2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
First Person Singular
Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson
Royal Books
Royal Books
Kevin Johnson recently wrote The Dark Page: Books that Inspired American Film Noir (1940 1949). Published by Oak Knoll Press.
How did you first get interested in film noir?

I've been a rabid film fan pretty much since the first time I set foot in a movie theater. When I was 8 years old, the little movie house in my home town of Van Buren, Arkansas, used to show four movies in a row every Saturday. Typically the agenda would include a music-related movie (Elvis, The Beatles, beach party movies, etc.), a Japanese monster movie, an old crime film, exploitation films, etc. It started at ten in the morning and ran until just before dinnertime. I was a regular. Probably I saw my first film noir around that time, but it wasn't until I was in college and began to read hardboiled fiction that I began to understand what the film noir cycle was all about. And I'm still learning at 46.

Film noir came on the scene around 1940. What are some common misconceptions about it?

Film noir is unique in that it is at easily recognizable to the average filmgoer, but has a substantial critical history going all the way back to the 1940s that is unknown to most people. Probably the greatest misconception about film noir is that it is a style, not a genre. It is true enough that the majority of films that fall into the "noir" category are crime films, but there are plenty of others in every genre, including melodrama, Westerns, and even a few examples in science fiction. Also, of course, there are plenty of crime films that are not in the noir style.

In my book I've tried really hard to emphasize that I am not any kind of authority on film noir. I used three scholars as my main sources for films in the cycle (Spencer Selby, Alain Silver & Elizabeth Ward, and Arthur Lyons). What I bring to the table is the literary sources for those films, and that is at the heart of what The Dark Page is all about.

If film noir hadn't become a recognized trend in filmmaking, do you think the noir thread that appears in literary works decades earlier would have been recognized as such?

Yes, definitely, but it might have been given a different name. The literature and the films are so strongly linked, though, that it's difficult to imagine that they would ever have been considered separately. The literature, which preceded the films by nearly two decades, was first coined "hardboiled fiction." The term "noir" came from the French in the mid-1940s as a response to both the American films and the literature that informed the films. There is a long-running series of French crime novels (still being published today, I think) that carry the moniker, "serie noir." And of course the French made many great noir films beginning in the 1940s as well.

Who were the authors that launched the literary noir trend?

The first hardboiled author is generally thought to be Carroll John Daly. But his style was improved upon by Chandler and Hammett, who are much better remembered today than many of the others who wrote in the same style. A good example of a "forgotten" author is Raoul Whitfield, who was very popular in his day, but ultimately fell under the shadow of other writers. Some of the better writers that helped define the style, such as David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich, are enjoying something of a renaissance in terms of publishing right now.

During this film noir era, do you think filmmakers looked more to literary sources for material?

I think they took whatever they could get. Filmmakers, like publishers, were interested in pumping out whatever the public seemed to be craving. In the 1940s, particularly after the end of the war in 1945, there was a big demand for "red meat movies," where the characters had darker motivations, and stories were less resolved. The number of films in the noir style made between 1945 and 1948 was staggering--people just couldn't get enough of it.

Would you say that the bandwagon of making film noir ultimately diluted interest in it?

The noir style has continued pretty much unabated in films from 1940 to this day. Two of the biggest films this past year, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, had strong elements of the style. I don't think interest has ever waned--it's the look and content that has changed over time. In the 1950s, the red scare and the emergence of social issues had a big effect on noir films, resulting in movies like No Way Out with Sidney Poitier and The Woman On Pier 13 (aka I Married a Communist) with Robert Ryan. In the 1960s, filmmakers in America were becoming very aware of the "noir" idea, and began consciously making films to reflect it. For noir enthusiasts, this is the point at which the "classic" period ended, and "neo-noir" or "post-noir" began. The end point for the "classic" period is considered 1959 by some, and 1965 by others, and this is the period that, for now, I'm concentrating on with the Dark Page series.

If you could choose one book and one film as the best examples of literary and film noir, what would they be?

I'm going to dodge that question, and instead name a few favorites. Films from the classic period that knock me out (apart from the more famous, well-established ones) include Born to Kill, The Amazing Mr. X, I Wake Up Screaming, The Locket, Angel Face, and The Scar (aka Hollow Triumph). And there are dozens of others that are wonderful. Paul Schrader put it best in 1971, in his essay "Notes on Film Noir," where he notes that, interestingly, almost all the films in the cycle make for fascinating viewing in one way or another.

Books would include Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy (a stunning book that unfortunately got a middling film adaptation), The Chill by Ross MacDonald (late noir, but one of the best, with a plot that I have never been able to completely untangle), Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (with a plot that has been stolen many times by Hollywood, probably the most faithful being Miller's Crossing by the Coen Brothers), and Lady in the Lake (one of Chandler's best novels, with only one gimmicky film adaptation, made in the late 1940s).

What’s next for you?

I'm hoping to publish the next volume in the Dark Page series, covering film noir sources for American films made between 1950-1965, in 2009. After that, hopefully there will be a volume on European film noir (British, French, Italian, etc.)

For people interested in learning more about film noir, there is one primer that stands head and shoulders above the rest: Film Noir by Alan Spicer. After that, the first The Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, is a good followup text. Both of these titles are currently in print.