Review by C.J. Bunce
Last month I reviewed TCM’s Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, the eighth volume reviewed here at borg in the TCM library. TCM is busy with new releases this year, and its look at film noir takes a different approach. Written by Noir Alley host Eddie Muller, The Art of Noir author and proclaimed Czar of Noir, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (available now in bookstores and at Amazon here) is actually an update of his 1998 look at film noir of the same name. It’s an essential look at the genre for both novices and diehard fans, providing just enough about the key films to entice readers to add several movies to their DVR, and giving long-time noir audiences new ways to think about some classic films. Whenever I hear someone referred to as an expert in genre, I make notes. Here I made a list of what those essential and important obscure noir films should make any book on film noir. Muller includes discussions of all of them except one, from Laura and Shadow of a Doubt to DOA, from Sorry, Wrong Number, Sunset Boulevard, and Call Northside 777, to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Chinatown. So the book by all counts is the real deal and worthy of its accolades for both its original and new edition. Unlike some of the other TCM books I’ve reviewed here at borg, Dark City: The Lost World of Film is not only an annotated guide to a list of recommended movies. What film noir movies would you expect to find inside?
First the format: An author who tries to be cutesy with the design and layout of a book can sometimes miss the mark. Muller writes his non-fiction chronicle as if he’s the noir writer, talking you through a giant noir thriller from beginning to end, full of all the exaggerated lingo and style from the dark and strange edges of the genre. Here his approach actually works. The world he describes is Dark City, and each chapter captures a section of the city, highlighting the settings (from precincts to prison), tropes (from private eyes to heists), or character types (femme fatales to news reporters) found in much of film noir. He neatly ties in the defining actors (like Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Lizabeth Scott, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Robert Mitchum), screenwriters (like Roy Huggins, Mickey Spillane, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler), and directors (Muller even wisely captures Alfred Hitchcock) to tie everything into a linear narrative. It’s fun, and it’s the kind of book you will absolutely return to to reference later.
Muller leans into the bad sides of the genre as much as the best, not apologizing for the more questionable scenes of sex and violence across the decades in this collection of films. A few angles come up as cringeworthy, however, including his expose on actresses’ love lives throughout his tucked-in insert biographies of the genre’s stars. His intent seems to attempt to illustrate how noir in film can mirror the noir of real life, but it instead serves to tarnish the actresses (not the actors) behind the scenes instead of dwelling more on the skill in their craft in front of the camera.
I loved that he agreed that those 15 minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey arrives in the dark Pottersville fits the bill (see Gloria Grahame, above). The best fun is his pull-in of Hitchcock films as noir because others might struggle with all his choices. Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, and The Wrong Man are there, but Psycho and Vertigo make the cut, too. It’s Muller’s stance of taking the vantage of Janet Leigh’s thief in Psycho and Kim Novak’s manipulated Kansas girl in Vertigo to argue for noir status that makes me wonder why he didn’t include one of my favorites of the genre in a fuller discussion: The Best Years of Our Lives. Yes it’s a war movie, a popular drama, but in Muller’s fashion if you track the film from the vantage of Dana Andrews’ downtrodden war veteran, Virginia Mayo’s vixen wife, and Teresa Wright’s near-homewrecker, you have the building blocks of film noir. And Teresa Wright’s characters (including the innocent niece in Shadow of a Doubt) bring up an idea for an additional chapter for a future volume: the “good girls” of film noir, those powerful characters who are neither damsels nor scarlet, including characters like Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles of The Thin Man series. Note: The book stops for the most part at Chinatown and Psycho–you could easily capture a hundred more noir films since then that go beyond the bounds of Muller’s more historic cinema package of film. Noir continues today in major movies, but the biggest are futurist, tech noir thrillers.
Additional chapters, new design layout, and restored photographs round out the book. TCM’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film is an exciting addition to the TCM film library and should be an indispensable addition to the film history shelf of any film aficionado. TCM’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film is available in hardcover with black and white and color photographs, from publisher Running Press. Get your copy now here at Amazon. Keep an eye out at the TCM website for future airings of films from the book. And don’t forget to check out the other books in the TCM library reviewed here at borg, 52 Must-See Movies That Matter, 52 More Must-See Movies That Matter, Must-See Sci-Fi, Dynamic Dames, Forbidden Hollywood, Christmas in the Movies, Fright Favorites, and Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics.