Top positive review
The Sweet Smell of Noir
on August 17, 2000
Lord knows film noir books are a dime a gross, but Eddie Muller's Dark City is one of the more entertaining and necessary to come out in many a year. Muller sucessfully walks a tightrope here between the overly academic, theory-mongering, insufferably highbrow type of book, and the shallow, campy, or nostalgia-drenched types at the other end of the spectrum, and he barely stumbles. Though he steadfastly refuses to take himself too seriously, his underlying devotion to the genre is evident throughout. Along with plenty of behind-the-scenes gossip he doesn't fail to provide solid descriptions and opinions of the movies in question, from such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Kiss of Death to semi-obscure gems like T-Men. As a film critic he has a "feet-on-the-ground" integrity and hits the bull's eye on most of the films he mentions (meaning I usually agree with him). He's particularly good on the caper-film subgenre. Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave, and Kubrick's The Killing all get their rightful due, as does the career of Sterling Hayden. Indeed, one of the delights of Dark City is the engrossing profiles of various actors and actresses who made their mark on the genre, including Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Widmark, John Garfield, and the redoubtable Robert Ryan. Muller has a sharp eye for character actors as well.
The structure of the book is tongue-in-cheek; equating the entire nebulous noir genre with a metaphorical city (the 'dark city' of the title), he breaks down the various themes and subgenres into chapters with place-name titles, such as "Shamus Flats" for the detective movie, "Knockover Square" for the caper film, and so on. If this sounds groan-inducing, don't worry. He handles it well and turns it into great fun, mainly because there's substance in each chapter as well as kidding around. Muller in fact provides a valuable service in tracing the literary roots of much film noir to pre-war pulp fiction such as the 20's magazine Black Mask, and his profile of Cornell Woolrich is most welcome. Woolrich was a fount of paranoid pulp stories, and more of his tales were adapted to the big screen than anyone else's, yet he is far lesser known than Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who are also discussed. Also, there are enough sumptuous black and white stills here to make the book a joy just to flip through. Too many film books don't have enough photos, but that's not a problem here, and the text gives full recognition of the essential role that cinematographers played in the impact of the movies. Film noir was very much a cinematographer's genre, after all, even if they didn't have much of a budget.
There's always some favorite that's left out of even the finest film book, and I looked in vain for a mention of Alexander Mackendrick's caustic The Sweet Smell of Success, perhaps the last great noir, but this is a minor quibble. Any book that deals so well with films such as Force of Evil, Out of the Past, and scores of others is allowed one or two oversights. If you're a longtime fan of film noir or a new convert, Eddie Muller's Dark City is well worth your time.