Perhaps no film genre has inspired as much debate as film noir about what it does and doesn’t mean. It’s generally accepted that the term refers to movies released, approximately, in the two decades after WWII, generally shot in black and white, with plots involving crime and featuring a generally bleak outlook. However, as Mark Fertig notes in the introduction to Film Noir 101: The 101 Best Film Noir Posters from the 1940s-1950s (Amazon, Powell’s), genre aficionados constantly debate which titles do or don’t qualify as noir; to Fertig, “A crime movie becomes a film noir when certain narrative, thematic, and iconographic forces fuse, clash, or agitate against one another, creating a uniquely dark, moody, and undeniably alluring atmosphere that also quietly, almost subversively, raises questions about the status quo in mid-century America.”
Putting obscure titles alongside celebrated classics – each poster occupying a full page – prompts us to see each in a new light. Following the lurid, still-startling poster for Too Late for Tears, for instance, with the more respectable artwork for Frank Borzage’s Moonrise underlines both the broad possibilities of noir and the common threads in such seemingly disparate films (both narratives, as with many of the movies Fertig has included, share an underlying sense of doomed fatalism). As for the posters, many of them share what Fertig identifies as the major visual components of the films themselves – extreme angles, expressionistic lighting and crowded, claustrophobic compositions. Many of them feature images of the stars dwarfed by or, in some cases, towering over cityscapes, as if the two elements are inextricable from each other. Then there are the posters that opt to focus on a single focal point – often, as with Gilda or Double Indemnity, the stunning lead actress; the common selling points are sex, violence, sin and corruption, with some of the posters making a harder sell than others. Though Fertig’s aim is personal, the collection of posters here still works as a strong sampling of the diversity of noir artwork.
Fertig also includes a section titled “About the Films,” which features a plot summary of each film and an explanation for why he’s included it here. These include notes on the production background, insight into the stars and their performances, and a brief exploration of how the story and character types fit into the noir tradition. For the most part, though, Fertig doesn’t get into the aesthetic qualities of each film; at one point, he explains that he considers the thematic aspects of noir as important as the visual aspects, and that’s fair, but as the book is dominated by images, it seems a bit like a missed opportunity, especially when discussing films as visually complex as The Killing or Sunset Boulevard (he does sometimes cite cinematographers and elements of their work, which is appreciated). Still, it’s a minor issue, as this isn’t primarily a work of film theory – the emphasis is on the posters here, reproduced in their full, lurid glory, and Fertig and Fantagraphics have done a fine job of putting together a handsome book of art. And Fertig succeeds brilliantly at the most important thing, which is to prompt me to seek out movies, like The Sniper and Plunder Road, which I’d never heard of, as well as making me want to revisit my old favorites.