensemble perform five pieces which include a version of Flight From The City six years before its appearance on the Orphée album. Also two compositions that are only available on singles or compilation albums, Tu Non Mi Perderai Mai and Corpus Camera.

FatCat Podcast #66—The Miners’ Hymns live at Winter Gardens (2012).
The Miner’s Hymns was a score for a Bill Morrison documentary about the mining communities of North East England for which Jóhannsson used a range of brass instruments like those found in colliery bands. This is a live performance of the entire score by the Wordless Music Orchestra that accompanied a screening of the film in New York.

FACT Mix 527 (2015).
Linked here before, a 55-minute mix which includes a number of unsurprisingly sombre orchestral selections from Mihaly Vig, Gloria Coates and Witold Lutoslawski, together with two pieces by Meredith Monk. The latter point the way to the Monk-inflected vocalisations on the score for Arrival.

KEXP (2016).
A 50-minute session on video which includes more selections from the Orphée album. During the discussion interlude with Kevin Cole, Jóhannsson talks about his soundtrack work, including his score for Arrival.

Electronic Explorations 461 (2017).
A two-hour mix which repeats some of the FACT mix—Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music was evidently a favourite—and which also shows Jóhannsson’s sense of humour. Of all the many pieces he might have chosen by the early music historian David Munrow, the two recordings that open and close this mix are from Munrow’s unreleased score for John Boorman’s Zardoz. Then a third of the way through there’s an abrupt transition from the droning doom of Sakrifis by Mohammad to Au Suivant by Jacques Brel, a song better known to Scott Walker and Alex Harvey listeners in its Mort Schuman translation, Next.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Last and First Men

Weekend links 504


Eric Burdon and the Animals, Mother Earth, Hour Glass; Fillmore Auditorium, October 19-21, 1967 by Bonnie MacLean.

• RIP Bonnie MacLean, another of the original San Francisco poster artists, and the only woman of note in the US psychedelic poster scene. (Not the only woman, however; in Europe we had Marijke Koger.) Related: Bonnie MacLean’s posters at Wolfgang’s. And RIP to illustrator Tom Adams, an artist whose exceptional covers for novels by Agatha Christie are only one part of a long and varied career.

The Litanies Of Satan (1982), the short but uncompromising debut album by Diamanda Galás, is reissued on Galás’s own label later this month. Further albums from her remarkable back catalogue will follow. Related: video of Galás performing The Litanies Of Satan in 1985.

• “Scorsese is amazed that United Artists didn’t touch one frame of Raging Bull, since it’s the first time in his life as a feature director that this has apparently occurred.” In 1981 Derek Malcolm talked to Martin Scorsese about his reasons for making a boxing picture.

“…in a post-AIDS world, its scenes of mass male-on-male decadence evoke a sense of the spiritual: Not to put so blunt a phrase on it, but the majority of the men we see in Cruising‘s bars would likely die within the next decade, victims of a very heterosexual genocide of neglect. These are blurred, melancholic memories locked forever within Cruising‘s celluloid; a phantasmagoria of men whose liberation was not legislatively delivered, but recovered in the privacy of leather bars and cruising joints. The film’s overt sexuality makes it hard to escape a sense of catastrophic loss.”

Jack King on William Friedkin’s Cruising

• The Pet Shop Boys’ eccentric feature film, It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988), is released on blu-ray and DVD in June. The video for You Were Always On My Mind gives an idea of the contents.

• “Orion being one of the brightest constellations makes it a lot of people’s favourites, and he was my favourite as a kid.” Ben Chasny on his history of stargazing.

• “You think the Holy Grail is lost? No. I have it on my piano.” John Boorman talks to Xan Brooks.

• Laura Cumming on the dark and haunting paintings of Belgian Symbolist Léon Spilliaert.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 631 by Ondness.

Alistair Ryder chooses 10 great killer plant films.

Howl by John Foxx And The Maths.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Gleam.

The Litanies Of Satan (1969) by Ruth White | Grail (1971) by Grail | Plants’ Music (1981) by Ippu-Do



Merlin building Stonehenge (14th century) from Folio 30r of British Library, Egerton 3028.

The Arthurian magus in art and illustration. Despite the antiquity of the Arthur legend there doesn’t seem to be much early representation of Merlin outside a few drawings in old manuscripts. The British Library’s folio showing the raising of Stonehenge is the oldest known depiction of the ancient structure.

Most of the pictures here are illustrations for the Merlin and Vivien section of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the first book of which was published in 1859. Vivien (or Viviane, Nimue, etc) is the sorcerous Lady in the Lake who either imprisons Merlin underground or in a tree depending on whose account you read. Edward Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin has long been my favourite of that artist’s paintings. This is only a very small selection of possible pictures, of course. A more complete catalogue would include Nicol Williamson in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), a performance that some find overly mannered but one that I’ve always enjoyed.


Merlin and Vivien (1867) by Gustave Doré.


The Beguiling of Merlin (1874) by Edward Burne-Jones.

Continue reading “Merlin”