Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: R. Barton Palmer’s “Hollywood’s Dark Cinema”

R. Barton Palmer is a medievalist who turned film historian in his 1994 book Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. (Further establishing his bona fides and proving that he’d done his homework, Palmer released Perspectives on Film Noir in 1996. This was a reader containing snippets from seminal books and articles on film noir.)

With the exception of an initial discussion on film genres, series, and cycles, Palmer goes into the same territory that so many other writers on noir have since trod: the discursive construction labeling film noir as a phenomenon that was not unified when it appeared. The mid-1940s emergence and subsequent development in France of the term is discussed, followed by some Anglo-American criticism. Palmer focuses here largely on whether critics took an auteurist or sociological view on the films, that is, whether they saw the film’s director or its historical moment as more important in its interpretation. Having gone through this literature and convincingly shown that the construction of noir has been the product of “an ex post facto desire to view American cinema from a certain perspective” (27), Palmer settles instead in the idea – which I share when it comes to comics analysis – that the films must be analyzed in the context of their original production and reception.

One central aspect of this is to roll back the anachronism of treating film noir as a genre of its own, and rather treating the films that have been thus labeled as belonging to established genres – crime melodrama, detective cinema, thriller, and women’s pictures – and seeing how they were infused with common conventions and themes. However, although the analytical chapters provide insightful close readings of some seminal films and how they relate to the established genres to which they belong and from which they diverge, the contextualization that the introduction seems to promise is largely absent, traded for occasionally over-detailed descriptions of the films’ plots. Thus, while suburban life and domesticity are figured as central concepts in the chapter on melodramatic noir, for instance, the postwar embrace of these facets of American life and how they might have influenced the differences between the movies discussed is nowhere to be found. This is a shame, because the book is at its best when Palmer lets his historian self out.

Like several of the other books reviewed in this spate of noir-related material, Palmer’s offers a clear explanation for why Marvel Noir fails in a significant way to live up to its promise to have the Marvel Universe meet film noir:

[F]ilms are positioned for viewing and appreciation by cultural forces beyond either the producer’s or spectator’s control. These forces make texts available in certain historically determinate forms; in other words, these forms can and often do change according to time and place. Thus viewers of what appears to be the same film in two different cultures do not–cannot, in fact–see the same film (28).

Although Palmer’s own book sometimes falls into the same trap due to the lack of historical contextualization, it is certainly an ok introduction to the field. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema would not by my first tip to anyone who wants an introduction to film noir, it is worth reading for some of its insights and to help clarify how long scholarship on noir has come since.

 

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