If You Take Film Noir Seriously, You’ll Want ‘Film Noir: The Directors’

Alain Silver and James Ursini are well-known to fans of film noir not only as authors (their books include The Noir Style, L.A. Noir, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, and the four Film Noir Readers), but also as commentators on what must now be dozens of films, both classic and obscure. Their latest contribution is an edited collection of essays, Film Noir: The Directors, and if you take film noir seriously, this is a collection you will want to read.

Twenty-eight directors are included, and they range from the obvious (Jules Dassin, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger) to the obscure (I’m sure I’ll have to give back my noirfan membership card now, but I was unfamiliar with the work of either John Brahm or Gerd Oswald until I read this book). The authors of these essays have a variety of backgrounds—academics predominate, but there are also journalists, screenwriters and directors, and full-time authors in the mix.

The meat of each essay is an analysis of the director’s film noir films, featuring a blend of close analysis and consideration the director’s entire body of work whole; in addition, each essay includes a brief bio, film noir filmography for the director, and numerous photos. Reading them, you’re almost sure to learn something you didn’t know, and you’ll come to look at the films you know quite well, quite differently.

Take Ursini’s essay on John Brahm, a director whose name was unfamiliar to me. Brahm was born in Germany and had a career as a stage actor and director before getting into the film business; he directed only one film in his native land, a remake of Broken Blossoms, before fleeing to England and then America as the Nazis came to power. Brahm had the good fortune to arrive when business was booming in Hollywood, and quickly found work at both Columbia and 20th Century Fox, turning out a variety of films in different genres before transitioning into television, where he directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone, among others.

Brahm directed seven films that Ursini classifies as noir: The Lodger (1944), Guest in the House (1944), Hanover Square (1945), The Locket (1946), The Brasher Doubloon (1947), Singapore (1947), and Siren of Atlantis (1949). That pace suggests that Brahm was an exemplar of the type of director who flourished in film noir, getting it done however one could. As Silver writes in the introduction to this volume, “More for Less” could be the motto for film noir—although some excellent films were produced with big stars and on a generous budget, far more were created on a shoestring, with cast and crews creating something out of almost nothing, rather like the characters featured in classic noir stories.

Ursini finds a thematic commonality in Brahm’s films: a fascination with female power, including, of course, the femme fatale. Take Anne Baxter’s Evelyn in Guest in the House, a sort of precursor to perhaps her greatest role, Eve Harrington in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 All About Eve. Evelyn appears first as a patient in need of assistance, is invited into her physician’s home, and proceeds to manipulate everyone in the household in a ploy to take the wife’s place (“Liebestraum” even figures in the story, as it does in All About Eve). Evelyn gets hers in the end (Hollywood was firmly ruled by the Motion Picture Production Code at the time), but Baxter’s performance certainly sounds like something worth seeing, to say nothing of the thematic similarities of Guest in the House with one of the greatest of all Hollywood Golden Age films. This exemplifies the first great gift of Film Noir: The Directors: helping you discover films and artists you didn’t even know existed.

The second great gift is prompting you to take a new look at films and directors you already know well. For example, consider Geoff Fordham’s essay on Alfred Hitchcock. Fordham is a brave man for trying to define which (if any) of Hitchcock’s films qualify as noir; he comes up with 14 he believes qualify, from Rebecca (1940) to Psycho (1960). Not sure I’d agree with all his picks, but Fordham’s reasoning is worth a hearing. He argues that Hitchcock’s distinctive style of filmmaking included many elements that overlap with the film noir style (chiaroscuro lighting, subjective camera work, voiceover, flashback), as did his thematic obsessions (blurred boundaries between good and evil, loss of identity, similarities among apparent opposites). Even if you believe (as do I) that films like Rebecca are not exactly noir, you may still agree that, as Fordham argues, they certainly have “powerful noir undercurrents.”

Film Noir: The Directors is a large-format (7.5″ by 9.5″) volume with over 300 photographs. It’s a great book for browsing, because wherever you dip into it, there’s bound to be something interesting to read and something interesting to look at. It’s less useful as a reference book, as there is no index or master list of films included; the essays are arranged alphabetically, and you have to look at each one to see which films of a particular director are discussed within each essay.

RATING 7 / 10