I recently finished reading Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film in which he details how obsessively watching films- from obscure black and white films to modern blockbusters- at his local theater (and other locations when necessary) became a refuge for him during the uncertain early years of his stand-up and acting career in Los Angeles. Oswalt’s mania for films derailed relationships, distorted his professional judgment, and made him question his goals and motivations as a performer. If you are a fan of his work- and I am a HUGE fan of his work- you probably know that it all worked out for the best for him professionally since the second half of the 1990s (the period chronicled in the book). Unfortunately, you also probably know that the last year has been one of personal hell for him, with his beloved wife dying unexpectedly and leaving him to raise his young daughter on his own.
A large part of Silver Screen Fiend is, in my opinion, meant to serve as a cautionary tale about how easily obsession and obsessive behavior (e.g. if Oswalt missed the beginning of a film it didn’t “count” and he had to watch it again, from the beginning) can get a stranglehold on you, especially if the obsession is being used, again, in my opinion, to avoid making difficult decisions, confronting uncertainty, etc.. Thus as Oswalt was detailing his obsession with both poignancy and humor I imagined that the expected and appropriate reaction I was supposed to have as a reader was, “Wow, get a load of this crazy guy!” While I could see all of the negative consequences that accompanied his obsession with film, I couldn’t bring myself to have that “appropriate” reaction to his behavior, and here is why: I get it. And here is why I get it…
In the Spring of 2003 as I was entering the closing stages of graduate school I had to choose a class to take outside of my “concentration” and “supporting concentration.” Let me digress for a moment: I went to graduate school at a very progressive university. If you made up a list of “ultra-liberal, East Coast, private universities” it would be near the top. I mention that because while other graduate schools want their students to continue to narrow their academic focus (the logic being that the next degree is a doctorate and that requires intense specialization), my program took a different approach. Specifically, you picked a concentration- in my case that meant European history since 1789 (or so)- and a “supporting” concentration from another discipline- in my case that was “English,” which really meant European literature from roughly the same period. The idea being that your understanding of your concentration would be enhanced by your supporting concentration. Oh, and just for fun, you had to take one course outside of both your concentration and supporting concentration. End digression.
The course I chose was “The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir.” I chose this course because it interested me- I liked “old films”- and because the unversity was and is well-known for the strength of its film program, its film holdings, and the success of its graduates in the industry. I was not disappointed. The course covered everything from the historical context in which the films were made, the financial constraints under which many were made, how certain actors and directors came to make their “homes” in film noir, the literary source material for many of the films, the stylistic characteristics of the genre, and if it was even a “genre” at all- don’t get me started! That’s just a sampling of what was covered, but the real meat and potatoes of the course was, of course, the films. The films were dark, raw, rebellious, challenging, literate (it’s odd that in a genre known primarily for its “look,” some of these films can simply be listened to without losing too much- the dialogue is that good), and contrarian. They could also be formulaic, poorly acted, lacking in any discernable plot (if it looked good, who needs one!), poorly (or oddly) lit, overreaching, and underachieving. In the end, and to return to the topic with which I began, I was left with two obsessions: the “hard-boiled” fiction of the first half of the 20th century (which currently causes my bookshelves to groan) and obsession with seeing as many examples of film noir as I possibly can.
Which brings us to Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, ed.), third edition. This book (of which there is now a fourth edition that, for reasons you will soon understand, I can’t bring myself to buy) was one of my “textbooks” for the course. This book contains entries for 301 films noir starting with “proto-noir” films from the late 1920s, continuing to the genre’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, and ends in the mid-1970s with a few “post-noir” and noir remakes. Each entry contains complete production and cast details, a synopsis of the film, and a critique of the film. These last two parts of the entry range for a single paragraph to several pages depending on the importance of the film.
I have spent the last 14 years trying to watch as many of these films as I can…and I am not done.
I will provide a complete list at the end of this piece, but suffice it to say that I have now seen 218 of the 301 films covered by Silver and Ward, or, approximately 72% of them. I also have in my possession eight more films from the list to watch. That will bring me to 225 of 301, or about 75% of the films on the list. There are probably another two dozen or so available for purchase on Amazon as well when I can put together the funds for them- some of them are a bit pricey! Given the amount of time of spent and that I’m only approaching the three-quarter mark you might wonder, among many other things, “What is taking so long!?” Well, the answer is relatively simple.*
*It’s worth noting before I move on that these are just the films noir made in the United States; there are very strong traditions in the genre in both France (Rififi, Le Samouri) and Japan and I have also spent hundreds of hours watching those films over the past decade and a half as well. I wouldn’t say I got “side-tracked” per se, but when you read that some of Akira Kurosawa’s (Stray Dog, High and Low) early films were films noir you don’t file that information away for later, you watch them…now! I may also have dipped a toe into the noir waters of Mexico and Italy on occasion…
Most of these films were made as “B” films by major studios (Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, etc.); that is, they were the “lesser” film in the double features that were so popular in the golden age of cinema. The general order was usually newsreel, cartoon, “B” feature (usually running only 60-80 mintues), and “A” feature. As such, “B” films were made quickly and cheaply; directors were given a budget and timeframe and left to their own devices. The lack of oversight involved could result in lazy, unimaginative, schlocky filmmaking, or it could lead to examples of creative genius. Below the major studios “B” films were also the stock and trade of the independent production companies and the “Poverty Row” production companies like Republic, Monogram, and Grand National, who might make films for as little as $5000, or even less.
For the major and mid-major (United Artists, Universal, Columbia) studios these “B” films were meant to be “filler.” As long as they made more than they cost studio executives were happy. For those making these films, that meant there was a lot of opportunity for creative freedom. For the independent and Poverty Row studios there was more at risk. These films were all they did; there were no biblical epics, or big-budget musicals to pay the bills. Their “B” films had to make money, but they also had to be as good as they could possibly be under the circumstances in order to encourage repeat business. Many of the major studios owned theater chains and your local Bijoux got what it got, for better or worse- the theater managers had no say in what films they showed. The independents had to be able to sell their films to “non-chain” theaters, and in order to do that, the product had to have something going for it artistically- or at least be entertaining- so that it would make money for the theater owner.
What does this have to do with how long it’s taking me to get through this list? These films were made for immediacy, not posterity, at least in the eyes of those running the major studios and film chains. The thought of preserving them for future generations was not on anyone’s mind at the time unless the a film happened to have been directed by a famous director (Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, Otto Premminger, etc.) or contained a big star (Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Edward G. Robinson, Ava Gardner, etc.). In some cases, even this was not enough and it took years- if not decades- for film historians to locate some of these masterpieces and at least as long for film preservationists to restore them. Even then, their “life” may not have been very long. Such is the limited audience interested in these films- or at least the less well known of them- that when they were released on VHS they were released in small numbers (more on that below) and without much fanfare- many never made it to DVD, much less modern streaming services. This is one reason I owned something you’ve probably never heard of for over a decade: a “Go-Video” dual-deck VCR that could make high-speed copies of VHS tapes that I was able to rent or borrow from various sources.
As “B” films, many films noir were not even reviewed, much less written about academically (or studied in universities by weirdos like me) at the time of their release. The study of films noir didn’t begin until 1955- when the period was almost over- and when it did begin it began in France when Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton compiled a list of films in the genre in 1955. The combination of all of these things- plus a liberal dose of negligence, accident, and ignorance- has made some of these films extremely hard to find outside of university film archives and personal collections- if they can be found at all. Let me give you one example.
One of the earliest films in the genre is a proto-noir called The Racket, produced in 1928 by none other than Howard Hughes and released by Paramount. This film- which is silent- was thought to be lost until a single copy was found in Hughes’ private collection after his death in 1976. The film was painstakingly restored at the University of Nevada- Las Vegas and then shown twice on Turner film Classics, once in 2004 and once in 2006. It has never been publicly released otherwise. This is a film with a big name producer, from a big studio, and that was nominated for an Academy Award in 1929, there was nothing obscure about it. If it had been released by an independent or Poverty Row studio I doubt we’d even know of its existence.
Given all of that, you might wonder, how have I been able to see so many of them?
First, there was the class itself. The professor, whose name I regret I do not remember, had spent decades cobbling together a collection of the harder to find examples of the genre. He showed some of them in class and put others on reserve in the library where we could watch them in a screening booth. Such was the rarity of some of these that as a student, you never actually touched the physical VHS tape! You went to the reserve desk, put in your request, were told what booth to go to, and in the booth you had a remote that controlled your viewing experience, but you didn’t actually have access to the VCR!
Second, American film Classics and Turner Classic films showed many of these films during their early years. They did this, perhaps, out of a respect for film history, but more likely because the rights to most of the films were cheap and some were even in the public domain. Since 2002, when AMC changed its format, they have been relegated- when they are infrequently shown- to the wee hours of the morning. TCM has been more true to its original purpose (probably because they own the early film libraries of several major studios), but it tends to stick to the more well-known examples of the genre. For example, you’ll probably have no trouble seeing The Maltese Falcon on TCM, but you’ll never see a film like Edgar Ulmer’s Strange Illusion.
Third, there was my bank account and the continuous outflow of cash from it to local brick and mortar stores and to Amazon. I was able to pick up some of these films on the cheap (and it showed in the viewing with many of them!) and others cost me, they cost me hard! I could probably look at my purchase history and then to a little math…but no, that would not be a good idea. If I had to guess, the final bill probably reached above four figures. As I mentioned above, the good news/bad news is that over the past year or so several dozen films not previously available have shown up on Amazon so I’ll probably have to start ordering them on a regular basis again.
Fourth, there was Pleasant Street Theater Video in Northampton, MA, an independent video store (associated with the independent theater next to it) that fought the good fight for a quarter century before closing its doors in June of 2012. I had access to it for the last seven of those years and I made the most of it. I rented all kinds of videos there, but it was the basement that was my dirty little secret. Hundreds upon hundreds of old, obscure, black and white films from silent films up to the 1960s and within those hundreds, dozens and dozens of films noir. I can still remember the feeling the first time I walked down the stairs and realized that I was looking at copies of films that I had come to believe I would simply never, ever, have the opportunity to view. I visited and rented enough at Pleasant Street that they knew me by name and would hold new (to the store, that is) films at the counter for me before putting them on the shelves. (Wipes away tears…)
Fifth, there was Netflix. For many years, Netflix was a great source of films noir for me. I suspect that the reason for this is that they needed “conent” and buying the rights to the kind of films in which I am interested was a very cheap way for them to do that. The search for cheap content also meant that a lot of the films noir on Netflix were of the “Poverty Row” variety, which tend to be harder to find on the open market. Over the years, however, the number of films noir available on Netflix via streaming or DVD has dwindled sharply. At present there are less than a dozen films noir available on Netflix and they are of the “well-known” variety, i.e. Laura, The Third Man, etc.
Sixth, and finally, there are the torrent sites. I have mixed feelings about torrent sites, but in the case of films noir there are so many that are out of print, in the public domain, or of such limited demand that I have a hard time believing that dowloading a copy of, say, Ride the Pink Horse is depriving anyone of any money other than Universal Pictures. A brief aside, Ride the Pink Horse is based on the book of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes, one of the few women who wrote in the “hard-boiled” genre. She also wrote In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. As I mentioned above, I have eight more films to watch from the compilation of films I downloaded about a year and a half ago and when I finish those I’ll start looking for more of them!
That, folks, has been my journey/obsession over the past fourteen years. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to complete the list or whether I’ll ever be able to complete it and I don’t know if the list in the fourth addition of Silver and Ward contains more films, but I’m going to keep plugging away at it nonetheless. Over the years I’ve seen some great films, some pretty good ones, and a lot of terrible ones. I’ve gotten to know a the work of a group of previously obscure actors and actresses to the point that if I see the name Dan Duryea, Edmond O’Brien, Lisbeth Scott, Gene Tierney, etc. on a film I know that, at the very least, there’s going to be a good performance in it. I’ve gained a new insight into European history- many, perhaps even most, of the genre’s early directors were refugees from Germany or countries threatened/invaded by Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking. For example, I know what “day for night” and “night for day” mean and I can recognize it when the technique is being used badly in a film.
Lastly (I think…), film noir opened the door of hard-boiled/noir fiction to me. This not only introduced me to the big (relatively speaking) names in that genre- Hammett, Chandler, Cain, etc.- but also to the sometimes-more-interesting fringe players in the field. People like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Cornell Woolrich. Take note of Woolrich, though not the best pure “writer” of the group, he had perhaps the best “feel” for the style of the whole group and this may explain why more films noir were based on his works than those of any other author- including Hammett and Chandler. Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is one of the most chilling books I’ve ever read- I highly recommend it! In addition to those writing in this style I was led to other authors that wrote before, around, during, and after it: The works of Eric Ambler, Donald Westlake (his book Memory will shatter you), Lawrence Block, Walter Moseley, Max Allan Collins, Chester Himes, Ed McBain, Fredric Brown, and Graham Greene should keep you busy for a while!
So, at long last, here is the list. The films I’ve seen are in red. Keep in mind as well, that if a film was based on a short story, novella, or novel I’ve probably read that as well!
I’ve thought a lot about making a list of films noir that you, dear reader, should see, but you probably don’t have time to watch a hundred movies and you might not even like film noir- especially to the obsessive degree that I do. So, instead, I’m going to provide a short list of films from the list above that you should watch just because they are great films that anyone who loves film should see. There are other great films on this list (Taxi Driver, Chinatown, The French Connection, etc.) but I’ve decided to stick with the 1940s and 1950s:
I could go on forever- if I haven’t already- but I’ll leave it there. I have films to watch.