With some interesting observations and a huge collection of data about genres in the book under discussion here, there are some good and fresh points concerning style, method and procedure, even when hard-boiled fiction and films noir are reduced to their most basic configurations. Naturally, there are variations of the stereotypes, and with regard to the evolution of film noir into neo-noir, some of a revealing nature.
Author Lee Clark Mitchell, Holmes Professor of Belles-Lettres, Department of English, Princeton University, turns to “… popular culture to fathom the persistence of a genre so formulaic it would seem to have exhausted its appeal. … Instead of looking at directly at the colorful conflicts of noir, I’ve relied on something akin to peripheral vision for the counterintuitive insights it provides.”
To him, highlighting stylist earmarks rather than centrally configured scenes, allows defining “the genre as a less plot-driven, more intricate and formally engaging vehicle than readers suspect.”
Introducing the development of the hard-boiled novel into films noir, he begins with the origins of the style, which include Black Mask contributions, and soon evolving shifts in style, pace and story organization. Some aspects receive more attention than in most books on detective fiction, for example, the minute description of environments, clothing, or interiors in the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. Those descriptive passages, obviously employed to divert the reader’s attention and to boost crime scene impressions, have a style of their own. And by equipping their respective investigators with that certain mode of perception, their relevant characteristics are stressed, and readers get extra access to the workings of Spade’s, Marlowe’s or an unnamed investigator’s minds.
The topics’ description, perception, and conclusion basically inform the first two chapters. They are followed by texts on variations of the style and presence of the detectives, meaning his visibility/invisibility and how this drives the plots. This is similar to the unclear location of usually several other persons in hard-boiled detective fiction, as those are either missing, disguised, have vanished, are on the run, never existed or have transformed.
The next chapter in a way returns to the idea of the sequel and serialized nature of detective fiction, be it in pulps or later stories with a recurring investigator. Already Edgar Allen Poe’s initial fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin is featured in several stories. Under analysis here are the requirements for serialization that connect further exploits of a detective or a team and how reader loyalty can be achieved or easily lost. This section is very welcome, as the subject is rarely in focus in secondary literature; and even if similar cases, plots and settings may become rather boring after a while, sometime readers are looking forward to just this repetition.
The filmic adaptations of several hard-boiled novels roughly from the 1940s until the late 1950s gave way to the film noir genre, that would draw millions to the cinemas worldwide. Chapter six, however, has the focus rather on the neo-noir productions of the 1970s and 1980s, thereby steadily referring to the films of earlier decades. Covering those new approaches, questions of reliability, the nature of surveillance media, the role of the outsider who may miss important points and meanings, which results in inaccurate conclusions are spotlighted, with examples from the 1974 movies Chinatown and The Conversation.
If the book so far covered mostly familiar ground and compiled the state of present-day film noir analysis, the final chapter is an excellent example for having all that data work for a study in style, production, and audience expectation in a neo-noir picture. As a special treat for David Lynch fans, this section is devoted to his masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001), with a plot about an amnesiac woman who tries to remember, possibly a crime, who gets help from another woman who could be or not be a friend. The film received praise in subsequent years, even if in the US in 2001, it was a box office bomb; probably because director Lynch made good use of the same genre attributes Mitchell reviewed in the previous chapters.
But Lynch also did what he does best: turning impressions, facts we deem ourselves certain of, any understatement and chronology upside down. Mulholland Drive’s plot suggests connections and conclusions, as well as possibly disturbed echoes of perceptions that maybe are not to be trusted, variations on the plot idea, that fail to connect and leave audiences blank of the anticipated main ingredients of the genres: namely clues, the big picture, revealed identities and the ability to reconstruct a linear development.
Besides, the quest for knowledge, or in this case extra data on characters and the femme fatale in films noir (the most prominent example of protagonists whose aims, identity and strategies are most enigmatic and often sinister) receive a lot of attention in the section. And as the movie features two female characters who are very hard to read, the mysteries presented double. “[The femme fatale’s] very inscrutability personifies the genre, a point well worth pausing over: of the obstacles to knowing another, of identity concealed, that becomes configured in the sexualized female body. … Further obscuring identity is the femme fatale’s lack of control over things, often depicted in a reliance on chance events thrown up by masculine figures.” This section is one of the better reviews of the Lynch film.
And so in a way, the organization of the book comes very close to a (good) lecture, that does not fail to impress, as all information for the final part is presented throughout the session, with each aspect connected to the concluding end. Noir Fiction and Film: Diversions and Misdirections convinces with the smooth and carefully arranged analysis of neo-noirs and their origin in distinct media of previous decades, even if in later years other topics and sensual impressions moved into the focus.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2022
Lee Clark Mitchell. Noir Fiction and Film: Diversions and Misdirections. Oxford University Press, 2021, 256 p.