Film noir is the kind of genre that grabs you by throat and doesn’t let go. It can be mean and fierce (Ace in the Hole). It can have startling commentary on gender politics and malignant desire (The Little Foxes). More recent films with significant traces of noir include Prisoners and Stoker. At its best, noir delves deep into the dark underbelly of humanity with insight, beautiful cinematography and startling creativity. Noir is a somewhat murkily defined genre despite its beloved nature and wide range of influence. I believe there is a black beating heart at the core of every noir but even in the beginning of the genre in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood films that would later be defined as noir did not always share theme, structure or approach. But they all had a sharp sense of style. If any genre deserves intensive study because of it is wide range of influence and narrative scope it is noir. Which makes it heartening to find a well-constructed encyclopedia.
A Comprehensive Encyclopedia on Film Noir by John Grant is an impressive resource for noir fans new and old. While Grant rightly includes the classic film noirs of Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s, he shines a light on neo-noirs and thrillers indebted to the genre in the modern day. The encyclopedia also has an international flair boasting overviews of films from every continent except for Antarctica.
The encyclopedia, running over 500 pages, makes a great reference for those seeking more knowledge of noir or long time lovers seeking out films they may not have come across before. The book has a clean structure including an introduction, a “how to use to use this book” section, and abbreviations (more useful for those not as well-versed in film noir). The introduction while short does give a good overview of the genre and the contentions surrounding the classification of noir. Furthermore, it also gets you quickly acquainted to Grant’s own opinions and style of writing. The heart of the book is the alphabetical listing of films.
The A-Z listing of noirs gives information on the film’s country of origin, year of release, director, writer(s), cinematographer and cast. There is a synopsis for each film sometimes as short a logline a screenwriter might pitch while others are given a few paragraphs. It is easy to see which films interest Grant the most as a point of study. While some may want more description for certain films, the variation in synopsis length is understandable since with a book of this size and scope that there will be a decent amount of forgettable films listed. Grant doesn’t spoil endings but does give a good amount of information for certain films that novices may not want to be privy to. For example in his listing for the amazing 1940 William Wyler film The Letter starring Bette Davis, Grant does give a far more in-depth synopsis that spoils the film into the very last act while leaving out the full resolution. So I would recommend for those not incredibly well-versed in noir to keep that in mind when reading the longer, more detailed synopses.
The book concludes with a useful appendix of selective filmographies separated in the following categories: directors, actors and authors. The author appendix is an especially delightful section considering the wealth of noirs based on novels and how amazing a lot of these novels are.
John Grant’s Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir is a highly recommended point of reference for hardcore noir aficionados and those interested in learning more about the genre. The straightforward writing and design makes it easy to sort through and Grant’s writing makes it a breeze to read.