Blackout by Sheri Chinen Biesen

Blackout

Honorary Bogie Fix:

Bogart Book 4 Bookish Bogies!

There’s a lot to love about Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. For the casual fan, Blackout is fantastic primer that can lead you by the hand through the history of American film noir, film by film, giving you a guide to the ins and outs of some of cinema’s most innovative movies. For the diehards, this is a systematic breakdown and exploration of films that we’ve grown to love and cherish – a dissection of film noir to its most basic elements of paranoia, guilt, anguish, sex, and desperation.

Believing that the genre of film noir is deeply rooted in a 1940’s Hollywood film system that struggled through, and had to devise ways to recover from, World War II, Biesen takes films like Double Indemnity (the lynchpin film of the book) and examines the individual pieces of the whole – producers, writers, directors, actors, scripts, studio climate, production codes, the cultural trends – and builds a strong case that this cult genre of groundbreaking films is built on luck and circumstance almost as much as talent and premeditation.

Electricity was expensive during the war? Dim the lights. The Production Code Administration was scrambling to deal with the vivid images of death and destruction in wartime newsreels? Push the boundaries and amp up the violence. Good looking young men were being shipped overseas? Turn to the older, more mature, more grizzled stars to fill the void.

Yes, that last one hits home for this blog, as a good bit of the book is spent explaining some of the factors that helped push Humphrey Bogart from a B-movie gangster, to Hollywood’s number one leading man as he left the criminal world behind to fight for freedom around the world. The context into which Biesen places Bogart’s career pre and postwar, coinciding with his natural talent for portraying darker characters onscreen, makes a great case for much of Bogart’s success, and provides a very good explanation of how he was one of the few lucky character actors that broke free of the second-stringer mold and elevated himself to legendary status.

Blackout was a wonderful read for me as I got to dive deeper into some of my all-time favorites (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep) while at the same time getting a push from Biesen to finally catch up on some films that I’ve been behind on for too long (Ministry of Fear, Street of Chance).

If you’re a fan of film noir and classic Hollywood, I don’t think I can recommend this one highly enough. Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen is a prof of film history at Rowan University in New Jersey and has a web presence at her blog where you can find all the links to buy the book. You can also follow her on twitter at @sheribiesen.

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