Andrew Dickos asks pertinent questions about the nature of film noir in “Street with No Name.” Unfortunately for the reader, he tries to answer them. Presumably, Dickos’ study is meant to serve as a primer on the popularized Gallic phrase,but usually refers to a group of 1940s and ’50s features that are rife with existential angst and despair and shot in a moody black-and-white style called chiaroscuro. From the beginning, though, Dickos takes the problematic position that film noir constitutes a genre — rather than a style — despite the fact that so many different kinds of films from different periods could also be considered noir.
In the book’s early, best parts, Dickos pinpoints the origins of film noir (from German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism). Subsequent chapters (“The Noir in America,” “Noir Production”) concentrate too heavily on the elements that supposedly establish the “genre status” and on the influence of a handful of directors in wartime Hollywood.
Thus, each auteur-centered chapter focuses on what Dickos considers the best noir films of key directors. By creating this organizing system, Dickos gets caught up in his own minutiae.
He offers only garbled reasoning for excluding certain films, such as in his Orson Welles selection, where he argues that “the incompleteness of (‘Journey into Fear’) permits it to be considered as a Welles exercise rather than a finished product, and (‘The Stranger’) was done rather tamely to prove to the studios that Welles could turn in a completed picture on time.” But in any true theory, such evaluative distinctions should be irrelevant.
With a similarly dubious explanation, Dickos leaves out Hitchcock and his British compatriots; and he chooses Otto Preminger (not the cuddliest of taskmasters) as the lone director worth studying in his chapter called “Women as Seen in the Film Noir.”
Some token historicism covers WWII economics, the Blacklist, and “the tabloid popularization of crime in America.”
A sop to cultural studies yields the insight that “There is misogynic intent, to be sure, in many portrayals of” femme fatales. More often, however, Dickos twists his logic in order to celebrate outmoded ideology: “The homoerotic violence in ‘The Big Combo’ … is still stereotyped psychosexuality — offensive enough on another score — but … raw and consistent with the noir world.”
Dickos really tips his hand here, revealing his true aim: to talk about and legitimize, through precise classifications, the films he enjoys watching. Ultimately, “Street with No Name” is really film criticism masquerading as theory.
In the end, the traditional genre and auteur tributes seem like the sort of dandyist critique that went out with the likes of Manny Farber, yet even within this style — or is it genre? — of writing, the author fails to measure up.
Signaling his uninspired approach, Dickos has named his book after one of the more routine, justly forgotten film noirs of the post-WWII era. In film noir production terms, Dickos wants to be Fritz Lang but winds up Bretaigne Windust, while the reader remains as shrouded in darkness as ever.