We all have that moment when we started watching and enjoying TV crime drama and we have a fond affection for particular shows from our own era. Yours will be here if you grew up in the era of noir, if not, this anthology will give you an idea of where later programmes fit in the scheme of things; how we got to The Sopranos, The Wire, Mindhunter et al. This is strictly American noir, the original stuff, a lot of it didn’t travel far because it was broadcast live and/or syndicating in the US only came in after a few years of noir TV. It didn’t arrive in the UK until later but it was absorbed into British drama, making this TV a universal origin point, relevant as well as historically interesting.
If you’re disgusted at the thought of a dangling bogey you probably don’t remember most of the TV covered in this anthology of American noir on the small screen. It’s not what you think, it’s actually a reference to Humphrey Bogart’s habitual cigarette and the de rigour inclusion of tobacco (pipe or fags) in TV programmes thanks to industry sponsorship. Without wishing in any way to endorse death sticks, that smoky atmosphere is synonymous with noir – big screen, small screen. Just one of the little details we learn in TV Noir.
Sadly, as early TV was live and not recorded much has been lost forever. That is until this exhaustive survey, it can’t bring back the programmes, but it does ensures that what is gone is now properly remembered.
This anthology of dark drama on TV covers the very first test programme, believing or not, way back in the 1920s all the way to the 1970s (with a particular focus on the late 40s to early 60s golden era). In the 1940/50s TV noir dominated viewing schedules and insinuated itself into living rooms across America, reflecting and shaping the culture of the nation. Remarkably, despite the number of books on noir movies this is the first really comprehensive encyclopaedia on TV noir. It is beautifully illustrated, black and white/colour photoplates, images of book covers, behind the scenes shots, film and TV stills, and posters, there’s an image on nearly every page. TV Noir serves very well as a survey of the noir genre programming across the major US TV networks that is satisfying whether you are looking to relive a past joy (a trip down memory lane) or discover the kind of TV that led to the programmes you love today. This is also a book that would suit a more academic enquiry into the art of noir on TV. Glover explores the transfer from book, movie and radio to TV, technical developments, plots, casts, writers, directors, socio-political context, critical theory and, to a lesser extent, the economics of it all. This is much more than a glossy scud through TV history.
Allen Glover’s insightful introduction lays out the territory: from the Queen’s Messenger (1928), a test broadcast, to Harry O (1973-76) this encyclopaedia gives us a clear idea of the programmes, their origins, life span, and place in the overall history of noir. The references to more recent programmes are more to do with explaining how they follow on from TV noir. This volume is a compendium that readers will just keep digging into over time.
Glover sets out a definition of noir; it’s story, style, tone, and theme, the ‘delicate tension among elements’, it’s distinct sensibilities and characteristics. From hardboiled fiction, Chandler and Hammett, to noir, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Femme fatales, gangsters, cops, cheating spouses and all manner of deviants, delinquents and losers. From detectives with a moral centre but shady edges, battered by life to the downright greedy, lecherous and crazy. The heyday of noir film, Glover tells us it wasn’t classified as such until 1960s, was the 1940s. But was it a genre or all style and attitude? Why are people so attracted to it? Glover runs us through various theories on these subjects. Looking at the post-war climate: the impact of WWII, the fear of rising crime, the absorption of psychologism into drama (Freudianism – things from the past can haunt the present, inner/outer manifestations of issues).
TV began in New York and noir transferred very well from big screen to small. A ready pool of people on the edge of the film industry joined the TV studios, ‘B’ movie film crew suited TV because they knew about small budgets and sharp storytelling for example. NBC broadcast noir before WWII but the conflict halted things for a while. After the war NBC, CBS, and DuMont relaunched noir on TV. They adapted novels and radio plays shaded with expressionism and realism. Examining the American dream, affairs of the heart, the corporate world, and the post war paradox of boom combined with race issues, nuclear tensions and the teen rebellion. lacking panorama had to go small, internal, dialogue heavy, using the voice over. Glover also covers the noir hybrids like the Twilight Zone.
The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich was the first serialised drama on TV. Based on the 1943 novel it was broadcast in early 1945 by WNBT (part of NBC). Alberta has her world view altered when her husband is convicted of murder. After each episode the audience was invited to write in with their views and a survey of 5,000 TV owners received a mail shot survey.
TV ownership went from 200,000 in 1947 to 12 million by 1951. Audiences were hooked on the suspense and output expanded. Corporate giants got in on the act introducing weekly shows, live anthologies. The Kraft television theatre 1947–1958. Westinghouse, Philco, Goodyear, Ford, Lux, Lucky Strike, signed on. Major film studios began making programmes for TV. Shows about flawed fraying detectives facing a moral dilemma, humanity under a microscope.
Shows include: Man Against Crime (CBS 1949-53, NBS/DuMont 1953-54), Martin Kane (NBC 1949-54), The Plain Clothes Man (DuMont 1949-53), Dragnet (NBC 1951 – 1959), 77 Sunset Strip (58-61), Peter Gunn (59-61), and Staccato (59-60). Also the Neo-noir Danger Man (61-66), The Prisoner (68), The Fugitive (63-67), universal Noir (64), The Loner (65-66), The Invaders (67-68), Kolchak The Night Stalker (72-75), and Harry O (73-76).
An intelligent and insightful essay on TV noir and a comprehensive encyclopaedia.
Paul Burke 4*
TV Noir by Allen Glover
Abrams 9781590201671 hbk Sep 2019