Friday, January 31, 2014

John Grant's massive encyclopedia of film noir

One of my Christmas presents was this huge film noir encyclopedia by film historian John Grant. I asked for it on purpose, because I had a hunch I'd enjoy the book.

And I most certainly did. Grant's book commands respect. He covers 3,500 films, both classic films noirs of the Golden Age of Hollywood and later neo-noirs of the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's. He also includes lots of forgotten gems no one's ever heard of and has a feel for the Asian films as well. Grant knows his stuff and writes well. He has also nice things to say about some underrated films.

There are some problems with the book, though. The main thing for any reader is that it doesn't have a proper index. Some actors and directors are indexed, but it's a frustrating collection of only the most famous names. The point of this kind of book is the info on less-known films and directors, although Grant gives nice mini-essays also on well-known films, such as Citizen Kane. The info on the films is at times a bit thin, sometimes Grant provides only a short synopsis. And I happen to have a habit of skipping synopses and going straight to the review or the analysis part.

Grant also includes films I have a hard time to accept as noirs, mainly from the eighties and nineties, such as Ridley Scott's Black Rain, Gregory Hoblit's Primal Fear and Alan J. Pakula's Presumed Innocent. Are these noirs?

It's of course possible to say that it's better to give too much information than too little of it. Grant also includes films that are only fringe noirs, such as British suspense fillers from the fourties. It's unlikely they are full of sound and fury and despair that describes some of their Hollywood counterparts. But it seems Grant allows for many kind of definitions of film noir, even contradictory. He discusses these definitions in the foreword, giving out examples and thematic similarities, but still seems like his definition is too wide. I'm not really complaining, mind you, it's interesting to read also about those films.

I could find some films that Grant hasn't mentioned. What about Stark Fear from 1963? Radio On from 1979? I also checked - rather painstakingly because of the absent index - all the films based on the books and screenplays by Jean-Patrick Manchette. There's only one mentioned!

There are also some glaring omissions of foreign films noirs. It's understandable of course, when there's only scarce or no information on them easily available. Then again there are lots of non-Hollywood films Grant mentions I've never heard of (and likely will never see) from, say, Spain or Greece. Grant mentions some Finnish films as well, but he has only some three films by Aki Kaurismäki and one (half-Estonian) by Ilkka Järvi-Laturi. All of them are neonoirs from the eighties and nineties, while there were lots of studio-era films noirs made in Finland. Here are some of the classic Finnish films noirs for you:

Teuvo Tulio: Rikollinen nainen (The Criminal Woman); Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit (The Way You Wanted Me); Rakkauden risti (The Cross of Love) (all sleazy melodramas)
T. J. Särkkä: Kuu on vaarallinen (The Moon is Dangerous,  pure James M. Cainish stuff about a wild woman charming an older guy)
Roland af Hällström: Pohjoisen pikajuna (The Express Train to North, suspense in a train)
Edvin Laine: Musta rakkaus (Black Love - hey, even the title is purest noir!)
Matti Kassila: Varsovan laulu (The Warszaw Song; about smuggling); Tulipunainen kyyhkynen (The Crimson Dove, psychological suspense)
Veikko Itkonen: Silmät hämärässä (The Eyes in the Mist, one of the purest films noirs in Finnish cinema)
Aarne Tarkas: Olemme kaikki syyllisiä (We're All Guilty, what could be more noir than that?); Hän varasti elämän (He Stole a Life, marvelous Psycho pastiche, made already in the early sixties, absurd and darkly funny)

There are lots of others, but these came off top of my head. There are also many humorous crime films that because of the time they were done and the black-and-white photography are mentioned as films noirs, but I'm not sure whether they qualify. Some of the films mentioned above will be screened at the Festival of Finnish Cinema later in the coming spring, I'll write more about them then (as I did last year about Finnish westerns, see here and here).

As Grant also has lots of neonoirs in the book, here's also a list of Finnish neonoirs:

Pauli Pentti: Pimeys odottaa (The Darkness Waits); Macbeth (b&w rendering of the Shakespeare play)
Pekka Hyytiäinen: MP - minä pelkään (IA – I'm Afraid, uneasy but very hypnotic mixture of experimental dystopian film and some very personal horror; Hyytiäinen's other indie-produced films might also qualify, but they are very hard to come by)
Veikko Aaltonen: Tuhlaajapoika (A Prodigal Son, sleazy scumbag noir with S&M undertones); Rakkaudella, Maire (With Love, Maire, very stylish piece of Hitchcockian noir)
Petri Kotwica: Musta jää (Black Ice, family noir)
Ville Mäkelä: Lain ulkopuolella (Outside the Law, a vigilante film)
Taavi Kassila: Petos (Betrayal, a nice piece of epoque noir)
Mika Kaurismäki: Condition Red (Aki's brother's film filmed somewhere in Texas)
Visa Mäkinen: Yön saalistajat (The Predators of the Night,
sleazy hardboiled crime film from the only proper exploitation director-producer of the Finnish film history)

(Too many links to provide here, sorry - Google them or check them at IMDb!)

All in all, John Grant's book comes highly, highly recommended by me.


Walker Martin said...

I buy just about every book on film noir as they are published, so I obtained this one right away. The main problem of course is that Grant cast his net too wide and includes many crime films that are simply not film noir. His book covers well over 3,000 movies but many of them are crime dramas, not film noir.

In spite of all the above, I still recommend the book.

jurinummelin said...

My thoughts exactly, Walker.

RJR said...

Thanks. I just bought FIM NOIRTHE DIRECTORS and FILM NOIR READER. You saved me money on this one.