Introducing The Noir Book Of The Month Club
Guest blogger D.A. Kolodenko looks to the literary roots of film noir
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Guest blogger D.A. Kolodenko introduces the Film Noir Book of the Month Club. This will be a monthly column exploring the literary roots of the movies screening as part of Films Geeks SD’s Noir on the Boulevard year-long series at Digital Gym Cinema. The series was co-curated by KPBS Cinema Junkie Beth Accomando.
What does the phrase film noir conjure up for you? A rain-soaked city street at midnight? A tawdry neon sign flashing its come-on through an office window like a warning of impending doom? A hardboiled detective, face shadowed under a fedora, gumshoes propped on his desk beside a bottle of rye? A mysterious, beautiful dame pointing a pearl-handled revolver in his direction? If you’re at all familiar with film noir — French for dark film — you’re seeing all of that, and you’re seeing it in stark, haunting black and white.
These iconic tropes of the classic American film noir cycle of the 1940s to 50s utterly define noir for some; but the term has endured as a label for nearly any film depicting characters trapped in a criminal spiral by their flaws or fate, where a bleak vision of the human predicament offers little room for happily ever after.
Brace yourselves for a full year of both classic and neo-noir films, coming to the Digital Gym Cinema for Film Geeks SD’s “Noir on the Boulevard” series. The theme is literary noir: most of the films being screened are adaptations of novels or feature screenplays by acclaimed novelists who tried their hand in Hollywood. This is a rare opportunity for San Diegans to see some of the greatest stories ever told in film noir as they were intended to be seen — on a big screen, surrounded by strangers, in the dark.
As a San Diego-based writer with a lifelong noir obsession, I’ll be your KPBS Cinema Junkie guest blogger and host of The Noir Book of the Month Club, focusing on the literary origins and aspects of the films. We’ll be viewing one classic noir each month on Sunday afternoons, followed by a neo-noir on Monday evenings every other month. And if you’re game, you’re invited to read along, as we delve into the suspenseful, evocative crime literature on which the Sunday classic noirs were based.
Readily available from your local library or in affordable reprints through the likes of abebooks.com, these terse, rapid-fire page-turners are loads of fun to read and usually wrap it all up in 200 pages or less — you’re not being asked to tackle "Crime and Punishment" (even though Josef Von Sternberg’s rarely-seen 1935 pre-noir film version starring Peter Lorre is worth hunting down). I’ll be posting commentary on the novels and films here, and I invite you to comment along.
A brief noir primer
Images like that iconic detective’s office first flickered across the screens of American movie theaters in the 1940s and 50s. The movies weren’t called noirs then (the label derives from a confused attempt at critical categorization that came later), they were simply “crime dramas,” most of them “B” pictures: the lower-budget, shorter films packaged together with “A” pictures for double bills designed to drive more people to the theaters. Consider the double bill an early effort to offer the sort of variety of cinematic options you get at the modern multiplex.
Big Hollywood studios could produce “B” pictures cheaply because they had “B” performers and crews on contract. Studio backlots, leftover sets from “A” pictures provided the locations; formulaic genres provided the material: western, melodrama, sci-fi, and, of course, crime. Smaller, “Poverty Row” studios, also produced “B” pictures, often venturing out into the neighborhoods and foothills of Los Angeles to shoot on their shoestring budgets.
What became the American film noir genre was a gestalt resulting from a confluence of factors: Its roots in depression-era gangster pictures; an influx of émigré filmmakers escaping war-torn Europe, and the influences they brought from 1930s French cinematic poetic realism (including the first films called noir) and German expressionism; a darkening of spirit that became harder edged during and particularly in the wake of World War II; technological changes in filmmaking; and the rich source material from serialized stories in popular crime and mystery magazines and pulp novels.
I’ll be discussing these influences as they arise in relation to films in the series, with emphasis, of course, on the literary origins of the films.
Our first book of the month is appropriately the source of what is arguably the first, and definitely most famous noir: “The Maltese Falcon” (screening on Jan. 28.), the great 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel about a rara avis at the greedy heart of a struggle among scoundrels that ensnares hardboiled, San Francisco private detective Sam Spade, hell-bent to avenge the murder of his partner. So grab a copy and dive in; then return next week for my post on this enduring novel, which John Huston brought to the screen for his 1941 directorial debut, the film that made Humphrey Bogart a star.
See the full schedule of films in the series here and check out the book list.
Noir Book Club Reading List
January: “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett
February: “I Wake Up Screaming” by Steve Fisher
March: “This Gun For Hire” by Graham Greene and “The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler
April: “The Fallen Sparrow” by Dorothy B. Hughes
May: “Double Indemnity” by James M. Cain and “Farewell My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler
June: “Fallen Angel” by Marty (Mary) Holland
July: “The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James M. Cain
August: “Build My Gallows High” by Geoffrey Homes
September: “Pitfall” by Jay Dratler
October: “Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema” by Eddie Muller
November: “The Big Heat” by William P. McGivern
December: “Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson
D.A. Kolodenko: Musician. Waiter. Warehouse worker. Print shop manager. College professor. Lecturer. Columnist. Journalist. Editor. Science writer. Advertising copywriter. These are some of the things I’ve been. Detective. Hitman. Embezzler. Boxer. Prison inmate. Fugitive who escapes by running into a tunnel or climbing up something. These are some of the things that the books and movies I like have taught me to avoid being.
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