Interview Series
  Session with Spencer Selby   November 20th 2003    
  Author of:

  'DARK CITY  The Film Noir'

ISBN: 0-7864-0478-7
263pp. photographs, index $30 softcover 1997 [1984]
'DARK CITY' was first published in 1984 and Selby researched the subject several years before writing the book.  Today, it remains a popular resource for a new wave of writers and scholars who began to re-examine the film art in the 1990's and now continue into the new millennium.  It is an essential work on the subject and remains impressive due in part to a number of films that were first recognized as noir in this publication. This should be required reading for Film Noir 101.  
  Film critic Bill MacVicar hosted the interview before opening up the board to a Q & A session. This was the last interview for 2003. It was a outstanding event with excellent questions from the participants and ending with a poem that is a collage of lines by the guest's favorite noir poet.  
  Dark City is published by  McFarland & Company Publishers  
  BILL MACVICAR: Tonight on the Blackboard we are honored to welcome Spencer Selby, whom most of us know as the author of Dark City: The Film Noir - one of the seminal works in the field, and one, thankfully, still in print after almost 20 years. He is also the founder of The SINK Press in San Francisco, and has published seven books of poems and three volumes of visual poetry, including the just issued Problem Pictures, and I want to thank Spencer for sending me an inscribed copy.

Now let me post my first question.

Spencer, right now, when generally there seems to be far less interest in the movie past than there was, say, in the 1970s when you began Dark City, there is a surprising amount of enthusiasm about and attention paid to Film Noir. Part of this has to do with technology having made movies - even "lost" and forgotten titles - available almost on demand. It's easy to forget that it wasn't always so: That before VCRs and DVDs, the only sources were late-night television or repertory houses, if you were lucky enough to live in a big city or a college town that supported one.

So, to what extent do you think that new technology and increased availability has changed not only our ability to access and assess movies but even the very experience of watching them?

SPENCER SELBY: Hi Bill and Everyone!

I think it's fairly obvious that video forever changed the relationship we have to movies. Seemingly only for the better, since it brought access to large portions of film history. But with this access goes the burden of making choices which for most viewers are daunting. I'm sure we all have had the experience of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of films available in almost any video rental store. Even if you know that you want to see a Noir, how do you decide which one? Chances are you will not rent a film which is completely obscure or unknown. Before video this kind of problem didn't exist. If you wanted to watch an old movie on a given night, you had very little choice, which forced you to be more open-minded and could lead to a lot more discovery and appreciation of movies in general.

BILL: What accounts for the emergence of Noir in particular from the past? What, for instance, led you to choose it as your subject?

SPENCER: My interest in Noir predates the subject (since virtually no one in the U.S. had identified the cycle as such prior to 1970). In the beginning there were only some fascinating, stylish crime movies I watched on TV. Forty years later I can see countless reasons for the emergence and enduring interest of Noir.

I now believe that Noir constitutes the most significant cycle of films in the history of world cinema. To fully elaborate on this claim would require a book in itself. And all the historical analysis is perhaps secondary to the simple fact that Noir is a surprisingly large group of meaningful, artistic, and entertaining movies.

But I do think it's worth mentioning that Hollywood in the 1940s was a unique turning point in the destiny of the cinema. Narrative film grew up and matured all at once from there, and Film Noir exactly paralleled and played a crucial part in this development. Outside of that, I would stress again how different things were in the 1970s, when I started writing about Noirs. At that time there was not a single book on Noir in English. And there was real confusion about what Noir meant and which movies were or weren't Film Noir. This important subject was mostly a critical frontier, and it was the challenge and need posed by that that motivated me to write Dark City.

BILL: You've said, "Watching the movies is what it's always been about for me" and "the real meat of the film experience is so short-term." The movie-viewing experience has been described in a number of ways. For Pauline Kael, it was akin to erotic rapture, reflected in the titles of her collections: Going Steady, When The Lights Go Down, Deeper into Movies, Taking It All In, Reeling (not to mention that posthumous remembrance of her, Afterglow). Others have written about the "oneiric" allure of movies, saying they most resemble dreams.

How would you characterize your experience of watching a movie? Or do different movie genres like comedy, romantic adventure, suspense (or for that matter different directors or eras) elicit differing responses? And do you think that watching Film Noir entails a particular response all its own?

SPENCER: Watching movies is an aesthetic form of voyeurism, or vicarious life, depending upon how much one identifies with the characters. Film viewing is dreamlike because of the power of the medium to overload the senses. When this is done well, it becomes the ultimate artistic experience, encompassing visual art, narrative drama, music and sometimes even poetry. This is how I would characterize all movie watching; I have no special definition for watching Film Noir.

BILL: As with our beleaguered Constitution, there seem to be "strict constructionists" and "loose constructionists" when it comes to Film Noir. Some try to fit every film into a rigid taxonomy, while others use more casual standards. In that delightful book, Hollywood in the Forties, Higham and Greenberg write: "A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour . . . In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man waits to murder or be murdered." For some, the presence of these iconic images and the mood of apprehension is enough to deem a movie Noir. Do you have opinions on whether Film Noir is principally a style, a genre, or (my preference) a time-constrained cycle in movie history?

SPENCER: In Dark City I say Noir is a cycle of films released between 1940 and 1959. This does not solve the problem of identifying which films are and which aren't Noirs. When it comes to that, I am not a "strict constructionist. Most Noirs contain an element of crime but they are not all crime movies. Many great Noirs are drenched with stylistic characteristics, as are a lot of others. But style is only part of the story. The darkness of Noir is also very much a depiction of the dark side of life and society. Noir thematics play out in a variety of ways, but the darkness is always present in the script and in the conception of characters.

BILL: As we discussed before, many of the important studies of Film Noir date from the days before frequent or easy viewings of the movies were possible, and when writers were working often from dim memory. So in Silver and Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, a detailed precis of each film preceded any commentary. This helped to introduce movies to readers who probably had scant chance of ever viewing them, but had an unfortunate side-effect: many of the plot summaries are garbled, undermining one's trust in the dirigibles of abstract analysis launched from such shaky scaffolding. In Dark City, you have followed this format without falling into its pitfalls, as your synopses are long and detailed. Why do you consider it so important to accurately recount what happens on screen before offering a critique?

SPENCER: The long plot synopses in the first half of Dark City were written out of necessity, as an aid to my own memory. I did not have prints or tapes of movies to consult. All I had was the memory, usually of a single viewing, of each film. If you're writing an in-depth essay on a movie you need a good, accurate record, at least of the narrative. I decided to include these detailed plot descriptions in my book, hoping they would be as helpful to readers as they were to me.

BILL: Recently I rewatched one of the 25 films examined in your book: The Man I Love (directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Ida Lupino, Bruce Bennett, Robert Alda and Andrea King), and I reread your comments. I enjoyed the movie immensely, and note that it appears in many Noir filmographies in addition to your own. But I kept asking myself, why is The Man I Love a Film Noir? To be sure, it has an element of duplicity and betrayal, and a moody look (especially at the docks and in the jazz boîtes), and even a violent death, albeit an accidental one. But in other ways it seems more of a freighted '40s romance coupled with a family-problem drama. Could you elaborate a bit more on what leads you to place The Man I Love under the rubric of Film Noir?

SPENCER: I wanted to include at least one borderline, offbeat selection in the first half of the book. I haven't seen The Man I Love for 25 years but I recall thinking it was an interesting example of Noirish romantic melodrama. I suppose it belongs more properly in the appendix, along with other off-genre noirs listed there. But today I'd eliminate that appendix and put most of those movies into the main filmography. Because I believe now more than ever that Noir is not confined to the crime genre.

BILL: In Dark City you examine at length some 25 films. For those who don't have a copy handy, I'd like to quickly name them, in the chronological order you discuss them, as well as their directors: 

1. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) 

2. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder) 

3. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang) 

4. Laura (Otto Preminger) 

5. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer) 

6. Scarlet Street (Lang) 

7. Gilda (Charles Vidor) 

8. The Killers (Robert Siodmak) 

9. Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli) 

10. The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh) 

11. Brute Force (Jules Dassin) 

12. The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz) 

13. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) 

14. Criss Cross (Siodmak) 

15. Caught (Max Ophuls) 

16. The Reckless Moment (Ophuls) 

17. The File on Thelma Jordon (Siodmak) 

18. D.O.A. (Rudolph Mate) 

19. In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) 

20. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordon Douglas) 

21. Dark City (William Dieterle) 

22. Ace in the Hole (Wilder) 

23. Detective Story (William Wyler) 

24. The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis) 

25. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick)

First, only one director - Robert Siodmak - pops up three times, while Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Max Ophuls are each represented by two films. From these numbers, can we infer some preference for the work of these directors on your part? Or did you choose the films using other criteria , with this list just happening to be their final allotment? Second, the omission of a few directors often mentioned reverently in connection with Film Noir might raise a few eyebrows. Orson Welles comes to mind, but in this particular forum I suspect another missing director will provoke even stronger reaction: Anthony Mann (T-Men, Raw Deal, several more). Does this represent a value judgment on his work?

SPENCER: The 25 films should not be taken as a preference over certain directors that don't appear. I love Anthony Mann (I believe I was the first to identify all of his Noirs) and Touch of Evil has always been one of my favorite late Noirs. Many factors influenced what films were covered in the first half of Dark City. Again, I did not have access to movies of my choice when I was writing those essays.

BILL: In writing about those 25 films from the Noir cycle, you make several potent and provocative statements about its aesthetic. Let me quote two of them, on films at opposite ends of the cycle.

On Laura, you write: "Built into the structure [of the movie] is a self-consciousness about its own artistic nature (a major signpost of the Noir movement it helped to usher in) which makes its anti-art theme quite ironic."

And of The Big Combo, near the close of the cycle 11 years later, you write: "the hearing aid [turned off so there is no sound but only visuals on the screen] defines the sensual aspect of film art as form, as opposed to content. The viewer's attention is directed to the form-content polarity because it holds a special significance for the Film Noir. The cynical content of these films often seemed to be overbalanced by an aesthetic formal beauty which encompassed intricate narrative structures, expressionistic visuals, and audacious musical soundtracks . . . By accentuating the formal aspects of the medium, the ugliness of the society could be conveyed with a stunning beauty that transformed its grim reality into stylized art."

I think what you wrote here can be discussed endlessly, so, building from it, I have about three questions. First of all, can we take these observations, and others like them that you make, as the underlying premise of your view of the Noir cycle as "the most significant cycle of films in the history of World Cinema" and as a summing up of your response to these films?

SPENCER: The quotes refer to one aspect of Noir's significance, but it really would take something closer to an endless discussion to explain why I think the cycle stands out in film history.

BILL: Secondly, it's been often noted that the "Golden Age" of the major studios, beginning in the '30s and perhaps reaching a peak in the '40s, produced movies that were seamless, polished productions, their artistry craftily concealing itself. I now want to direct your attention to a movie that caused a sensation by breaking most of those rules: The Welles/Mankiewicz Citizen Kane.

It has always struck me that, while rarely classified as a Noir, Kane remains in many ways the most prototypical Film Noir of them all, availing itself of "intricate narrative structures, expressionistic visuals" and an "audacious musical soundtrack" to an unprecedented and rarely emulated degree (by the way, your decoding of the intricate flashback structure of The Killers is a marvel). And surely Kane stands in the forefront of movies which brazenly disclose a "self-consciousness about its own artistic nature." Would you comment on the influence of Citizen Kane on the Noir cycle Đ and on how close it is to Film Noir?

SPENCER: Citizen Kane fully deserves its status as the greatest movie ever made. As such it is in a class all its own, and for that reason alone I would not call it a Noir. It makes more sense to talk about Kane's influence, which you perceptively bring up, and which was tremendous, not just on Noir, but it was in Noir that the possibilities of this influence were most explored. 

BILL: Third, more than most periods or cycles of cinema, Film Noir seems to spill over into many other disciplines: Aesthetic history (German Expressionism and French tragic, or poetic, realism, the hard-boiled pulps of the '20s and '30s); technology and economics (new cameras that allowed low lighting and hence less opulent sets and location shooting); social currents (the Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, World War II and the Cold War, returning vets and post-war prosperity); gender studies (women entering the workforce, loosening sexual mores); and various schools of psychology. To what extent does a knowledge of these disciplines enhance our enjoyment of Film Noir? Or, to put it in reverse, how fully can Film Noir be appreciated on its own terms, in relative ignorance of the many facets it comprises?

SPENCER: Noir films can be enjoyed by anyone that likes movies. A knowledge of film or cultural history may or may not enhance the viewing of Noirs. What's important is to bring full attention and one's own perspective to the viewing experience. Not that I disagree with your point about history, just that I don't think greater knowledge always leads to a greater appreciation of Noir--or any other kind of art, for that matter. 

BILL: When you began to write Dark City in the '70s, you were truly an outrider (we have it much easier today, the trails having been well blazed thanks to pioneers like you). I think many people would like to know how you went about compiling the excellent list of 490 Noir titles in your filmography - a labor for which I am indebted to you, since it was indispensable in building my own film library.

SPENCER: I started the list in 1972, right after reading Paul Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir" in Film Comment. I believed from the start that there were many more Noirs than had been identified. The more films I viewed, the more I realized how true that was. I compared movies not recognized as Noir to those that were. I did this without prejudices that other critics and scholars seemed to have. By 1982 I had a list of about 440 films, not counting off-genre. I added another 50 mostly by going through New York Times film reviews, which back then were the only written descriptions of obscure movies that were no longer shown. What's amazing to me now is how few of those calculated guesses have turned out to be wrong.

BILL: As we prepared for this interview, you indicated that you preferred not to talk about favorite stars, favorite movies, and noir trivia. Fair enough. But since you let slip the tantalizing detail that, among the 25 films discussed in your book, some of your favorites were not included, I can't resist asking you, before we open the Blackboard up for questions, what those missing favorites are, or, if you were writing the book now, you might include?

SPENCER: O.K. Here's a list of favorites not included in the first half of Dark City: 

Phantom Lady 

The Dark Corner 


Born To Kill 

They Won't Believe Me 

Repeat Performance 

Nightmare Alley 

The Big Clock (But the book is better) 

Raw Deal 

Hollow Triumph 

Sorry, Wrong Number 

Force of Evil 

Act of Violence 


Gun Crazy 

Storm Warning 

Side Street 

No Man of Her Own 

The Asphalt Jungle 

Night and the City 

Sunset Blvd. 

Edge of Doom 

M (Losey's remake) 

The Prowler 

Strangers on a Train 

He Ran All The Way 

On Dangerous Ground 

The Narrow Margin 

Sudden Fear 

The Thief 

Kiss Me Deadly 

Sweet Smell of Success 

Touch of Evil 

Odds Against Tomorrow

BILL: Thanks, Spencer. And with that list to whet our appetites, before we all go scurrying off in a frenzy of taping and/or buying, let me offer my personal thanks for making this such an enjoyable and informative interview, not just this evening but over the past several weeks. The Blackboard is now open to questions for Spencer Selby.

ROB: Thank Mr. Selby for participating on the board.

Your book has been my Film Noir bible for more than a few years. I particularly love your analysis of the 25 noir films in the beginning . . . it has always helped me to impress dates when we watch a film included in your book.

But it has been a blessing and a curse, primarily because after I bought it I had to track down all the films that you listed that were not included in the Silver Film Noir Encyclopedia.

I'm still looking for the "lost" nine as I like to call them: The Glass Wall, Without Warning, Escape, No Escape, Shed No Tears, For You I Die, Incident, This Side Of The Law, and Appointment With A Shadow.

1. ) Any idea where I could get copies of these films?

2.) You didn't include either I Love Trouble or The Devil Thumbs a Ride in your book, any particular reason or just an oversight?

SPENCER: Hi Rob. Thanks for your kind words. Sorry about the curse part, but isn't it fun to still have some Noirs we haven't seen? I'm like you with most on your list. One exception is This Side of the Law. It is in Turner library and has been on TCM in the past. You could request that it be screened again maybe.

As for The Devil Thumbs a Ride, that was the biggest oversight of my book. It was on my list and somehow got deleted by the publisher and I didn't realize that till it was too late. I Love Trouble, I simply missed. 

RENALDO: Are you familiar with two novellas: The Damned Don't Die and You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up? I believe they were both republished by Black Lizard Books out of Berkeley in the late 1980s. Do you know whether either one was ever made into a Neo-Noir film? Thanks in advance.

SPENCER: Sorry, I can't help you with obscure pulp titles. That sorta goes beyond my interest and knowledge. I do have a collection of Noir books, but most of them were either adapted into Noirs or written by important authors of the time, like Woolrich, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith.

NOIR AL: Do you believe it possible to do a serious Noir now that could be faithful artistically, in atmosphere, in color/shading and in dialogue? Any suggestions on how it could be done? 

SPENCER: Find out as much as you can about The Man Who Wasn't There. That's the best new Noir that's come out in recent years, and one of the best ever, in my opinion.

NOIR AL: But look at the lack of "depth" and "shading" in the coloration of its black and white as opposed to depth of shading in some of the classic Noirs.

GRAEME: Thank you Mr. Selby for the opportunity to ask you two questions this evening. Thanks also to Marc and Bill for making this at all possible. I am an Australian living in Indonesia.

It is often said told that Film Noir is no more, and that the genre ended with the Fifties. Anything that comes now is "Neo-Noir", if "Noir" at all. Do you believe that it is rooted in a particular period and is now no more, or is it a film genre that lives on? 

SPENCER: Hi Graeme. As I said earlier in the interview, I don't believe Film Noir is a genre at all. It is a time-based cycle of films that did indeed end in the 50s. In one appendix of my book I list all the Noirs chronologically, based on year and month of original release. You can see from this that the cycle was like a bell curve, starting slowly and then bursting out to encompass 40-60 films each year from 1946-51, then trailing off just as dramatically in numbers (and often quality) till the end of its second decade.

ROB: Any plans to update your book? Or to expand your Film Noir analysis to other films you listed? Your writing really helped me to appreciate the films more.

SPENCER: Thanks Rob. I'm really glad to hear that my book was helpful to you. I don't have any firm plans to update the book or return to film writing, but who knows. Maybe this interview will get me back into it. My book probably should be updated. I believe it is the only Noir book ever to remain in print for 20 years.

OX: Is there any identifiable age or cultural group to whom Noir appeals mostly? My personal idea is that people of 40 or over and who have at least some second-hand knowledge of the Depression or WW II and the 1950's tend to appreciate Noir the most, as some of the issues which are the subject matter of the films deal with 1930's thru mid-1950's everyday life? Am I barking up the wrong tree here?

BILL: That's a fascinating question.  As it happens, most of the Noir cycle took place during the first decade of my life, and in some ways presents a, I hesitate to say "idealized," memory of growing up in a city that looks like the cities in Film Noir and the way of life in the late '40s and early '50s. So there's a definite personal connection to the world preserved in Film Noir.

SPENCER: You may be onto something. I was a child of the '50s, my parents grew up in the '30s and my dad was a paratrooper in WW II.

mac: Good evening, Mr. Selby! Welcome to The Blackboard. It's truly an honor and a pleasure to be able to chat with you. Without further ado . . .

In this forum we have periodically discussed Film Noir from other countries. Enthusiasts, of course, know that Film Noir had its roots in German and French cinemas. There have been British Noir, Japanese Noir, Italian Noir, and reportedly, there exists Mexican Noir. Most recently there was a DVD release of a Philippine production being marketed as Film Noir (The Scavengers).

Is it perhaps time for a study of worldwide Noir? And do you think that there are countries where Film Noir might be entirely alien or unsuited to their culture and character. For example, Hindi Noir or, a nod to Graeme, Australian Noir, anyone?

Or is Noir universal?

SPENCER: I don't know if Noir is universal. My experience pretty much includes the countries you mention. One exception would be Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds which is one the greatest foreign Noirs, in my opinion.

JON: Hi, my question is once that you finished researching and writing Dark City, was it hard to find a publisher? There weren't many, if any, books on the subject at that time.

SPENCER: It wasn't too hard. I actually secured publication based on the first part of the book, then I finished the filmography. I must thank Robert Franklin of McFarland for encouraging me to expand on the second half of the book, which became the part that really influenced the field.

GRAEME: What, in your opinion, are the most enduring contributions of Film Noir to the vast corpus of moving film?

Thanks, Mr. Selby!

SPENCER: That's a tough question, Graeme. My quick answer would be that Noir did more than any group of movies to open up the parameters of popular movies. Before Noir there were all kinds of plot and character limitations and conventions that were almost always obeyed. Noir exploded all that so that now the narrative can be fragmented and characters can be more unpredictable (especially morally). As just one example off the top of my head, The Sopranos could never have happened without the foundation of Noir in the distance behind it.

There are other ways that Noir changed things that have more to do with style and how movies are made, but I'll leave that because I must get to other questions.

BILL: It seems that all the Easterners at least (like me) have snuggled under their comforters against the chill November winds. I'm soon to follow, but let me thank you again, Spencer, for graciously agreeing to participate in this interview. Your insight into and passion for the movies of the Noir cycle are simply invaluable.

And those tapes will be in the mail before the weekend's out (once I locate Whispering City)! mac: Screenwriter and novelist Gerald Petievich (To Live and Die in L.A.) has asserted that "Story and only story defines Film Noir. Director tastes and techniques having nothing to do with the archetype Noir tale."

Do you agree with Mr. Petievich's assertion? As examples, what movies, if any, would you describe as being Film Noir from a strictly stylistic standpoint--that is, narratively, thematically, and tonally, they are otherwise not Film Noir? Offhand, I'd classify the Warner Brothers musical Blues in the Night as an example of Noir "style over substance."

SPENCER: I do not agree with Mr Petievich's assertion. As I said earlier, identifying a movie as Noir is based on both stylistic and script factors. Most of the best Noirs have strong amounts of both, but many others do not. There is a conservative side of Noir which involves mostly police procedurals. T Men, Appointment with Danger, Trapped, The Woman on Pier 13 are a few, but there are others. In these movies style is more important because the plot and characters mostly would not pass Mr Petievich's or my own test.

OX: Mr. Selby, thanks for your reply to my question (also BillMacV). Have you seen the movie "The Temp" (1993, I think), and do you feel it qualifies as a modern Noir? I personally would like to see it in black & white, just to see if it would seem too much out of place among the 1940's-1950's Noirs.

SPENCER: I saw The Temp when it first came out but now don't remember it very well. I would have to see it again to say whether it is Neo-Noir. Defining a film as Neo-Noir or not is something I haven't gotten into very much. Most of the crime genre has absorbed the Noir sensibility, and so most crime films have some element of Noir in them even if they are not trying to be Noirish. That just shows how much influence the cycle ended up having. 

RENALDO: Some believe that the "first" Classic Noir film was directed by Boris Ingster: Stranger on the Third Floor with Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook. What, in your opinion, was the first "Classic Noir film" in both England and the United States?

SPENCER: I call Stranger on the Third Floor the first full-blown Noir. That movie was released in August, 1940. A few months later, in January of 1941, a movie was released that today might not look as Noirish, but back then it had much more impact than Stranger. I'm speaking of High Sierra.

DARK MARC: Hi Spencer:

Wow, it's so great to have you here and I think it's safe to say that the Blackboard Gang is thrilled.

Please feel free to sign off when you've had enough, because we could keep you here all night I'm sure.

My question, time permitting:

Now that you have been enjoying these dark classics for over three decades do you find yourself drawn more to the political themes running through Noir, than when you were first exposed to them?

And to what extent are politics important in the overall picture of the style? An example would be Thieves' Highway.

SPENCER: Thanks Marc. I'm not worn out yet. As to your question, I'm not more or less drawn to political themes in Noir. They are important as you know in the cycle, but not more important than psychology or morality or narrative suspense, to name a few other things. I have not seen Thieves Highway for many years but liked it very much in the past. Recently I saw Mann's The Black Book. Now there is a movie whose politics seem today very clever. Mann couldn't overtly criticize the HUAC witchhunting so he came up with an illuminating historical parallel.

mac: My final question, and I once again I thank you for granting all of us the wonderful opportunity to chat with you.

In Appendix A, "Off-Genre" and Other Films Noirs, your list of movies "offers a somewhat different opinion [from Silver's and Ward's Film Noir encyclopedia], both in the case of those four generic headings (two of which should not even be considered "off-genre") . . ."

Those "four generic headings" were Westerns, Gangster, Comedy, and Period films.

I know that the Gangster film should not be considered "off-genre." But what is the other category that you think is compatible with Film Noir?

Best regards. Thank you for your absolutely essential tome, Mr. Selby. May you be rewarded with fabulous success in all your endeavors!

SPENCER: Thanks again Mac. The other is Period Films. Silver and Ward say that a movie cannot be set even 50 years in the past and be full-fledged Noir. Because of that they must exclude some great Noirs like The Lodger, Bluebeard, Hangover Square, The Suspect, So Evil My Love, and House By the River. These and others I have not mentioned are all Victorian Melodramas. At least that's what they must be classed generically. This was part of the film and literary crime genre that Noir springs from. And these movies are to me totally Noir. In my book I separate these from several films set further in the past, like The Black Book. Those are more properly Costume Dramas, and I called them off-genre.

DON MALCOLM: Marc took my other question for you, so let me try this (apologies for being late, but I had to visit my father in the hospital . . . ):

Do you think that Noir works best when the visual elements are geared around certain cinematographic techniques (lighting, angles)? Is there something distinct about how Noir (speaking VERY generally here) constricts the aspect ratio to achieve a different visual atmosphere? Do the best Noirs tend to do this, or is this feature of Noir overstated?

Thanks so much for your book and for your generosity in spending so much time with us!

SPENCER: Hi Don. It's an interesting point you make about claustrophobia. Noir visuals did this in many ways, not just with angles and lighting. Many noirs end in places like dark factories, tunnels, etc. So maybe you are onto something but keep in mind that Noir as a whole had variable ways of manifesting its themes and concepts.

MRS. UNDERWORLD U.S.A.: Being a poet, I am wondering if you have ever seen the poem that was the basis for that great film THE SET-UP with Robert Ryan.

Where can I find a copy?

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

SPENCER: Hi Mrs Underworld. I can't answer your question about the poem in The Set-up. Instead here is another. This is my collage of lines from the person I consider to be THE poet of Noir--Kenneth Fearing.


How cold, how very cold, is the wind that blows
out of nowhere into nowhere,
winding across space and uncalendar’d time.
Meaning what it seems to mean
when the day’s receipts are counted
and locked inside the store,
and the keys are taken home.
When it is night and millions are awake
moving like a sea, not human, not known.
When a theory about them becomes nothing,
and a portrait of them would look well
on no studio wall.
Night when the bank cashier is blackmailed
and crowds are muttering in the square.
Night when a girl walks with head turned back
to watch the shadows following through dim streets.
Rhythmic from door to door, hallway to curb
and gutter to stoop, bat’s eyes bright,
ravenous for carrion found and brought
by tireless fingers to unreal lips.
Deep city, tall city, worn city,
switchboard weaving what ghost horizons
(who commands this cable, who escapes from this net,
who shudders in this web?), cold furnace in the sky.
You will remember hope that crawled up
the barroom tap and spoke through
the confident speech of the lost.
You will remember your laughter that rose
with steam from the carcass on the street,
in hatred and pity exactly matched.
Understanding death, but knowing something worse
than death is there, present in the blood.
Or is it the unsteady tendons. Or is it the nerves?
The joints. The teeth. The hair. The clumsy limbs.
Perhaps the soul—
So it is resolved, upon awakening.
This way it is devised, preparing for sleep.
So it is revealed, uneasily, in strange dreams.
  This interview was copied and archived by mac. Bill MacVicar led the interview before the board was opened to a question and answer session.  November 20th, 2003.   
  Find Bill MacVicar's notes at the IMDb  
  Return to The BIG CHAT Home Page   
Danger & Despair Interview Home Page Thursday Night Noir Next Interview
                      Sponsored by :