Saturday, August 21, 2010

Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, edited by Silver, Ward, Ursini, Porfirio

Of course, I have, in the past, ruthlessly exploited earlier editions of this book. Want a plot for a film you’ve never seen or dimly remember? Look it up in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. Want a critique of a film that you can't quite articulate or recall? To jog your memory and critical faculties just check out what one of the critics in the Encyclopedia has to say on the subject. On the other hand, I have rarely used the Encyclopedia to look up post-1960s films. The reason is simple: I’m one of those purists who think that, other than the rare exception (e.g., Friends of Eddie Coyle, Chinatown) film noir does not really exist after the 1960s other than in a bastardized form, whether as pastiche or nostalgia. Part of the weakness of the present edition recently published by Overlook Press (Duckworth) is its concentration on “neo-noir” films. Though I can see the reasoning for this. After all, it increases the book's appeal, accessibility and saleability. I also have issues with the printing job which, to me, isn't quite up to the standard set by previous editions. On the other hand, there are more visuals here- posters, stills, etc., even if they are not as well presented as before. But what the hell, we’re living through the sequel to the Great Depression, so I guess one shouldn't be too choosy. But on closer examination, where are those great indexes the previous volumes contained, to which I referred to so often. In the present volume, there is just a general index, a chronology and another based on studios. But what about the ones in the previous editions based on writers, directors, producers, actors and cinematographers that proved so useful to a historian-manque like myself? Though there are definitely more films covered. And more contributors. Unfortunately, as good as some of them might be, that tends to make this fifth edition more dispersed, and turns Silver, Ward, Ursini and Porfirio into editors of an anthology than authors of an encyclopedia. Previous volumes also had other writers than the editors, but it also seemed to contain the personal stamp of the editors when it came to the various critiques. And though I can't prove it- my older, tattered copy is presently some five hundred miles away- it seems that some of the films that appeared in previous edition have been re-reviewed by other critics. Though why, it’s impossible to say. Still, these are minor and perhaps subjective gripes. One does get value for money here, and there are also some interesting insertions- though again I’m not sure why- on subjects like the Fatal Man and significant shots in Where Danger Live. Whatever it’s faults, this remains, as one would expect, an extremely useful book, yet to be equalled. And I for one will undoubtedly be dipping into it time and time again.


pattinase (abbott) said...

The lack of those indexes is a shame because that is the greatest strength of this sort of book, having multiple ways to rundown something. Otherwise google is better.

Woody Haut said...

You might be right. But the plot summaries and critiques are still worth reading, and, for the most part, as good as anything you'll find on Google. But I would have cut down on the neo-noir films and kept the indexes.