Monday, July 25, 2016

Into the Dark by Mark A. Vieira

Into the Dark by Mark A. Vieira
Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950
by Mark A. Vieira
336 pages - 9780762455232
May 2016
Running Press and TCM
Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

“When I walk onto a set, I never have the slightest idea what I’m going to shoot. Then I sit in a chair for a few minutes and I see it all before me.” – Edmund Goulding

If you’re looking for a book on film noir, your options are endless. Much has been written about this beloved and still impossible to nail down genre of film. When author Mark A. Vieira sought out to create Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir 1941-1950 he needed a different approach. This book is not a primer on film noir nor is it a scholary work. It isn’t even your standard coffee table book. It’s a pictorial history told through archival documents. The author is renowned as a great researcher with access to materials, documents and photographs that few others have. Into the Dark is your armchair as you dig through the film noir archives alongside Vieira.

Before you even consider picking up this book, it’s important you know what’s contained inside and how it’s structured. If you don’t have a full appreciation for this you’ll be disappointed. The book explores a wide variety of films noir starting with Citizen Kane (1941) and ending with Sunset Blvd. (1950). All the major film noir classics Out of the Past (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Murder My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), etc. and lesser known gems as well make up the space in between. Some films get one spread (2 pages) and some get up to four spreads (8 pages). There are large black-and-white publicity stills and a designed layout for the archival information. Each section will include some or all of the following:

Film name and credits
One line description of plot
Production quotes
Box Office Numbers
Letters from Regional Theaters
Artist Comments
Detailed photo captions
Asides and explanations from the author

Below is what the layout for Out of the Past (1947) looks like:

The films are presented chronologically and divided into different time periods. Each of these sections is introduced with some more archival documentation which serves to demonstrate how the genre was evolving over time.

I remember as a little girl I once had a book about the presidents of the United States. It was a reference guide from Funk & Wagnalls and was laid out in a similar way to Into the Dark. Each president had his own section with his official presidential portrait, some stats, some photographs/paintings and one article from the archives. It was not a true reference book about presidents in that it didn’t give me a sense of the president’s life and career or the milestones of his presidency. The archival material was a mixed bag with some interesting details and some fluff. Woodrow Wilson’s section included his wedding menu. I wanted more out of that book but in those pre-internet days this was all I had. Eventually I got a full encyclopedia set and could look up the presidents individually and was content with that. Into the Dark reminds me of that book but this time I was more prepared. I could appreciate it for what it was not what I wanted it to be. And lucky for me this book was richer in contextual and relevant detail.

Into the Dark is an excellent pictorial history of film noir with the context that only archival documents can give. While we love these films noir now, many were neglected back in the day. We see some shocking reactions from theater owners and from film critics (Bosley Crowther of The New York Times is heavily referenced in the book). We also see that many of these films returned a nice profit and went on to have a better appreciation in the decades that would follow. For example, my favorite film noir Out of the Past (1947) wasn’t fully appreciated until the 1970s when repertory houses started showing the film regularly. There was little publicity for it the year it came out because Dore Schary, who recently arrived at RKO, decided to only focus on films he’d been working on. There are lots of great trivia bits to be gathered from the book. For example Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely was adapted into Murder My Sweet (1944) starring Dick Powell because the book title would have confused patrons expecting another Powell musical. Crossfire (1947)’s original plot dealt with homophobia but it was changed to anti-Semitism for the film. Impact (1949) included product placement from brands like Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and Coca-Cola. Ever watch The Big Sleep (1947) and wonder what the heck was going on? After they finished filming they added more Lauren Bacall scenes which threw off the plot. Nuggets of information like these are why I read classic film books.

There are some problems with Into the Dark. There are a handful of grammatical errors and typesetting flaws. These could have easily been caught if the publisher took more care with copyediting and proofreading. The book itself is gorgeous but the signatures pulled away from the spine as I read it. Stronger glue or better overall binding would have helped hold the heavy pages to the cover a lot better. Also the archival documents can often be frustrating to read. Your beloved classic can be dampened by a ornery theater owner complaints (one called In a Lonely Place “stilted corn”). I much preferred reading the photo captions, asides, artist comments and production quotes which gave more background on the films, actors and actresses. Bosley Crowther and the various film critic insights were interesting to read but also showed how these films were not fully appreciated during their time.

When I originally discussed Into the Dark I pegged it as a book for film noir newbies. That is not the case. It’s really for film noir enthusiasts who want to study their favorite films in a new and different way. The book gets a stamp of approval from the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation who contributed a preface.

I bought this book from Larry Edmunds Bookshop at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival. Read more details on how I got to meet author Mark A. Vieira here.

Mark A. Vieira

This is my second review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

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