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Film Noir: The Directors

I have a new essay on the noir films of director Robert Wise, just out in this excellent new collection edited by noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir: The Directors, published by Limelight Editions.

Here’s the first paragraph of my essay:

“Robert Wise’s case as a noir director is a curious one; Wise seemingly freelanced throughout his career, and never really came down decisively in any one genre, swinging all the way from musicals to horror films, with every possible stop in-between. His youth was marked by constant movie going, and he soon got tired of the limited opportunities offered by his hometown, and trekking to Hollywood, got a job in RKO’s cutting department. At first an apprentice, working on music and dialogue tracks, and then a full-fledged editor, Wise rapidly rose through the ranks of the studio hierarchy, and by 1939 was cutting complete “A” level features, such as William Dieterle’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in 1940, Dorothy Arzner’s feminist tract Dance Girl Dance.

In 1941, however, Wise’s skillful editing came to the attention of Orson Welles, fresh off his 1938 War of the Worlds Mercury Theatre radio broadcast, which memorably caused panic in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, with its vivid depiction of a Martian invasion in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, presented as a news broadcast in real time, a format that completely fooled a rather unsophisticated radio audience. Welles, who has been working in radio as an actor on series such as The Shadow since the mid 1930s, and before that as a director and impresario for a variety of outré Broadway productions, was rewarded with a three-picture deal at RKO for his audacious success, and sequestered himself in a screening room at the studio, watching everything from newsreels and travelogues to John Ford westerns, often in the company of the gifted Gregg Toland, a brilliant director of cinematography who was part of the RKO studio staff. For Welles, Wise edited Citizen Kane (1941), a film that surely needs no introduction to readers of this volume, and which, along with Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, and also an RKO film), heralded the dawn of the noir era.”

If you want more, you’ll have to buy the book.

As one ecstatic reader of the volume noted of Film Noir: The Directors on the Amazon.com website, “some 20+ directors are profiled & discussed with many examples of their works and overall style. This book is well-produced, slick looking with generous illustrations and lots of informative film analysis. A gold mine for fans of bleak character driven tales of fatalistic heroes hopelessly lost in a dark world of never-ending shadows. Film noir heaven (can one possibly exist?) doesn’t get any better than this. Absolutely essential.”

It’s a real honor to be included here, and Alain Silver and James Ursini are holding a book signing in Los Angeles to mark the publication of Film Noir: The Directors at the famed Larry Edmunds Bookshop, located at 6644 Hollywood Boulevard, on April 28th at 5PM, followed by a screening of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Edge of the City, with a special appearance by noir actress Julie Adams at The Egyptian Theater, as part of their noir series for the American Cinematheque.

I’ve seen a number of films at the Egyptian, and the projection — still 35mm, thankfully — is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. If you live in the Los Angeles area, stop by Larry Edmunds Bookshop, pick up a copy of Film Noir: The Directors, and then walk down a few blocks to the Egyptian theater, located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, for a night of pure noir on the street of broken dreams.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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