Books / Features

Film Noir Portraits by Paul Duncan and Tony Nourmand [Book Review]

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.”

Paul Duncan closes his introduction to this collection of Film Noir stills with this quote from Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s seminal Sunset Boulevard. She’s talking about the stars of the silent era but she could just as easily be talking today about the film stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood – specifically those actors whose faces made them ideally suited for the moral ambiguity of Film Noir. Actors like Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark. And that’s not mentioning the mercurial, seductive femme fatales, played by the likes of Gloria Grahame, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner. Film Noir Portraits is a wonderful appreciation of these stars, and the fatalistic films in which they appeared.

Just opening my copy of this book got me ridiculously excited. My love of the classic era of Film Noir is well documented on this site and elsewhere, and I knew this would be right up my street from the cover alone. It’s a beautifully evocative still of Robert Mitchum from The Night Of The Hunter, a film that is immediately used as the prime example for the way Hollywood marketed it’s films at the time. It’s curious to open a book that features some of the most gorgeous poster art of cinema history with a film that notoriously bombed, but it serves as an effective case study in the crucial nature of the publicity and marketing in the success of a film.

Charles Laughton’s gothic fairytale is one of the most unique films ever made, and the studio was understandably flummoxed as to how to market it – leading to the bizarre decision to try and sell it as a romance with Mitchum and Shelley Winters – an incredibly misleading ploy that played a big part in the film’s failure at the box office.

This book is a lovingly produced meeting of minds between film historian and noir expert Paul Duncan and Tony Nourmand, a renowned specialist on film art. The admittedly succinct analysis from the books writers is interesting and engaging, especially the revelation that some of the most iconic, enduring images of the genre were often seen as an unnecessary artistic indulgence by the studios. It’s just baffling that the German Expressionist influences and chiaruscuro photography that are now seen as the defining traits of noir were often discouraged by the producers in favour of simple “actors standing against a white background” style because it looked better in newspapers.

Thankfully all are preserved in this book, which showcases some of the most vital, evocative images of the genre. Varying from star portraits to production stills, it’s an incredible showcase for the most talented photojournalists of the era, like Robert Coburn, Ernest Bachrach and A.L. Whitey. Masters of composition, they make stunning use of shadows and high contrast lighting, with many images looking like they have been pulled directly from German silent cinema like M and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari.

I could personally have done with a bit more analysis of specific films, along the same lines as the case studies we get on The Night Of The Hunter and Gilda in the introduction, but both writers are aware that the star of the book is the photos themselves, and waste no time getting to the main event.

As well as the more celebrated noir films like The Maltese Falcon, Touch Of Evil and Double Indemnity, there are some deeper cuts included here with some equally memorable imagery. I was gratified to find stills from more obscure noirs Murder By Contract, He Walked By Night and Raw Deal, along with personal favourites like The Set-Up and Criss Cross. Some images are pure works of art (there’s one shot from Phantom Lady that is just about the definitive film noir still, and yet another from Detective Story that looks torn straight from the pages of Sin City) while others are obviously publicity material, with awkward posing from the leads that are almost as fascinating.

After their love letter to Vampire Cinema, Reel Art Press have knocked it out of the park with this release. Full of lovingly reproduced stills, this is a wonderful tribute to film noir. I could spend hours poring over these beautiful images, which in many cases look sharper and more striking than the films in which they appear. The perfect Christmas present for fans of classic Hollywood.

Film Noir Portraits by Paul Duncan and Tony Nourmand is available now – Order it here: https://amzn.to/3hBeLLE

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