Book Review: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide by John Grant

A valuable resource to have on the shelf.
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Author John Grant has assembled a massive tome cataloging film noir that rightly deserves to be called a “comprehensive encyclopedia.” Over the book's 700-plus pages, there are entries for more than 3,250 films, beginning with Stephen Gaghan's Abandon (2002) and ending with John Penney's Zyzzyx Rd (2005). Covering nearly 100 years of cinema, the book's earliest entry is Chester M. Franklin's Going Straight (1916) and the latest is Allen Hughes' Broken City (2013).

Understandably, those four films might not immediately leap to anyone's mind when thinking about film noir, which is why Grant begins his Introduction with the question “What exactly do we mean by the term 'film noir'?” and then goes on to reveal why he doesn't limit the book “to US movies released between about 1940 and about 1960.” Although some might quibble with his explanation for using such a broad net, I enjoyed learning about protonoirs that Grant states “are clearly integral to film noir's ancestry and display some or many noirish characteristics; a prime example is Alfred E. Green's Baby Face (1933),” and international film noirs from 60-plus countries made before, during, and after that 20-year window.

Looking up “Maltese Falcon, The (1941),” what many consider the first film noir, the entry, as with all of them, lists the country of orgin, runtime, whether black and white or color, the studio, the director, the screenwriter, the producer, the source of the story, the cinematographer, and the cast. After a brief plot synopsis, Grant writes about the uniqueness of the Sam Spade character and offers trivia about casting, director John Huston, recursive comedies based on the film. It looks to be the largest entry and understandably so.

In addition, the encyclopedia has an appendix that presents Selective Filmographies separated into categories of Directors, Actors, and Authors. There are also 56 pages of images featuring production stills, publicity photos, and film posters. They are divided by subject: Classic Noir A Gallery of Directors, A World of Film Noir, The Faces of Noir, and The New Noir.

As a young man growing up pre-Internet, the bigger the book was the more authoritative it seemed as a resource. With so much information available digitally, I wonder if younger film enthusiasts will be interested in owning A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, but I certainly find it to be a valuable resource to have on the shelf, and certainly will when the power goes out.

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