Andrew Spicer’s book “film noir” is the best in-depth study of this intriguing and entertaining film style. Now, the first thing one has to understand about “noir” films is that they are Black and White (B/W), if you don’t like watching B/W movies, then move on to another style of film!
For most casual film goers the term “film noir” has a mysterious sound to it but they really don’t know what it means. The French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 first coined the phrase “film noir” after reviewing the movie the “Maltese Falcon,” John Houston 1941. He saw that one of the most important components of “film noir” was characters that are portrayed as self questioning in an intellectual search dominated by Existentialism, (which is a philosophy that places emphasis on chance, in a world of no values or moral absolutes). Thus, you have the “non-heroic” hero in “film noir” such as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart as the detective Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”
Spicer gives a very good general definition of “film noir” in his book and then explains some of the different sub categories. “The label ‘film noir’ designates a cycle of films that share a similar iconography, visual style, narrative strategies, subject matter and characterization. (Spicer, 4). Spicer defines iconography (repeated visual patterning) as consisting “of images of dark, night-time city, its streets damp with rain…Its sleazy milieu of claustrophobic alleyways” (4). This effect is very reminiscent of one of the greatest “film noir” movies “The Third Man,” Carol Reed 1949. “The visual style habitually employs high contrast (chiaroscuro) lighting, where deep, enveloping shadows are fractured by shafts of light from a single source, and dark, claustrophobic interiors have shadowy shapes on the walls” (4). This visual style is expertly displayed in “Touch of Evil,” Orson Welles, 1958. “Noir’s highly complex narrative patterning is created by the use of first-person voice-overs, multiple narrators, flashbacks and ellipses which often create ambiguous or inconclusive endings” (4). This motif is exemplified in the film “Kiss of Death,” Henry Hathaway 1947. Thematic characterization of “film noir” is “dominated by a mixture of existential and Freudian motifs…The ‘noir’ universe is dark malign and unstable where individuals are trapped through fear and paranoia, or overwhelmed by the power of sexual desire. ‘Noirs’ principal protagonists consist of the alienated, often psychologically disturbed, male anti-hero and the hard, deceitful ‘femme fatale he encounters” (4-5). This aspect of ‘film noir’ is best epitomized by the film “Double Indemnity,” Billy Wilder 1944.
One of the great features of Spicer’s book is his list of movies that fit into the “film noir” style, there are over 200 films. He breaks his list down under the following sub-titles. Antecedents of “film noir,” classical “film noir 1940-59, modernist neo-noir and its antecedents, postmodern “film noir,” British “film noir,” miscellaneous.
In addition, Spicer’s book is valuable because he takes each element of film noir and explains it in-depth, by using “noir” films that are the epitome of each element. Therefore, you get a book that also winds up being a great guide to the best of “noir” films! I recommend this book highly; it deserves a place on the shelf of every serious lover of films from Hollywood’s “Silver Screen Era”!
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