The Film Noir Encylopedia
Reviewed by Del Harvey
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Film noir is one of those genres which scholars, critics, and film lovers just love. They enjoy writing and debating about it almost as much as they enjoy watching it. There have been endless debates as to what the term means, which film fits into the genre, and when the true era of film noir began and whether it has ever really ended. This most enticing and dramatic of movie genres is the subject of the fourth edition of “Film Noir: The Encyclopedia” from Overlook Press. This issue has been revised, updated and redesigned, and will provide lovers of the genre with even more ammunition in the ongoing debate over the cinematic world filled with shadowy characters and femme fatales.
The book is a concise compendium of films noir, actors and directors and filmmakers who helped create this unique and beloved genre. There is a passage in the introduction which sums up the genre rather succinctly: “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.”
It is apropos that so many films noir exist within an aura of mystery and ambiguity. These are considered defining traits of the genre, as well as a rare cultural phenomena that is so self-apparent it nearly defies classification. Sadly, that debate will continue among film scholars who cannot seem to agree upon any precise definition of what film noir is, although its canon is universally agreed-upon.
The world of film noir is a world of darkness, ambiguity, and moral corruption. In this world you shall meet the cynical and obsessive heroes of film noir, portrayed by actors like Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, James Cageny, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis. You may encounter a gun-toting gangster, a femme fatale wrapped in fur, a detective with the brim of his hat turned down, or a desperate murderer lurking in the shadows of a doorway. Its a world we all knowthe seedy underbelly of the American Dream, and every bit as much a part of our culture.
This wonderfully exhaustive text tallying more than three hundred thousand words with hundreds of film stills and photos new to the work distills everything about the genre into one volume from movies to stars to themes and motifs, and brings us up to date with contemporary contributions to the genre. This is the final word on a dark subject.
About the authors
Elizabeth Ward has co-written and co-edited three books with Alain Silver, including Overlook Press’ Raymond Chander’s Los Angles, a collection of Chandler’s prose illustrated with photographs by Ward and Silver. She is a freelance writer/photographer living in California’s High Sierras.
James Ursini has co-written and co-edited eleven books with Alain Silver. He lectures on filmmaking at UCLA.
Robert Porfirio has written in publications including Continuum and Sight and Sound. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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