|THE BIG CHAT|
with Michael F. Keaney
FILM NOIR GUIDE
745 Films of the Classic Era 1940-1959
|Published by McFarland & Company Publishers|
|More on the FILM NOIR GUIDE|
|Moderator Gary George interviewed the author after the publication of his info-packed, hard bound encyclopedic reference on Film Noir. Gary George's thoughtful questions set the mood for a well attended session and a rally of intelligent questions following the main interview.|
George: Welcome to The Big Chat. I hope you will join me in
congratulating first-time author and Blackboard contributor Michael
Keaney on the recent publication of his book Film Noir Guide.
Michael's book is a very informative reference work for all noir fans, offering a synopsis and 1-5 star rating for the staggering amount of 745 noir films (the most available in one volume). Michael personally reviewed each of these films himself.
Film Noir Guide also offers a very unique feature: with each film, Michael has included a section on "Familiar Faces from Television," which identifies noir character actors that later went on to fame in television, and "Memorable Noir Moments," which points out the most noirish scenes and dialogue in a film. The book also offers an extensive series of photographs from noir films, personally (and, I understand, expensively) collected by the author.
I should point out before I begin the with the questions, that among the noir "types" Michael used to categorize the films, he has listed more than 20 westerns, 6 comedies, and 19 period films. He explains in the introduction that it was beyond the scope of the book to go into detail about the ongoing controversy regarding a definition of film noir. He goes on to mention that he gave some of the films "the benefit of the doubt" (as far as their "noirness"). I, for one, am glad he included them, as I've picked up a number of titles that I wasn't familiar with and now want to see.
On to the questions:
#1.Thank you for joining us, Michael. Can you give us some background on how you came to write this book on noir, how you found your publisher, and approximately how long it takes to watch 745 noir films?
Mike Keaney: Thanks, Gary, for the kind words. It's a pleasure to join everyone here. Those pain-in-the-neck paparazzi have been following me everywhere since they got wind of this event
I made a promise to myself 30 years ago that I would write a book someday (and, unbelievably, it really did take me 30 years just to get started). All the how-to books I had read suggested that I write about something I love, so after eliminating pizza and beer as a marketable subject, I chose film noir, which I've loved since I was a kid (I grew up in the fifties). I prepared myself by devouring every film noir book I could get my hands on and after reading the real experts (like Alain Silver and Eddie Muller) I realized I didn't feel comfortable trying to analyze the films (and even if I did it would have added a year or two to my task and at my age that's not a pleasant prospect). What I was looking for, and couldn't find, in a film noir reference guide was a compromise between the one-liner plot summaries and the extensive synopses that always ruined the endings for me. Skipping the synopses and going straight to the analyses (which I do enjoy but only after viewing the films) didn't guarantee that I'd avoid a spoiler. So I decided to include only plot summaries without the endings, providing just enough information to make it interesting, hopefully, and then spicing them up with some Memorable Noir Moments, Familiar Faces, ratings, and lots of photos.
As to how a tyro writer managed to get published: I was about a quarter of the way through the book, which I originally thought would top out at 500 films, when I heard from a writer friend that McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers was looking for another film noir book. As just an average noir head and not a film scholar or even a serious student, I had no reason to hope that my first effort would ever see publication unless I self-published it. Rather than face rejections that might cause me to stop working on the book, I had decided to finish writing it before sending out any feelers. But I managed to work up some courage and sent a query letter to McF. They responded, asking to see a proposal and after that a sample. They liked the 100 or so pages I sent and offered to publish the book. No one was more surprised than I. As a first-time author, I consider it a great stroke of luck. I've since been asked by McFarland to write another book on film noir, which I'm currently working on and which will probably be published in late 2004. A 30-year dream come true. But I wouldn't recommend that anybody wait that long before acting on their dreams.
Gary, the answer to the last part of your question. Two years to finish the book -- about 16 months to view all the films -- averaging about 2 a day.
Gary: How did you decide that a film was "noir enough" for the book?
Mike: So far this technical part of this interview is working about as well as a film noir heist. :) The films I included were gathered from a number of sources: the books mentioned in my bibliography, Internet lists from sites like IMDB and your own Danger and Despair, DVDs or VHSs advertised as film noir, and personal recommendations from noir fans. Because it's such a subjective thing, I tried (repeat, I tried) not to let my personal opinion about a film's weak noir credentials prevent its inclusion, which is why, as I mention in the Preface, I included a number of films that some writers describe simply as being "in the noir style" or containing "noir elements" (e.g., the westerns and horror movies). I think that noir is a style so I felt okay about adding some of the films from these genres. I don't necessarily think, as my friend Dark Marc has put it, that I am "testing the fringe boundaries" of film noir. I think I'm just saying "take a look and see what you think."
Gary: What comes first for you, the story or the film's visuals?
Mike: This is such a subjective thing. Me, I look at the style/visuals first and then the storyline. To others it's all in the story. But the great thing about noir is that there are few absolutes and not a great deal of consensus among scholars and critics, and what that boils down to is that a film noir is in the eye of the (reasonable) beholder. It's kind of like interpreting the bible. When you staunchly defend your scriptural interpretation as correct and somebody else's as wrong, even though you can't prove it, you wind up with Catholicism, Protestantism and countless denominations and sects. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.
Gary: An interesting aspect of Film Noir Guide is the way you categorize films into "types:" "gangster," "horror," even "plastic surgery." What is your favorite noir "type," and what films of that type do you most enjoy?
Mike: My informal classification of noirs into "types" was intended to make things easy for readers who enjoyed a particular film and wanted to see others with similar storylines. If they liked A Stolen Face, for example, I wanted to direct them to other noirs in which plastic surgery is a plot device, like Dark Passage, Strange Impersonation, A Woman's Face, or, God help us, Jail Bait. Looking back, I admit to getting carried away with all the classifying. "High Seas" noir! What was I thinking? After viewing 745 noirs, I guess was lucky I could still think at all. My favorite "type" is the boxing noir (I'm a big boxing fan) -- The Set-Up is my favorite with Body and Soul a close second. I also enjoy the heist noirs -- The Asphalt Jungle, then The Killing, with an honorable mention going to Armored Car Robbery.
Newport Nellie: Do you think that Film Noir mirrors the culture of contemporary America?
Mike: Hi Nellie. No, I think noir mirrors the culture of 1940s and 1950s America. Noir is kids' stuff compared to today.
John: Congratulations on your new book, Mike. I will be purchasing a copy of it. In your opinion, what are among the best lesser-known noirs of the 40s/50s? (those that for whatever reason, remain more obscure than some of the others.) Thanks.
Mike: There are a lot of obscure noirs in the book. Many of them deservedly so. Offhand I'd say Drive A Crooked Road and Big Operator are two fairly obscure noirs that are pretty good. I'd have to thumb through my book to remember the others. Because I've been told to wait until the interview is over I'll get to the other questions when dark marc reposts them. I am an obedient author.
Gary: Thanks for participating tonight, Michael! It seems we have some anxious Blackboarders that are waiting, so I'll sign off with a last question: Do you have a "Top 5" list of films that were not available to you before publication?
Mike: There were about 25 films I couldn't find before my deadline -- like Behind the High Wall, Decoy, Chain of Evidence, I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes, Strangers in the Night. In hindsight, I wish I had included all of them with a proviso indicating I had not viewed them.
Gary: What was the "worst" of the 745 films reviewed for the book? Again, thanks for your time this evening.
Mike: The worst, of course, was Ed Wood's Jail Bait. He lived up to his reputation as the world's worst director with this noir effort, which contains the funniest flub I've seen in a long while -- Lyle Talbot chases Tim Farrell out of a house and by the time they make it to the back yard Lyle has changed his suit and tie and grown a mustache. A close second for me was Danger Zone, with Hugh Beaumont, Beaver Cleaver's dad, a terrific character actor in a lame movie that may have been a TV pilot -- the film contains two plots, each with its own beginning and ending. Some other noteworthy bombs in my opinion would be Date with Death, Hugo Hass' Hit and Run, and Violated (a.k.a. New York Photographer). One film worth mentioning with regard to stinkers is Blackmail with William Marshall. Very low budget stuff but, unlike Jail Bait, its humor was intentional and I found it refreshing. A film noir parody?
Gary: The Blackboard is now open for questions directed to Michael Keaney regarding his Film Noir Guide and general film noir questions. Thanks, again, Michael, and I think your Film Noir Guide should be in the library of everyone interested in film noir.
Marc Kagan: Hello, Mr. Keaney. Congratulations on your wonderful book. My question to you is: Who are your favorite film noir actors and what actors are better in film noir then in other film genres? Mike: Robert Ryan, Sterling Hayden, Lizabeth Scott, Gloria Grahame. Bette Davis is much, much better in non-noir roles.
Rudy J. Miera: When you were doing your research, did you come across a small book by a British Author - Paul Duncan- his Film Noir lists 518 films- but really short synopses. Also, what are your top five Films Noir ?
Mike: Yes. I mention Paul Duncan's book in my bibliography. He's got a great introduction in that little book. Favorite five noirs? Real hard to say after watching 745 of them, but I'd have to go with the ones I mentioned earlier -- the boxing noirs and heist noirs -- The Set Up, Body and Soul, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, and after that there are probably ten that I like equally.
Jay: Thanks for the encouraging story of how your book got published. I really look forward to reading it and wish you great luck with it. I was wondering if you could comment on three favorite films of mine, all of which I consider Film Noir, in at least a broad sense, even though they seldom make typical Noir listings: Seconds (1966, Frankenheimer)--a haunting and disturbing, claustrophobic exercise in existential horror. The protag in this film is trapped in his own life. He changes his body only to realize he cannot escape his own sense of discomfort in his very being. Victim (1961, Dearden)--to me this film is Noir with no apologies. The protagonist is being blackmailed by unseen forces; there is a pervasive sense of evil and encroaching doom throughout; the visual style of the film is dark and often quite claustrophobic. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962, Nelson)--a very Noir-looking film for the 1960s, with a 'doomed' protag. There is no actual crime committed in this film, but a strong sense of fatalism is dominant Thanks for any comments. And best of luck.
Mike: Seconds and Requiem I would consider a post-noir. I'm not familiar with The Victim.
BmacV: Thanks, Mike and Gary. Let me first say, Mike, that I enjoyed the comprehensiveness of your book. There are titles which I and others might not have included, but better to err on the side of inclusiveness; there are several films which I was unaware of or might otherwise have overlooked. Disagreements in any compilation as large as yours are inevitable, and part of the fun. Here are a few films which I think are rated either too high or too low by you. Could you tell us, at least about one or two of them in each category, why you rated them as you did?
Raw Deal 3.5 (the consensus among Blackboarders was that this tied with Out of the Past as best noir ever)
Desert Fury 2.5
Human Desire 2.5
No Man of Her Own 2.5
Road House 2
Somewhere in the Night 2.5
Among the Living 4
Another Man's Poison 3.5
Cause for Alarm! 3
14 Hours 4
Man on the Eiffel Tower 3.5
This Gun for Hire 4.5
Couldn't agree more about Danger Zone, Mike.
Mike: Thanks. Good question. Who can really tell why one person likes a film very much and another person hates it? I liked Raw Deal but I didn't like it as much as some other films for reasons I can't even remember now. What has happened to me recently is that I have started viewing some films for the second time and I am finding that I am enjoying them more and would rate them higher the next time around. Suspense with Zachary Scott -- I hated it the first time and I watched it recently and changed my mind. Instead of the 1.5 stars I would boost it up to 2.5. Yes, Ward Cleaver was a big disappointment to me. I can't imagine how the Beave must have felt after seeing this one.
Gary: Bill, I have to admit, I'm with Michael on more than a few of those ratings (especially Gilda, at least the second half). Conversely, you and I usually agree on film ratings for the most part as well, so I guess I'm going to have to check my math. Raw Deal in no way comes close to Out of the Past for me, but Michael has Human Desire a bit low . . . very subjective, I guess. Thanks for being here tonight!
John: Can you please tell us how you found the photos you used in the book? Did you utilize many different sources? Is the photo end of a project like this especially frustrating and costly (i.e., getting permission to license them for publication, etc.)?
Mike: I got my photos at Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee in California. Prices are affordable. You can also buy a lot of good original photos, sometimes very cheaply, at e-Bay.
Rob Cochran: Hey, I like Hugh Beaumont! Danger Zone wasn't that bad!
Michael, Rob Cochran here. Finished reading your well written and researched book a while ago (Sorry I still owe you that positive review on Amazon.com) and was very impressed. While initially I disagreed with some of your choices (Edge of the City and Tokyo File 212, which I still find hard to classify as noir), for the most part all had noirish elements and were worth including in my film noir library. Even a western film like Roughshod that you recommended (and I tracked down) was a pleasant dark surprise. Thanks for the push toward expanding the boundaries of Dark City. What's your next book about? P.S. Would love to trade a few more films in the future.
Mike: Hi Rob. Hey I like Hugh Beaumont too. But I hated Danger Zone. I'm not ready to talk about the next book yet. It's too early. So we disagree on some noirs. What are your views on politics?
Rob: I won't touch that. Other obscure noirs? Politics are a dark reflection of the Great Unwashed . . . I avoid all discussions, Since publishing your book, have you run across any other obscure noirs? Watched The Weapon after reading your book and really enjoyed it.
Mike: Nothing recently. Been too busy.
Joe: Greetings, Mr. Keaney, kudos to you on your new book. I am a Ray Danton fan and have recently unearthed a copy of The Night Runner. Would you consider it a legitimate precursor to Psycho? All the best.
Mike: Hi Joe, and thanks. 1957's Night Runner has a few similarities. There's a psychopath, of course--and Danton is a terrific one. In this one it's not Mom's fault; he's loony. It's Dad's -- he killed Sonny's favorite seagull. The other similarity is the motel setting. Danton's character isn't totally loony though because he knows enough to cover up a murder. Norman Bates, who was truly nuts, thought he was covering up for his mother. If you haven't seen it already, check out 1958's Screaming Mimi. There's scene where a knife-wielding lunatic attacks Anita Ekberg in the shower. He isn't quite as dexterous as Norman but he does manage to kill her little dog. The bastard.
Allen: How can one not rank Double Indemnity at the top? And not even in Top Five? Almost a perfectly made film. Almost perfectly crafted. Centers on two people and their descent. Beautifully acted.
Kurt: Double Indemnity, without a doubt one of the Top Five in the film noir genre. The other four? Probably Touch of Evil, Out of the Past, Detour, and Gun Crazy. These five are always at the top in my estimation -- always have been!
Gary: Don't mean to butt in, but Double Indemnity isn't in MY Top Five Noirs either. I can give you two reasons: Fred MacMurray and Babs Stanwyck. The former has always impressed me as being a stiff as a board actor, and the later, while having more acting chops, just isn't appealing enough (IMO) to pull off the role of Phyllis D. This movie is highly rated by most noir fans but falls flat for me. Only Eddie G. Robinson's performance keeps it in my library.
Hey, Michael does give the DI 4.5 stars in the book! And besides, there is only one perfect noir film: Out of the Past!
Rob: Out of the Past - the only one perfect uber noir. Have to agree with Gary on that comment.
Kurt: Thanks for the nod on Out of the Past -- This is #1 for me as well! It just so happened in that film the perfect cast/script/director, etc. came together to make a film that defines the genre entirely. Of course, Mitchum being my favorite actor doesn't hurt either -- my VHS tapes of Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, and Cape Fear have been purchased twice due to my playing them so many times. My second favorite actor is Richard Widmark--any votes for Pickup on South Street or Kiss of Death in the Top Ten?!!
Gary: Thanks, Guys! I usually get a torrent of boos and hisses when I post something like this (call anything perfect or the best, and somebody will usually argue!).
Kurt, I don't know if I can include Pickup on SS or Kiss of Death in my Top Ten, but I like them both, and they both have a permanent place in my film library. In fact, after Out of the Past, I am so hard pressed to pick a second favorite . . . it's something I don't want to subject myself to! (Far too many good choices). Thanks for participating tonight! Mike: It's a great film, but top five? Maybe top ten.
Don: Gary, leafing through Mike's book, I find several more "perfect" noirs (given a full five stars):
All The Kings' Men
The Asphalt Jungle
Body and Soul
Casablanca (but is it really noir??!)
Citizen Kane (see above)
The Lost Weekend
The Maltese Falcon Murder,
Murder My Sweet
On The Waterfront
Out of the Past
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Shadow of a Doubt
Strangers on a Train
Sweet Smell of Success
The Third Man
Touch of Evil
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
It's safe to say that this list would create a very lively discussion here, long after this edition of The Big Chat has concluded. Thanks again for stopping by.
Gary: Five stars reminds me of a line from one of the listed films. Badges (stars). We don't need no stinking badges (stars). Good point, Don. Maybe we can bring it up on the board. IMHO, Out of the Past is in a category by itself. Not necessarily a "great 5 star film," but the finest example of film noir ever made, with the addition of the finest cast. Some of those films listed have been honored with Oscars, and a more than a few are on the AFI top 100 American films list. None of them (IMHO) are as noirish as OOtP. Thanks for participating tonight.
John: As a fellow writer, I am often plagued with the bane of many of us: writer's block. During the writing of your new book did you ever have bouts of this, and if so, what did you do that helped get you past it?
Mike: Yes, I did experience writer's block. Numerous times. I just got depressed and eventually got over it. You have to force yourself, that's all. It will come.
Alan Rode: It's a noir, noir, noir, noir world once again tonight on the Blackboard!! Hats off to Gary & Mike for a great Q&A and discussing your terrific book. A couple of quick questions:
1. What inspired or led you to include the interesting tie-in comments about some of the noir players and their roles on television shows in your guide?
2. What are your characteristics or [what] lines of thought did you use for classifying and including selected Westerns in your book as films noir? Cheers!
Mike: I'm sorry Alan that I didn't get a chance to answer you last night. I tried but the post response function wasn't working very well. I included the familiar TV faces feature because I found it interesting to pick out the actors and actresses I grew up watching on TV -- Sheriff Roy Coffee (Ray Teal), Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby), Lois Lane and Inspector Henderson (Noell Neill and Robert Shayne) and so many others in so many noirs. I just thought that other folks might get a kick out of it too and because of it might even be encouraged to watch a film noir that they wouldn't ordinarily bother with. There have been mixed feelings about this section -- Classic Images did a complimentary review of the book but the reviewer mentioned that he didn't understand what the section had to do with noir -- the answer of course is nothing -- it was meant to entertain. As far as the Westerns go, because I view film noir as primarily a style, I don't feel that certain genres should be eliminated from consideration. All of the Westerns I included have been mentioned by other authors as being in the noir style or containing elements of noir. In Dark City, Spencer Selby comes right out and calls seven of them "off-genre films noirs." I think some are more noir than others -- Pursued, Devil's Doorway come to mind. There are some that, to me, are weak entries, like Man of the West and The Naked Spur, even though they were directed by noir icon Anthony Mann. Thanks for the question.
Alan: Mike, thanks for the answers and a very stimulating cyber conversation last night about your book. Truthfully, I was initially nonplussed by the television comments but, as I was reading your book next to the swimming pool in Santa Fe, I just started digging on it and, well, the heck with tradition: the TV stuff was a nice, entertaining discriminator. My kudos to you for a truly original idea. I also buy into the noir Western style business although I vehemently disagree with your characterization of "Man of the West" and "The Naked Spur" as 'weak entries'. I thought they were both dark, hard-edged films, particularly the former with Lee Cobb chomping it up as a real sagebrush Fagin. As you can tell, I am a big Anthony Mann fan. Thanks again.
Kurt: Congratulations again, Mike, I can't wait to read your book! My question is, what other books about film noir either influenced/inspired you to write your own (if any)? The books by Alain Silver in my mind are good ones, also Eddie Muller, and possibly some of Paul Schrader's essays on the subject. What, if any, book in your personal film noir reference library could you not live without? Thanks.
Mike: I love Eddie Muller's books. Alain Silver is top-notch and so knowledgeable it scares me. Enjoyed Arthur Lyons' Death on the Cheap and David Meyer's A Girl and a Gun very much. I couldn't live without Film Noir Reader 1, 2, and 3.
Gary: It's getting late here in EST, so I'll leave it for you to say when the whistle blows for quittin' time! Thanks again for your thoughtful answers to all the questions tonight, and I wish you continued success on Film Noir Guide . . . and good luck with the next book. All the Best!
Kurt: Thanks again! I enjoyed reading everyone's comments--see you next time.
John: Excellent chat. I will order a copy of the book from McFarland very soon. Looking forward to reading it. Thanks & best of luck.
Mike: Thanks Gary, My postings haven't been going through very well, so it's been taking more time than I had hoped. I'll try to hang around a little longer. I've got to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning.
Hit the Beach: Paperback? Right now I'm as poor as Frank Lovejoy in the first act of Try And Get Me. Kurt: Or like Al Roberts after a tough night at the Break O' Dawn Club?
Mike: Paperback someday I hope. But that's not my call.
Hit the Beach: Well, until then I'll just check the bowling alleys and see if I can't run into my man Lloyd Bridges. Really though, I'm looking forward to picking this one up soon.
Don: Mike, just wanted to say that as an appreciative reader of your Guide, I found the "themes" and "types" material to be extremely interesting. I think your attempts at this kind of classification have a lot of potential, and my guess is that your next book might move in that direction. Best of luck with both books, and please be sure to come back when you're ready to share a preview of the new one with us.
Mike: Thanks for the kind words, Don. That's all, Folks! Well, thanks to everybody, Dark Marc, Gary George, the regulars here, and the visitors. It was a GREAT time. Gotta go now. Regards!
Rob: Thanks Mike, Good Luck on your next book!
dark marc: Mike, thanks for the interview, and we hope you'll join us soon! Thanks for giving us your thoughts and discussing your work with us here at The Blackboard.
I would like to share with the gang the first time Danger & Despair got an email from you seeking videos on rare titles. Before I opened your email I noticed that under the "From" heading that the email was from "NOIR NUT"! Even before I opened that mail I knew that you are our kind-a people! We anxiously await the next book!
Many thanks to Gary George for a great interview and one for the archives!
The Michael Keaney interview was copied and archived by mac. Gary George led the interview before the board was opened to a question and answer session. This session took place May 26th, 2003.
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