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February 26, 2015

International Noir

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Edited by Homer B. Pettey and R. Barton Palmer
Edinburgh University Press - 2014

Like most books that are a collection of essays by different authors, the whole isn't as good as some of the parts. While I like the idea of a book that points to genre films outside of Hollywood, what one gets here is a somewhat useful list of films to see, pending availability and subtitles, and a couple of essays that succeed in making one want to watch the films discussed.

My frustrations with this volume is that noir or neo-noir films from several countries are not discussed, and that the criteria for sources is strictly based on printed essays, ignoring much of the film scholarship that can be culled from online sources. There is also the problem with several essays discussing what is or ain't film noir, with some acknowledgment that the term originated in dissuasion of a particular group of French films produced in the Thirties. As it is, you have Susan Hayward establishing why certain films are or are not film noir in her discussion of French films made between 1947 through 1979, while Stephen Teo's list of Korean film noir plays loosely with that concept to include the horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, and the high tech heist film, The Thieves. My other problem with Teo's essay is that the discussion of Asian films is restricted to South Korea and Hong Kong. The less knowledgeable or adventurous reader may remain unaware of films of interest in other Southeast Asian countries.

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A Bittersweet Life (Kim Ji-woon - 2005)

David Desser remains consistently readable for me, with scholarship not bogged down by theory or academic lingo. Still, I would have to wonder why he jumped from the Nikkatsu Studio film from the mid-Fifties issued by Criterion on DVD, to Kaizo Hayashi's Maiku Hama trilogy, as well as films by Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike, while ignoring the wonderfully delirious "Line" series mostly filmed by Teruo Ishii for Shin-toho in the early Sixties. A rough analogy would be a discussion of Hollywood film noir that focuses on Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, but overlooks Edgar G. Ulmer's Murder is my Beat. Desser is best in putting the films he does discuss within the context of Japanese culture as well as the Japanese film industry at the time of production.

Andrew Netsingen points out the characteristics of what he calls Nordic noir. What is available to be seen at this point would be the more recent entries such as Headhunters, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Corey Creekmur's look at Indian cinema, the shortest of the essays, is restricted to Hindi language films, also giving context to the films in terms of the changes within the film industry as well as cultural shifts.

I have wonder why an exploration of The Man who wasn't There and Body Heat in relation to the writings of James Cain is included, especially when discussion of the film version of Tay Garnett's The Postman always Rings Twice does not mention either Luchino Visconti's earlier Ossessione, or Bob Rafelson's more sexually explicit remake (or while we're at it, Christian Petzold's Jerichow). Considering the number of times she is mentioned, as well as her ability to write seriously about film clearly, the editors probably should have turned this project over to Ginette Vincendeau, someone with the ability to connect popular culture with scholarly investigations.

My main problem is that International Noir is not international enough. There is no mention of Italian cinema, with not only no mention of Ossessione, but also nothing about films that bridged the gap between Black and Yellow, that is to say Noir and Giallo, with work such as Mario Bava's The Girl who knew too Much, or Dario Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage, inspired by Fredric Brown's Screaming Mimi and Gerd Oswald's noir classic film version. One can also cite films from Spain, Germany, and Thailand, among other countries that have contributed their versions of noir and neo-noir. An entire essay, possibly a book, could even be devoted to the multiple variations word wide of Strangers on a Train. There is a solid book to be had about the international variations of film noir. Pettey and Palmer's book isn't the book it could have been, but can hopefully be used as a stepping stone for further, and more thorough, investigations.

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Nightfall (Chow Hin Yeung - 2012)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 26, 2015 06:04 AM