Would film noir have happened without Fritz Lang? Probably, since so many factors and forces contributed to its flowering. But would it have been as rich and strange, as philosophically provocative and aesthetically exciting? Among the directors associated with film noir, no other possessed a personal vision—both style and worldview—so apt to that cinematic environment.
You could say that Lang had a two-decades-plus head start on noir. During his German Expressionist heyday, from 1921’s Der müde Tod (Destiny) to 1933’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, he was exploring themes and forms, coining screen language and syntax, and forging an approach to character and ambiguity that would be crucial to the noir world. Perhaps most crucially of all, the power and mystery of Lang’s Weimar-era films sprang from a uniquely dynamic symbiosis of narrative and design: story emerged through the recognition of pattern, as character was forged in the struggle against Fate—the ultimate design.
Those films serve as early recon maps of the terrain that would become noir. Most of the major works deal with criminality and shadow societies pervading, underlying, and sometimes flourishing right on the surface of a modern city. Several feature a criminal genius whose powers of disguise and organizational supremacy make him seem ubiquitous, almost supernatural. Sometimes called Dr. Mabuse (though the mastermind in the best of the “Mabusian” films, the 1928 Spione, doesn’t go by that name), his plots to orchestrate complex capers, undermine national currencies, steal international secrets, and so forth are finally incidental to his primary impulse: to play with the very fabric of contemporary reality. The nature of that reality is suggested by a hallucinatory mise-en-scène in which the décor is at once stark and decadent, a playground for perverse spectacle and gamesmanship, a maze of corridors and doorways and streets where the modern and the Gothic interlayer. There’s a pervasive air of paranoia, a nightmare of a world in which chaos and order are opposite sides of the same coin.
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Noted film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, acting as editors, concentrate in this work on the thirty key directors of the classic noir period. These include well-known luminaries, such as Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Nicholas Ray, and Joseph Losey as well as lesser-known lights of noir, such as Gerd Oswald, Felix E. Feist, Ida Lupino, and John Brahm. Each article will include a short biography of the director, a list of their major noir films, as well as a deep analysis of the films themselves. The book boasts over two dozen collaborators from the world of film history and criticism. Lavishly illustrated with high-resolution photos illustrating the points made by the authors, this book is a must for any aficionado of the American style of film noir.