Roots of Film Noir: Precursors from the Silent Era to the 1940s

McFarland. Nov. 2022. 252p. ISBN 9781476687483. pap. $39.95. FILM
Hollywood film noir reached its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, but film historian Grant (Vigilantes: Private Justice in Popular Cinema) traces its roots through more than 90 films, from 1923 (Germany’s The Street) to early 1942 (Time to Kill). Film noir was never wholly confined to gangster and detective films. It was a sensibility, an approach to dialogue, and a body of cinematic techniques in use long before the ’40s, Grant writes. He identifies varied sources for film noir: gangster/detective movies, German expressionism, the Strassenfilme (“street films”), French poetic realism, Hollywood’s fascination with Freudian explanations of criminal behavior, even gothic costume melodramas like Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Grant mostly discusses B movies, but all demonstrate aspects of the genre: skewed camera angles; alternating overlighting (chiaroscuro) and underlighting; protagonists caught up in forces beyond their control. And some of the early noir films are brilliant—notably Fritz Lang’s M from 1931 and Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang from 1932. Grant cross-references reviews that mention similar movies, making the book a useful resource for future viewing.
VERDICT Between his introductory essay and his reviews, Grant provides an extremely helpful commentary on a major film genre. Film buffs will adore this book.
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