Thursday, May 3, 2012

British Film Noir Guide - Book Report

By Monica Sullivan

“Film Noir.”  The words, meaning “black pictures”, come from French movie critics, enraptured by low budget black and white American productions of the 1940’s and 1950’s.  In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, film noir festivals became brisk money makers for archives, repertory theatres, video and DVD distributors plus countless late night broadcasters and cable programmers.

Unsurprisingly other copyright holders of vintage European titles wanted to get in on this profitable phenomenon.  Michael Keaney’s “British Film Noir Guide” from McFarland Publishers provides noir buffs with an illustrated guide to noir efforts across the pond. 

One of Keaney’s favorites (and mine) is “Black Narcissus” which shows the struggle of 5 nuns to keep their faith in Calcutta.  The film is not a pro or con argument about nuns.  It shows how women cope with their emotions in a different environment with a very different climate.  The leader of the group, (Deborah Kerr as Clodagh) is swept away by her romantic memories of lost love (lost in the sense that she loved him and he didn’t love her back).  Another nun (Flora Robson) is supposed to supply the convent with vegetables from the garden but, dreamily she plants flowers instead.  An unbalanced young nun (played to the hilt by Kathleen Byron) imagines herself in love with Mr. Dean (David Farrar) as a local man sent to help the group.  She also engages in a deadly power struggle with Clodagh, whose youth and inexperience leave her unprepared to cope with the violent undercurrents of insanity.  Why does “Black Narcissus” qualify as film noir?  Mainly because it gets to the heart of the noir universe, with nary a gunfight nor fisticuffs in sight.  A noir atmosphere is more about feelings and perceptions than it is about direct action and uncluttered decisions. 

“No Orchids For Miss Blandish” is a 1948 film heavily influenced by U.S. gangster lore.  Its star, Jack La Rue as Slim Grisson, had a long career in Hollywood and is perfect as a bad guy to whom a rich English Rose (Linden Travers as Miss Blandish) is irresistibly drawn.  English critics detested the picture, but American audiences liked it and Robert Aldrich remade it in 1971 as “The Grissom Gang.”

Michael Keaney likes the movies he likes and lets the other ones go, sometimes with just one sentence.  His dislikes are described in such a cursory fashion that I wondered why he bothered to include them at all.  1959’s “Beat Girl” is a subversive little film which women seem to appreciate more than men.  Keaney complains about the score (by John Barry, no less, clearly revving up his gears for the James Bond scores to come) and gives the rest of “Beat Girl” short shrift in a few disparaging sentences.

Still, the main aspect of a book like the “British Film Noir Guide” is that it supplies the reader with an overview of movies they might otherwise not even notice.    “Dual Alibi” with the great Herbert Lom playing two parts, “The Fallen Idol” revealing adultery through the eyes of a lonely little boy and “Frieda” which shows life in a British village through the eyes of a German war bride who is driven to despair by the prejudice and bitterness of her neighbors, are some of the titles receiving examination.  There are 369 entries, a useful start for any noir buffs.  For more information, check out mcfarlandpub.com. 

© 2012 -Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 02/12/12
Movie Magazine International

6 comments:

  1. The words, meaning “black pictures”

    In fact, the term "film noir" derived from Serie Noire, the name of a French series of reprints of hardboiled/pulp novels, which had black (noir) covers.

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    1. "Black picture" is the literal meaning of film noir. The terms "film noir" or "screwball comedies" or "kitchen sink dramas", etc. are after-the fact descriptions by writers trying to make sense of the genres. The many US noir films prior to 1945 were not seen in France until after the war, ditto the pulp noir magazines originating in America. The French movies and pulps had their own counterparts but the classification "film noir" came long afterwards. Thank you for writing.

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    2. "Black picture" is the literal meaning of film noir.

      Actually, it really means "black film", but the literal meaning of the two words isn't terribly helpful (and more than the literal meanings of "slap" and "stick" when describing comedy). The term was actually coined by a pair of French critics in (if memory serves) the mid-1950s by extension from the name of the book series, Serie Noire.

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  2. Michael Keaney likes the movies he likes and lets the other ones go, sometimes with just one sentence. His dislikes are described in such a cursory fashion that I wondered why he bothered to include them at all.

    Those aren't his dislikes: they're the (relatively few) movies he wasn't able to watch.

    I'm actually reading this book at the moment -- hence my discovery of this review.

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    1. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Keaney wrote the "British Film Noir Guide." Still, if you're going to include titles that are available (I have seen them) but unseen by the author, perhaps secondary sources can be consulted (contemporary reviews or a brief interview with someone who saw the movie when it first came out, or cast and crew members who worked on it.) A guide can be an invaluable sourve to bring films to life again for 21st century viewers. Thank you for writing.

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    2. perhaps secondary sources can be consulted

      I would have thought so too, but that's not the policy he adopted. Of course, secondary sources in cinema studies are extraordinarily unreliable, even down to plot outlines, so he may have felt that in all conscience he didn't feel easy about discussing anything he hadn't seen for himself.

      My major criticism of the book (apart from its errors) is that Keaney chucked in all sorts of stuff that I don't think by any stretch of the imagination can be called film noir. (There are also quite a few movies whose absence seems curious, but that's less a criticism than an observation.)

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