January 21, 2015

The noir side of television

TV Noir: The Twentieth Century
by Ray Starman
(180 pages, $7.95 on Kindle)

When we talk about noir, we think of some of the great mystery movies of the mid-20th Century - Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep.  We think of hapless heroes and hardened dames, dirty double-dealers and bitchy betrayers and bad, bad endings; cigarette smoke and ceiling fans and the shadows of blinds slanting diagonally across the room, all in glorious black-and-white.

In other words, we don't often think of television, other than as a place where we've seen so many of these movies.

Which is why Ray Starman’s book TV Noir: The Twentieth Century is both an unlikely and a welcome addition to the television bookshelf.  Starman takes an encyclopedic look at TV shows from the 1940s to the present, examining them not only in visual terms, but in how the underlying themes of noir – corruption, pessimism, persecution of the innocent, and a feeling of helplessness – have penetrated programs all the way from Dragnet and The Untouchables to less likely prospects such as Miami Vice, Millennium and The X-Files.  All of which is to say that this is a book that causes me to look at some of these shows in a different, more appreciative light – both shows I’ve watched and enjoyed in the past, and new series to which I’ve never given much thought.

The noir roots of some series are obvious – Peter Gunn, for example, in which most all of the action takes place at night, on rain-slickened streets or smoky lounges full of jazz musicians and torch singers.  But then there’s Manhunter, the 1974-75 CBS series starring Ken Howard as a 1930s amateur crime fighter hunting down criminals following the death of his best friend during a bank robbery.  It only ran for 22 episodes, so many of us might not be familiar with it, and noir might not be the first thing that comes to mind.  But, as Starman writes, the show’s noir elements, “such as the loner fighting crime in his own personal, unofficial way, the lonely existence and mission that ruled his life and kept him from living more pleasant experiences [and t]he accent on violence and happenstance and accident] are obvious noir parallels.

I mentioned Miami Vice earlier, and Starman concedes that on the surface, with the bright colors and Phil Collins tunes, it’s so “not noir.”  But Starman disassembles Vice, looking at everything from photography and color difference to camera angles, to conclude that there is indeed a particular cinema associated with television noir (shooting nighttime scenes at night rather than through a filter, for example) that simply does not appear in non-noir TV.  And then there’s the cynicism, so typical of film noir, the hopeless feeling that Crockett and Tubbs will never succeed in the fight against crime, that for every hood or dealer they arrest or kill, another one will simply take his place.  As screenwriter and director Paul Schrader notes, noir is not a genre in and of itself, but “a style that reveals itself in any genre or drama.”  Given that, the analysis that follows is not only provocative but brings a new appreciation to the program.  Is it any wonder, then, that Vice’s mastermind, Michael Mann, has gone on to make noir-affiliated movies such as Public Enemies?

Rather than using a narrative, Starman looks at each show individually, categorized in such genres as “Police,” “Private Detective,” “Reporters,” “Spies,” and even “Westerns,” “War,” and “Science Fiction.”*  While this makes analysis of each show easy, it does limit the ability to look at trends as they form throughout time, although Starman offers a prologue for each “age” of the book that helps track such evolutions.  In addition, there are some typos and line breaks that indicate the manuscript could do with the oversight of a good editor. (I’d be happy to volunteer!)

*As I’ve noted in the past, the Private Detective genre, once such a dominant part of television, is virtually non-existent by the 2000s.

These flaws do nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment of the book, however, nor do they detract from the valuable information that Starman provides.  TV Noir is a necessary book that puts the spotlight on a less-obvious aspect of television, particularly in the color era, and it taught me things I didn’t know and hadn’t considered.  It is, therefore, a perfect addition to the Hadley Television Library.

5 comments:

  1. I just finished watching the first season of "The Fugitive". Tough to imagine a TV series more closely fitting the noir definition than "The Fugitive".

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    1. Absolutely - it was brilliantly done.

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    2. Others might disagree, but I think the best episode of the first season was "Rat In A Corner" with Warren Oates as a minor criminal and Malachi Throne as a detective. There was a scene where Malachi Throne is interrogating Warren Oates; the lighting, the cigarette smoke, the dialogue were all perfect. Oates even flicked his eyes from side to side, just like a rat. My wife and I watched the scene two or three times, it was just that good.

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  2. "Johnny Staccato" may be the quintessential noir TV series.

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    1. Ah, from the great days of the "Jazz Detectives" - Johnny Staccato, Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond. All half-hour dramas, which as we've discussed, are an underappreciated genre. And great names!

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And now for something completely different.