(The Overlook Press, 464 pages, $45)
Edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini and Robert Porfirio
Thank heaven for the ecumenical definition of film noir used by the editors the fourth and fattest edition of The Film Noir Encyclopedia. The compendium is venerable—30 years and counting—but the overall acuity of the opinions expressed are still very much alive.
Weighing in at a lapstraining 500 pages, the volume is divided into two major sections—noir and neo-noir. Lavishly illustrated with judiciously selected stills, the Encyclopedia accepts the notion that film noir isn’t simply a genre of the 1940s and ’50s, of male apprehensions about women, of postwar economic malaise and idiosyncratic lighting techniques, or a style with an umbilical cord tied to the aesthetics of 1920s German expressionism. No, the writers and compilers take heed of David Thomson’s edict that noir is “not a genre,” and see it more as a mood and a tone—one of fatalism, pessimism and, often enough, paranoia. It also features a set of visual and narrative attributes that can be found across many genres, from Westerns (Pursued) to sci-fi (Gattaca), and throughout postwar movie history, particularly in such classics (often filmed in blazing sunshine, but emotionally noir nonetheless) as Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Night Moves, All the President’s Men, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Collateral and No Country for Old Men.
One may not always agree with such a wide-ranging definition. For example, is the giant-ants potboiler Them! strictly speaking a noir movie? And what about I Was a Communist for the FBI? But these rare quibbles tend to validate the vast majority of the entries, and the Encyclopedia as a whole repeatedly surprises and entertains by reminding us that noir is so prevalent and applicable to multiple approaches that it may be the key genre not just of old times, but current times as well.