Art of Darkness

Film noir is a genre on which you shouldn't shed too much light.

America Noir: Underground Writers & Filmmakers of the Postwar Era by David Cochran. Smithsonian Institution Press, $27.

Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir by Arthur Lyons. Da Capo Press, $17.50.

Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction and Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips. University of Kentucky Press, $27.50.

FILM NOIR HAS PULLED OUT way ahead of the other movie genres in the race for respectability. While interest in other once-popular film genres has waned in recent years, historians of all temperaments are returning over and over again to this seemingly bottomless, dark well first championed by the French more than half a century ago.

Nowadays, less and less is heard about westerns or musicals, for instance. Those genres seem grossly naïve and too sentimental for modern consideration. And yet would-be movie lizards continue to worship at the alter of the phony-tough school of cinematic noir, a period that--for all intents and purposes--occupies fewer than 15 years of Hollywood's archives.

The thinking seems to be that Hollywood was braver then. That these moody hard-boiled stories with antiheroes spewing tough-as-nails dialogue while dodging bullets on rain-soaked streets achieved a sense of reality nearly absent in modern film. And although it's true that Robert Aldrich and Nicholas Ray routinely churned out grittier yarns than present-day, overblown adolescents such as Quentin Tarantino ever dreamed of, one is hard-pressed to name a single noir that ever packed the authentic punch of, say, one grim, stomach-turning Weegee crime photo.

Now here are three more explorations of this increasingly threadbare genre.

The most fun of the bunch is Lyons' Death on the Cheap, a celebration of low-budget, often-overlooked B movies. Lyons, himself a mystery writer, obviously had a good time whiling away his hours watching the poverty-row gems that he profiles in the book. Even though most modern movie buffs would channel-surf themselves right past many of these titles, Lyons argues it would be their loss.

Like the covers of tawdry pulp paperbacks, the films he describes ooze with lurid appeal. Consider his account of the 1946 flick Night Editor, in which, Lyons says, the movie's heroine "watches with sexual excitement as a young girl is beaten to death, then goes into a sexual frenzy as she tries to look at the girl's pulverized face." It would be worth tracking down this forgotten artifact just to see how the filmmakers slipped it by Hollywood's censors.

But as Lyons explains, since most of these pictures were nickel and dime studio junk, Hollywood's arbiters of good taste rarely paid any attention to their corrupt content and hazy morals. Low-rent directors and screenwriters could do pretty much as they wanted.

Unfortunately that was not the case for Raymond Chandler. According to Phillips' Night Creatures, the famed mystery writer's confining and galling experiences in Hollywood only fueled his misanthropic views.

Chandler's English-boarding-school upbringing and bean-counter career would normally be a laughable training for a hard-boiled scribe, were it not for the fact that Chandler was so damned good at what he did. In spite of his immense talent, Chandler--like many other American writers--found plenty of money in the movies, but little artistic satisfaction.

Philips explores every nook and cranny of Chandler's unhappy Hollywood years--including his well-known clashes with fellow egotists Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. He tracks the fate of every short story, novel, script and grocery list Chandler penned while in Hollywood, showing most ending up in the hands of indifferent movie producers. While Philips reinforces Chandler's place as the seminal architect of hard-boiled fiction and film noir, he also delivers reams of infinitesimal details in an unsmiling fashion that only cultists will value.

Other neglected artists emerge as heroes of sorts in Cochran's America Noir, an overview of 10 post-World War II writers and filmmakers who not only contributed to film noir, but, for better or worse, helped shape our current pop-nihilistic age.

And while not all the writers' profiles break new ground--Jim Thompson's seedy novels and Sam Fuller's gutsy independent cinema, for instance, have been riding the wave of revisionist praise since the late 1980s--Cochran delivers long-overdue accolades to authors Charles Willeford and Richard Condon.

Cochran doesn't always make his case, though. In spite of 20-plus pages devoted to high-minded academic analysis, bargain-basement filmmaker Roger Corman still comes off as a schlockmeister, as opposed to the serious--but tight-fisted--artist that Cochran is aiming for.

Like other bandwagon trends, such as the recent embrace of cocktail music or the elevation of the Rat Pack as cultural icons, film noir is being smothered in pretense these days. All three of these books tend to do what most current examinations of film noir have done: They stretch the canvas too tight. What's missing in all three is the humor of, say, Barry Gifford's long out-of-print The Devil Thumbs a Ride, an analysis of film noir that kept the topic where it belonged: at 3 a.m., on the late, late show, when the whole world is black and white.

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