More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts

By Covey, William B. | Film Criticism, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts


Covey, William B., Film Criticism


More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. by James Naremore Berkeley: U of California P, 1998 345 pp., $19.95 (paper).

James Naremore's More Than Night makes a noteworthy contribution to film noir studies. Inspired by the author's critical stance of placing noir within an historical milieu, I place my review of his book within the context of other recently published works in film noir. Publications from the last three years include James F. Maxfield's The Fatal Woman: Sources of Male Anxiety in American Film Noir, 1941-1991 (Madison, WI:Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1996), Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (NY: The Free Press, 1997), Ted Sennett's Murder on Tape: A Comprehensive Guide to Over 1,000 Murder and Mystery Movies on Video (NY: Billboard Books, 1997), Edward Gorman and Lee Server's edited collection The Big Book of Noir (Carroll + Graf, 1998), David Meyer's A Girl and A Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video (NY: Avon, 1998), and Eddie Muller's Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998). Each of these books in its own way is an entertaining read, but an over-reliance on text-based plot summaries and critically-lax film studies scholarship in each case makes Professor Naremore's new work stand out even more. In comparison, More Than Night is the most thoroughly researched book-length study of the genre since Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's monumental Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (NY: Overlook P, 1992). While the author's book includes some close readings and listings of key films, he additionally provides a cultural and social history of noir production and reception from the 1940s to the present, differentiating his book as a venerable film studies text rather than a general introduction to the topic.

In this seven chapter book, Naremore treats the term film noir as a "mythology" that "has become one of the dominant intellectual categories of the late twentieth century, operating across the entire cultural arena of art, popular memory and criticism" (2). Naremore is unwilling to be more specific in his definition of noir because he believes the term "has no essential characteristics and that it is not a specifically American form" (5). His critical stance echoes J.P. Telotte's Voices in the Dark, a book that proclaims noir as a Foucauldian professional discourse recognized by film critics, filmmakers, film producers, and film viewers as a "discursive construct" (6), as well as Marc Vernet's "Film Noir on the Edge of Doom," the essay which establishes that the "criteria defining film noir is totally heterogeneous and without any foundation but a rhetorical one" (Vernet 2), and, "literally (but also in all senses of the term) a critical object" (Vernet 6).

Embracing such rhetorical discourse theory, Naremore likewise sidesteps the more common general opening of noir books that chooses one area within the usual trilogy and argues for noir exclusively as either a genre, cycle, or style of filmmaking. Instead, he privileges a pluralistic history of noir as a "cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past" (11). The other recent work that attempted such an historical overview of noir was Carl Richardson's Autopsy: An Element of Realism in Film Noir (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow P, 1992), a book that much less successfully argued for film noir as a completed historical cycle of realistic texts of social criticism produced from 1940-1959.

Similar to R. Barton Palmer in Hollywood's Dark Cinema (New York: Twayne, 1994), More Than Night begins at the critical/historical beginning with a discussion of the French critical roots for film noir, summarizing Nino Frank's invention of the term and employing the thematic approaches that Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton first introduced in the ur-text for noir criticism, Panorama du Film Noir Americain (1955). Naremore also convincingly argues for the influence that various contemporary cultural artifacts and ideas like existentialism, Freudianism, German expressionism, hard-boiled fiction, and surrealism had on the filmmaking and reception of classic noir. …

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