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‘Film Noir: The Encyclopedia’ – of gumshoes, femmes fatale and all things crime cinema

Dennis King Published: June 15, 2010

The parameters of film noir, as well as our knowledge of this most sinister movie genre, are greatly expanded with the recent release of “Film Noir: The Encyclopedia” (Overlook Press, $45), a revised and redesigned fourth edition of the classic pioneering text that movie lovers consider the final word on the cinematic world of fog and shadows.

Compiled and constructed by a quartet of respected film scholars (Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini & Robert Porfirio), the 464-page hardcover reference work more than covers the waterfront when it comes to slinky femmes fatale, gun-toting mobsters, world-weary private eyes, seedy schemes and the seamy underbelly of the American dream.

The book’s concise introduction sums up the genre for the ages: “Film noir is literally ‘black film,’ not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting a dark mood in American society, but equally almost empirically as a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them.”

All the classic film noir works are here (featuring mainstay actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Peter Lorre, James Cagney, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis). And the brilliantly exhaustive text is supported by new film stills, rare posters, production notes and complete guides to movies, directors, stars, themes and motifs.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, 'Out of the Past'
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, 'Out of the Past'

Divided into two sections – classic noir and neo noir – the text ranges from well-known classics such as “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Maltese Falcon” to lesser known B-movie noirs like “Nightmare Alley.”

The neo noir section charts the influence of classic noir films of the 1940s on contemporary filmmakers such as Brian De Palma (“Body Double”) and the Coen Brothers (“Blood Simple”). Stylistic elements of film noir have shown up in other contemporary movies such as “Blade Runner” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Perhaps most surprising is the inclusion of signature sci-fi films (“The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) and classic Westerns (“The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Rancho Notorious,” “Naked Spur,” “I Shot Jesse James”), which apparently owe a great stylistic debt to film noir conventions.

Scholarly essays included throughout underscore progressions and influences that have expanded the genre well beyond its initial realm. Discussions of the importance of German Expressionism in shaping film noir design, development of lighting and camera placement in defining film noir style, and the emergence of the “fatal male” character are just a few of the unique, truly encyclopedic entries the book offers.

“Film Noir: The Encyclopedia” is an essential reference work for students of film and for movie fans who love plying cinema’s mean streets. It is indeed a beacon of light in an artful landscape of darkness.

- Dennis King