Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. – book reviews
James M. Welsh
“Dark cinema” is a convenient and accurate way to Americanize the French term film noir. Jon Tuska used this phrase in the title of his book Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective (1984), and ten years later R. Barton Palmer uses it as his title, even though Tuska’s book is not cited in either the two-page “Selected Bibliography” or in the “Notes” for his book. Neither J.P. Telotte’s Voices in the Dark (1991) nor Paul Schrader’s ‘Notes on Film Noir’, described in the text as “a widely influential article written in 1971” and published the following year in Film Comment is listed in Palmer’s oddly ‘selected bibliography’ either, though both of these are cited in Palmer’s ‘Notes’.
Palmer’s book begins with a thirty-page chapter that attempts to place film noir in the context of Hollywood genres, even though Paul Schrader and some other critics have asserted that films noirs do not constitute a genre; but Palmer goes on to say that “Classic film noir is a transgeneric phenomenon, manifesting itself through (but also in opposition to) generic conventions” (p. 30). In that first chapter Palmer, a medievalist with credentials in French literature, is especially good in tracing the debate over films noirs by French critics, from Nino Frank, who first used the term in print in L’Ecran Francaise in 1946, to Jean Pierre Chartier in Revue du Cinema (1946) to Pierre Kast in Positif (1953), writers who saw film noir as an “alternative” avant-garde cinema that challenged “the normal social conservatism of the American entertainment movie”, using “first-person narration, and convoluted narratives to disorient the spectator” (p. 11).
Palmer also writes engagingly about crime melodrama in chapter 2 (‘Dark Love’), which examines some important adaptations of crime novels, notably Double Indemnity (1944), adapted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler from the James M. Cain novel, Murder, My Sweet (1944), directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted by John Paxton from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from the “notorious novel” by Mickey Spillane. Palmer compares the novel Kiss Me Deadly to the film adaptation, which “deepens the cynicism and pathology evident in the original” and notes changes in setting (Los Angeles in the film, New York in the novel) and characterization (Mike Hammer is transformed into a West Coast “hustler looking for a big score”). In adapting Double Indemnity, Wilder and Chandler discarded “the grim and downbeat tone of the book”, making the villainy of the sexually obssesive lovers less banal.
Most of the films treated here are not notable adaptations, however, and some, such as The Pitfall (1948), Cause for Alarm (1951), and Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946) go beyond the titles usually covered in such books. Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is also included, though one might argue it comes rather late and is not technically a noir effort. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Strangers on a Train (1951) would be more likely candidates.
Among the warhorses treated are DOA (1950) and the oddly overrated low-budget (so-called) “classic” Detour (1945), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in six days from a screenplay that appears to have been written by Martin Goldsmith in fewer than six days; the plot is not only disorienting, but bizarre. For the first half of this film the protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles, philosophizing behind the dashboard of a convertible with a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who has picked him up,$and then dies of natural causes. Roberts dumps the body and takes Haskell’s car and identity. Palmer admires the film but gets some of the details wrong. Before picking up Roberts, for example, Haskell had picked up an “uncooperative” female who had left “claw-marks on his face” after unwanted sexual advances, Palmer claims, wrongly. In fact, there were three deep scratches on Haskell’s right hand. Haskell lets Roberts drive while he sleeps on the rider’s side, and apparently dies in his sleep. Since the car is a convertible, when it starts to rain, Roberts pulls over to put up the top and discovers that the owner is dead. He opens the door on the rider’s side, and the body falls out. Palmer claims that when Haskell falls, he strikes his head on the concrete, and that is what kills him. Palmer seems to follow Robert Ottoson’s account in A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir (1981), though Ottoson claims that Haskell “falls out, hits his head on a rock, and is killed”. Since this film is not readily available on video, one needs to see the Kit Parker 16 mm print to check such details. But otherwise Palmer gives an accurate account and makes an interesting cultural speculation about the way Roberts appropriates the American Dream by making off with Haskell’s expensive automobile, clothes, and money, all symbols of success.
Palmer’s later chapters treat ‘The Noir Detective Film’, ‘The Noir Thriller’, and ‘The Noir Woman’s Picture’. A concluding chapter discusses three “neo-noir films of the post-studio era’, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), which the author finds “most interesting”. The book incorporates some of the usual buzzwords but is not crippled into incoherence by Screenspeak. It will be comprehensible for general readers, though only a specialist would be interested in the cult pleasures of Detour.
JAMES M. WELSH, Salisbury State University
COPYRIGHT 1995 Carfax Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group