Bursting with glossy stills and archival material, film historian and photographer Mark A. Vieira’s Into The Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950 offers an unprecedented portal into Hollywood’s golden era of cynicism.
A systematic study of noir, this gorgeous coffee table tome fills a significant gap in scholarship on the genre. To date, the foremost analyses have focused on definitional questions—ironically enough, since the term “film noir” was never used by the artists who worked on these productions, nor by American critics and audiences at the time.
Working from this premise, Vieira allows the era to speak for itself. Culled from studio archives, his book contains anecdotes from directors, actors, screenwriters and exhibitors, reviews from the era’s most notable critics, and dozens of dazzling stills. Taken all together, they offer valuable glimpses of how these films were perceived at the time of their release. Vieira has selected quotes and excerpts full of memorable details, and their graceful arrangement on the pages makes for an engaging read.
Into the Dark is thematically and chronologically streamlined into a moody trajectory of chapters—“Shadowed (1941-1943)”, “Cynical (1944-1945)”, “Alienated (1946-1947)”, “Obsessed (1948-1949)”, and “Doomed (1950)”—which each detail a broad selection of titles. Covering a total of 82 films, entries list the pertinent information—the studio, the release date, the cast and crew list—followed by a summary, two or three critics’ reviews, artists’ comments, captioned photos, and the costs and revenues of the film.
“Shadowed” examines an early ’40s Hollywood that was capitalizing on a collective craving for the hardboiled detective novel. In the popular bestsellers of Dashiell Hammett and Graham Greene, the industry found a goldmine of disillusioned detectives, devious dames and dishonest motives. Pulp fiction was suddenly Hollywood’s screenwriting reservoir, and Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd were the world-weary faces of this new slick-talking screen.
“Cynical” traces the crime thriller’s subsequent rise in the industry—from its low spot on a double feature to its exalted status in Double Indemnity. Declaring the genre a new industry and audience favorite, the trades praised everything from the magnetic flair of Otto Preminger’s Laura to the unhinged experiment of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, a brilliant low-budget nightmare. If any film from this period should remain an inspiration to current indie filmmakers, it is Detour, which cost around 10 times less than the average studio crime thriller. (Ulmer quipped that he “was looking for absolution for all the things he had to do for money.”)
More of these dark experiments followed during the postwar era, which is the focus of “Alienation.” Publicity clippings and reviews shed light on the innovative first-person camera technique that was used in Lady in the Lake—an attempt to heighten the vicarious thrill of the murder mystery, though it ultimately fell flat with audiences. Meanwhile, although director Edmund Goulding later admitted that walking onto the set of Nightmare Alley, he had not the slightest idea what he was going to shoot, the resulting tale of a carnival con man was hailed as a masterpiece of bleakness. 1947 was also the year of double- and triple-crossing conundrums derived from hardboiled fiction—The Big Sleep, Out of the Past—that appealed to audiences, pleased exhibitors, and showcased career-defining performances by female leads.
In “Obsession,” we find ever more alluring femme fatales, like Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross and Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai, who ensnare their protagonists in visually dazzling webs of criminal intrigue. Vieira reminds us, however, that even as such films waxed glamorous, they were as wedded as ever to the dark compulsions of human nature. The late ’40s gave us the psychotic gangster (James Cagney) of White Heat, the scheming social climber (Bette Davis) of Beyond the Forest, and the sadistic pyromaniac (Raymond Burr) of Raw Deal—an unusually shocking film whose ill-fated love triangle and prison escape make it a kind of forgotten precursor to John Boorman’s neo-noir Point Blank (1967).
While mainstream noir scholarship considers 1958 the end of the classical noir period, in his final chapter, “Doomed,” Vieira underscores an important trend that is not often mentioned in the context of film noir: Hollywood’s gravitation toward male stars at the turn of the decade. He includes a very interesting report from 1950 on the box-office cycle, which notes that during the war, actresses made up half of the Herald’s list of top 25 money-making stars; by 1950, their count had dropped to four, with only two women in the top 10.
Even so, the films in this chapter contain unforgettable female performances that are indeed charged with a sense of doom. There is Peggy Cummins playing a danger-craving, luxury-loving sharpshooter in Gun Crazy, whose Bonnie and Clyde storyline ends with a surreal shootout in a foggy marsh. Then there’s Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent actress clinging with hysterical ferocity to a long-expired career from within her secluded Hollywood mansion. Decked out in delusions of fame, her character shone an ironic spotlight on Hollywood’s “forgotten film queens.”
Vieira does well to conclude his production-oriented study of film noir with Billy Wilder’s illusion-shattering look at Hollywood. The ultimate self-reflexive noir, Sunset Boulevard scrapes the varnish off of an industry which—as Vieira’s book shows so well—was first manufacturing bleakness, then embellishing it with stylized screens, cold-hearted beauties, and darkly seductive atmospheres. MM
Into The Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950 was published in 2016 by Running Press. Hardcover. 336 pages.