Book review: Film Noir, edited by Paul Duncan and Jurgen Muller

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 July, 2014, 8:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 11:59am

Film Noir - 100 All-time Favourites
edited by Paul Duncan, Jurgen Muller
3.5 stars
Mathew Scott

There's long been debate over whether film noir exists as a genre or is simply more about mood. Much of the confusion comes from just how wide the noir net has been cast over the decades as these films are not all about, say, crime; nor are they easily identifiable in the way westerns or sci-fi might be.

Yet that's part of the fascination. Like the characters in these films, and the way the cameras and the lights are angled, film noir exists in the shadows of the industry, with its explorations of the darker reaches of the soul. Little wonder that those who first tested the waters - directors such as Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, 1950) - had come to Hollywood to escape the horrors that were unfolding as the second world war loomed across Europe, and little wonder that noir's heyday came when the films played to an audience that had just returned from that conflagration to find everything at home had changed.

Hence in these films the men are often heroes being tempted away from the straight and the narrow, while the women come emboldened - corrupted even - by the freedoms war has forced society to give them. Film noir ranks next to the western as being almost always completely masculine in its direction. The women are here to confuse the matter, to lead men astray, to deceive them - as does the society around them.

As critic, director and scriptwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, 1976) explains in the quite brilliant essay that opens up Film Noir - 100 All-time Favourites, there's never really any divide between what we traditionally consider good and evil - and everyone has their own dirty little secrets.

This massive coffee-table book, in keeping with publisher Taschen's traditions, is vast in its ambition and in its accomplishments. There are three essays, with Schrader's piece from 1971 providing the most valuable insights for established fans or those wanting to dig a little deeper. Co-editor Jurgen Muller's collaboration with fellow critic Jorn Hetebrugge - titled Out of Focus - looks at Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and attempts to explain both why it is an example of film noir and why it simply is.

Author and film professor Douglas Keesey's An Introduction to Neo-Noir provides good reason for the book to expand its selection beyond the commonly held assertion that the golden age - or even the entire age - of film noir began with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), while Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) brought its curtain down. Keesey charts noir's influence in the decades since then, and across the globe to include the work of Asian filmmakers such as South Korea's Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, 2003) and our very own Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wai Ka-fai (Mad Detective, 2007).

These essays whet your appetite for the 100 films gathered by 27 critics and deemed by editors Muller and Paul Duncan to best represent film noir, starting with 1920's haunting The Cabinet of Dr Caligari through to the street-smart and rapid-fire Drive (2011).

The resources at the editors' fingertips are impressive, and the combined synopsis-interpretation of each film comes with posters, stills, pull-quotes from the script and from reviews, and an assortment of trivia or bios of those involved in the production.

As a result these films come alive, reigniting the experience of watching them - and presenting you with any number of excuses to go seek them out if you haven't before.

Some of the best performances by cinema's immortals are here, so you can quickly seek out other films by director Huston (such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948), and celebrate his collaborations with the great Humphrey Bogart. Robert Mitchum is also well represented, the sleepy-eyed actor for many fully embodying all that film noir was about with his roles in such classics as The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962).

And then there's the film that supposedly marked film noir's finale, Welles' Touch of Evil, with its smouldering, sweaty tale of corruption south of the border. It could have been a fitting climax, with characters - played by, among others, Welles himself, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich - desperate to the point of exhaustion. It wasn't, of course, and there's a real delight to be found in the lesser-known productions the book throws at us, from all around the world, across the six decades since that film was released - and from even before.

So you might want to find out more about Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943), the first cinematic adaptation of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, or hunt down Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) to see whether The New York Times was right in saying it "makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end".

More contemporary selections highlight just how influential film noir has been across the generations, showing that while filmmaking techniques have advanced, a tortured soul will always be a tortured soul.