BOOK REVIEW: Film Noir – 100 All-time Favourites

When is a coffee table book not a coffee table book? When it is so huge it would probably break the coffee table. Taschen’s mighty guide to the best 100 films called noir is a sumptuous treat for any film fan. Of course, film noir is the genre without boundaries, so this guide, edited by Paul Duncan (author of The Ingmar Bergman Archives) and art critic Jürgen Müller features the expected crime and gangster films, but also includes westerns, science fiction, boxing films, horror, comic book superheroes, and more. Everything you would expect is included; the private eyes, the femme fatales, the misguided unfortunate narrators, the directors, the stars, the dark alleyways, the smoky rooms and the doomed romances. But there is so much more to enjoy in this mammoth tome.

co_100_film_noir_144The 686 pages begin with three essays on the nature of film noir. First up is Paul Schrader’s Notes on Film Noir. Schrader, best know perhaps for his screenplays such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, talks about what it means to describe a noir. He suggests that there were four conditions in Hollywood in the 1940’s which brought about noir. He mentions that the genre is pretty much indefinable and something every critic and writer calls differently. His line ‘the how is always more important than the what’ is perhaps the key idea expressed throughout the book. It is an interesting and quite subjective guide to what noir is, and which is as individual and opinionated as you’d expect from Schrader. Next up is Out of focus by Müller and Jörn Hetbrügge. They talk specifically about Orson Welle’s The Lady from Shanghai, specifically about the technique in shooting the movie to give it that noir feel. Because feel is all important. Finally, Douglas Keesey (Professor of Film and Literature at California Polytechnic State University) brings noir into the modern cinema age with An introduction to neo-noir.

So the essays are the appetiser. What of the main course? We begin in 1920. Film number one is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. You get brief credits (cast and crew, including screenwriter), a reproduction of the original movie poster and a description and critique of the film. What you also notice is the stunning black and white full page image of the famous abduction scene. A turn of the page and there are more huge and gorgeous stills, accompanied by a quote from a critic in Die Weltbühne, a German cultural magazine. There is a box-out describing German expressionist cinema, another double page photograph, more quotes and photos, and we’re onto the next film, The Lodger (1927). For the next 98 movies, the format is similar. Each film has its cast and crew, its original poster, any awards, if the screenplay was based on a novel, box-outs of related information, quotes from the movie and reviews, and loads of amazing images.

Everything and everyone associated with noir is covered. Directors such as Hitchcock, Wilder, Welles, Polanski, Lang, Mann, Drive / Driveand Scorsese. Stars such as Mitchum, Bogart, Hayworth, Bergman, Grant, Bacall, Crawford, Nicholson and Pacino. Movies from the US, UK, France, Germany and the Far East. Films such as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Vertigo. No two books about noir contain the same list of films (which is a great excuse to add this book to the collection), and while all the classics are present and correct (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Detour, Gilda et al), there are few surprise inclusions from both the classic era of the 1940s and 1950s (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Night of the Hunter) and more recent films (Se7ev, Memento and The Dark Knight). The final film is the 2011 Drive, stressing the range of movies on display, but it also highlights the difficulty in classifying noir, and the delicious diversity in these films.

Taking a closer look at the entry for a classic, Night and the City. You get an overview and some historical context (relationships with The Third Man and They Made Me a Fugitive for example.) There is some detailed plot description. You can’t really say they are spoilers as the descriptions are meant to make you understand and want to see these films. So in this case, there are quotes of dialogue and detailed descriptions of what is happening and why. The entry concludes with an explanation of the metaphors running through the film from the perspective of the filmmakers, and a nod to its place in history. Excellent stuff.

The box outs are more factual than the main description and critique and contain information on just about everything you could imagine: actors, directors, styles, authors, cinematographers are all represented. So you can find out about Joan Crawford and Burt Lancaster, comic book author Frank Miller, cop noir and boxing movies. Every film has interesting facts. Meanwhile, the quotes come from magazines (such as Variety or Time Out) and critics (Pauline Kael for example), lines from the films, directors and other respected commentators of the film world. There is also a list of 1000 films worth considering in the back of the book.

The highlight, despite all this wealth of information, are the stills. Amazing, gorgeous, full page and sometimes double page stills from the films, accompanied by a few words explaining each. My favourites include Jimmy Steward and Grace Kelly in Rear Window, a particularly disturbing shot of Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, the unbearably sad eyes of Tom Neal in Detour, and the foggy scene in The Big Combo. I could have listed a hundred more. However, the first colour images jar a little (Vertigo) and maybe it would have been more appropriate to keep them all black and white, but once we’re into the 1970’s, the colour photos become as stunning as the black and whites of earlier.


What a beautiful book. But more than that it has made me want to dig out and re-watch my old favourites (The Big Sleep), re-assess some other favourites I wouldn’t have originally considered as noir (The Conversation), and seek out some I haven’t seen (Poison Ivy – no, not that Drew Barrymore one). And what is a guide to film for, if not for all those reasons.

AUTHOR: Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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One comment

  1. What a treat I stumbled upon your great review of this book which I
    will treat myself to come Christmas. Thank you!

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