Class, Crime & International Film Noir: Globalizing America’s Dark Art (2014) Dennis Broe
Hardcover, 233 pages
Includes table of contents, list of figure, foreword by Kees van der Pijl, preface, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index, photos
(Photos below are not taken from the book.)
Although the French gave us the name, many people believe film noir movies were made exclusively in America. Some even insist that noir pictures from other countries should not even be categorized as film noir. Dennis Broe’s Class, Crime & International Film Noir destroys that claim.
Broe, Professor of Media Arts at Long Island University and the author of Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood (University Press of Florida, 2009) explores international trends that led to the birth of noir movies in France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the Mediterranean. Classic film noir was a global phenomenon touching on politics, economics, and aesthetics both before and after World War II. All the countries and areas represented in the book experienced significant social turmoil and change, and those elements appear in their films. The darkness of those pictures stems from a sense of defeat, powerlessness, and lack of hope that was largely economic. Yet while Broe finds common ingredients from each of these countries, he also uncovers some interesting differences.
La Bête humaine (1938)
In France, the left-wing Popular Front movement, workers’ strikes, and the rise of poetic realism in film all contributed to works such as Le jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939, Marcel Carné), Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938, Marcel Carné), and La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938, Jean Renoir). With each chapter, Broe provides the social and economic backgrounds of the era affecting stories and character types, especially those of the working class. Jean Gabin, one of the most popular French actors of all time, excelled in such roles. Gabin, who appears in all three films, plays a fundamentally good man caught up in the forces working against him. As we would see from American film noir protagonists just a few years later, Gabin’s characters are desperate, on the run, and trapped with no way out. They’re not so concerned with winning, but surviving.
Hell Drivers (1957)
British post-war cinema gave a large working class the chance to show the reality of their lives. Shunning fantasy, stale comedies, and blue blood dramas, these noir titles conveyed the frustrations and struggles of the blue-collar world in films like Hell Drivers (1957, Cy Endfield), Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin), and the Carol Reed masterwork The Third Man (1949). Several of these films also starred American actors whose box office popularity extended to the UK, promising not only a safer financial bet, but also an opportunity for blacklisted American directors like Endfield and Dassin to break free from the constraints of the U.S. Production Code, to say nothing of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).
Bitter Rice (1948)
In Italy, unemployment and inflation in the north and agitation in the agrarian south created a cinematic realism, especially after Hollywood dumped its backlog of films in the country. The dark side of neorealism in films like Ossessione (1943, Luchino Visconti), Bitter Rice (1948, Giuseppe De Santis), and others criticized political oppression, including the remaining Fascist presence, and explored Italy’s harsh economic conditions.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Japanese noir runs the gamut between identity, abuse of power, repression, and much more, seen in films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), and a film containing layers of depth and corruption, The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which Broe states, gives “shape to his criticism of a society that was, as he saw it, on the brink of both prosperity and disaster” (p. 175). These three Kurosawa films are clearly powerful, but I’m surprised by the omission of High and Low (1963). Other directors and other films are mentioned, but the Kurosawa pictures provide the bulk of the chapter.
The short section on Mediterranean noir is somewhat tacked on and out of place since most of the films explored are well beyond the established era of classic film noir. While the section is interesting, it demands a more comprehensive study, which can, no doubt, be found in many other works.
Much of Class, Crime & International Film Noir is fascinating, yet readers should know that this is an academic work written primarily for academics. If you’re really into film noir, you might consider borrowing the book from a college or university library, through interlibrary loan, or wait (like I did) for a good discount to pop up, since the book (in paperback or hardcover) retails for about $55.
If nothing else, Class, Crime & International Film Noir proves that film noir was (and remains) a global phenomenon that fans should not ignore.
This review is part of the 2023 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!