Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book Review: 'A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir' by John Grant

Ask the question, "What is film noir?" of film buffs and you'll likely get diverse answers. Ask them "What is neonoir?" and you're liable to start a fight. Passionate arguments abound about what is and isn't film noir, and if the term "neonoir", a term used to describe noir made after around 1960, is a valid genre in the canon of cinema.

 In his humongous volume, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir (Limelight Editions, 2013), author John Grant defines film noir - a term first coined by French movie critics to describe the wave of American black & white crime movies of the 1940s - as "knowing it when you see it". His complete definition is more thorough and complex, but "knowing it when you see it" is an apt description of this elusive movie genre that most often incorporates shadowy lighting, black & white cinematography, urban settings and crime.

With over 3,250 movie entries listed in encyclopedic fashion, the book is a page-thumbing romp for movie buffs with a passion for noir. The short introductory chapter is an interesting history that finds the genre evolving, not from artistic creativity, but from a limited movie budget which sacrificed elaborate set designs for shadowy rooms narrow in scope. We learn the French coined the term in retrospect, after viewing American films of the 1940s denied to them during the Nazi occupation of WWII.

One man's film noir is another man's detective story, or police procedural, or gangster film. It's a highly subjective categorization that the author admits will find discourse among readers. It is my opinion that Thelma and Louise (1991) does not belong here, while David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006), should have been included. You may disagree or feel validated by several of the author's inclusions.

The listings include production credits, national origin, year of release, and cast. Several obscure foreign film noir are among them. The sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy plot synopsis are often wordy and strictly subjective. I wish the author had omitted his critical analysis of the films in favor of their relation to the genre of noir. The premise of the hard-boiled, white-knuckled paranoid crime thriller D.O.A. (1950), a classic black & white film noir, about a man hunting the killer who gave him a fatal dose of poison, is described as enchanting. It is not. It is mean and raw.

Still, the book is a welcome addition to any film buff's library. It's communicative to the point that you may yell out loud in disagreement. It includes glossy publicity photos of selected films, and selected filmographies of directors, actors and authors.

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