Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
James Naremore is a film and communications scholar. His 1998 book More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts is, as far as I have been able to gather, a classic in the field. It’s east to understand why. Like Bould, Naremore problematizes the definition of noir, going so far as to suggest that it did not “become a true Hollywood genre until the Vietnam years” (37). Unsurprisingly, then, he writes at length about the invention of the film noir concept in France in 1946 and then moves on to the subsequent proliferation of noir-like cinema. From there he goes into other areas of cultural production, noting that “[o]bvisouly, a concept that was generated ex post facto [film noir] has become part of a worldwide mass memory; a dream image of bygone glamour, it represses as much history as it recalls, usually in the service of cinephilia [passionate interest in cinema, film theory, and film criticism] and commodification” (p. 39). The rest of the book goes on to elucidate how this cultural status of film noir could be won.
Tracking one of the most important constitutive parts of noir‘s prehistory in modernism, Naremore’s first chapter deals at length with the hard-boiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and its Hollywood adaptations; the fiction and films of Graham Greene that modernized British crime and spy fiction; and, finally, Double Indemnity (1944), Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s novella of the same name and one of the paradigmatic classic films noirs. Following that discussion is a just as enlightening and amusing one (if not more so), treating censorship, the creative ways sexuality was treated, how violence grew in postwar cinema, and how much noir was at first – before the postwar Red Scare – leftist or at least aligned with the more radical elements of the New Deal. Naremore then treats two movies that were subject to censorship for their (to the Breen Office) “objectionable” subject matter – Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Crossfire (1947) – and how both films nonetheless managed to make socially critical points. The rest of the chapter is devoted to “Red Hollywood” after the HUAC and the blacklist.
Next, Naremore turns his attention to the complex relationships between economics, reception, and cultural prestige. Interestingly, the “creation” of noir as a popular phenomenon in America in the late 1960s and 1970s hailed many big-budget films noirs as “B” movies, which gave them a certain allure in underground cinephile circuits. This leads to discussions about the fluidity of “A” and “B” designations, the mix of “high” and “low” sensibilities, and the then-booming Direct-to-Video market (yes, we’re talking VCR, but don’t laugh – it was a huge market when Naremore was writing).
The next chapter complicates the image of noir as being easy to stylistically determine, focusing on how the original cycle was heterogeneous. The penultimate chapter glosses gender representation in noir (claiming, rightly, that it has been covered else where – particularly in the anthology Women in Film Noir, which I’ll write about soon) before moving on to a survey treatment of Asians, Latinos, and African Americans in classic noir as well as giving a few examples of recent non-American and Asian American, Latino, and African American noir cinema.
The final chapter treats the “noir mediascape,” a pop culture world where elements of noir and self-conscious or referential nostalgia proliferates in comic books and superhero movies, cable-TV noir, a noir tourism industry, and more. It also treats the many ways in which noir elements have been used, recycled, and referenced in recent years. In this chapter, the one thing that really bothers me about the book begins to really take away from the reading: like Hart‘s book, Naremore has a tendency to interject subjective taste judgments that add nothing to the argument and don’t belong in a book like his.
Nonetheless, More than Night was – all-in-all – a page-turner. What emerges from the book is a highly problematized picture of a phenomenon (or series of phenomena) that many of us easily take for granted or as simple and easily knowable. Instead, Naremore gives us something that is remarkably flexible and possesses a strong mythic force, and shows how a number of films made in the 1940s and 1950s could have such cultural influence and staying-power. And he does so while providing a wealth of well-written descriptions and several anecdotes that are both germane and fascinating. It is similar to Bould’s book in many ways, although more detailed and a little bit more dated at the same time. If you’d like to get a good, multi-faceted picture of film noir‘s history and its construction through ideology, nostalgia, parody, and pastiche, this is definitely the book for you.