Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: Film Noir: The Encyclopedia (4th Edition)

One of the books I spent considerable time perusing on my recent vacation was the 4th Edition of FILM NOIR: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA, edited by Alain Silver, James Ursini, Elizabeth Ward, and Robert Porfirio. This May release, which was titled in earlier editions as FILM NOIR: AN ENCYLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE, features contributions from over 40 writers, including well-known names such as Richard Schickel, Julie Kirgo, and Glenn Erickson (aka DVD Savant).

The encyclopedia is divided into two main sections: "The Classic Period" and "Neo-Noir." The entries for the Classic Period run over 300 pages, while the Neo-Noir section is slightly over a third of that size. Entries range from just a couple paragraphs, consisting of little more than a plot synopsis and thumbnail review (for example, see the entry on 1949's IMPACT), to spreads of close to two pages. WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950) received special treatment, a six-page section with extra photos. Most -- but not all -- of the entries are accompanied by a poster or still. Film credits, the running time, and the release date are included as well.

The scope of titles included in the book is most impressive. For instance, the "noir Westerns" PURSUED (1947), BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), and even RAMROD (1947) are included. Borderline noir titles such as Robert Taylor's gangster films JOHNNY EAGER (1941) and the color PARTY GIRL (1958) are among the listings. And of course, the book contains all the classic noir titles one would expect to find in a book of this type. The only title I looked up and didn't find was a "gothic noir" movie I saw at this year's Noir City Film Festival, EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944). But the second gothic noir film screened that evening, SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948), was included.

Unfortunately, the book's potential standing as the authoritative film noir encyclopedia is undermined by exceptionally sloppy proofreading and editing. This is particularly disappointing in a hardcover book with such reputable contributors which is up to its Fourth Edition -- and sells at full retail for $45. Typos are fairly common in books from small publishers (an example here), but the sheer number of mistakes in this book almost overwhelms the ability to smoothly read the material. It is quite apparent that no one invested the time in making sure this manuscript was truly ready for publication.

The most egregious typos can be found in the encyclopedia guide words, simply because it would have been so easy and cost-effective for anyone with a knowledge of the subject matter to invest a few minutes in cleaning them up. It took me all of 10 minutes to flip the pages of the Classic Period section and jot down quite a list of errors. The title listings include RAMROAD (instead of RAMROD), SRANGE IMPERSONATION (STRANGE), HOUSE OF 92ND STREET (THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET), THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RING TWICE (RINGS), A VOICE IN THE WIND (VOICE IN THE WIND), CLAY PIGEON (THE CLAY PIGEON), WOMAN ON PIER 13 (THE WOMAN ON PIER 13) and THE HIGH WALL (HIGH WALL), which is also listed incorrectly at the entry title, despite a poster on the same page clearly giving the correct title, HIGH WALL. THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, THE CLAY PIGEON, THE WOMAN ON PIER 13, and VOICE IN THE WIND are also listed by incorrect titles at each actual entry, dropping "THE" in the first three cases and adding "A" to VOICE IN THE WIND; again, THE CLAY PIGEON, THE WOMAN ON PIER 13, and VOICE IN THE WIND are accompanied by a poster or lobby card with the correct title. I wasn't even trying hard, so there may well be more. The lack of effort expended on correcting the very simplest errors was disconcerting. Perhaps there were so many of the proverbial cooks that no one took the responsibility?

The typos start in the Acknowledgments ("made there way") and multiply from there. Misprints, grammatical errors, misspellings, and made-up words ("especifically"?) can be found in the entries for THE KILLER IS LOOSE, A KISS BEFORE DYING, THE BRIBE, THE RECKLESS MOMENT, THE KILLERS, BEWITCHED, FALLEN ANGEL, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, MYSTERY STREET, and LADY IN THE LAKE. And these are just titles I happened to jot down in my first hour or so with the book, skipping around among entries of interest. The errors may be minor, but when they are so numerous, it causes the reader to doubt the more substantive factual content as well -- a concern which grew when I noticed that the year given in the title heading for IMPACT was off by two years (1947 should have been 1949). Additionally, the name of Charles Coburn's character is spelled Quincey in the photo caption but Quincy in the film credits.

Everyone makes mistakes -- I have certainly made my share here at this blog -- but the consistent sloppiness in this otherwise impressive-looking volume is simply hard to understand.

I was also puzzled by the inconsistent listing of locations in the film credits; did the inclusion depend on the author of a particular entry? Returning to the example of IMPACT, it would have been very easy, and of interest to many noir fans, to note that the locations included San Francisco and Larkspur, California. A little extra research time to verify and then include the additional locations listed at IMDb would have been appreciated.

One entry which did list locations, OUT OF THE PAST (1947), omitted the significant location of Bridgeport, California, where the film's opening scenes were shot; yet Bridgeport was mentioned twice in the plot description! Again, an omission such as this causes one to doubt the book's accuracy and completeness. (Ironically, I began reading the book and taking notes while on vacation in, you guessed it, Bridgeport, California.)

While Leonard Maltin calls the encyclopedia "an important book to have on your shelf," I felt that his enthusiasm seemed somewhat muted compared to the effusiveness of his reviews of other books, and he notes that "The entries themselves vary in quality." Chris Yogerst also reviewed the book at Big Hollywood.

This is a flawed book which nonetheless has a great deal to recommend it. It's a marvelous concept, and I found many of the critical insights of interest. As I read, I also found myself jotting down titles I'd like to see in the future.

Let us hope that there will one day be a Fifth Edition which will do full justice to the subject matter and the insights of the contributors.


Blogger mel said...

Laura, notwithstanding its good points, I applaud your expose of the sloppiness of this book and I share your feeling of disdain. Gone, it seems, are the days when any and every published book could be replied upon to have been well enough edited at least not to contain errors - and to have had the factual content checked.

In view of the fact that you spent the princely sum of $45 to purchase it, I feel your report here is insufficient - it warrants a strong letter of complaint to the publishers.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Mel! Thanks for your feedback.

Fortunately I paid a discounted Amazon price of around $30...but still! And of course many people will pay the full freight at bookstores, etc.

I have a couple acquaintances in the publishing industry and recognize that belt-tightening has been going on there for years now, and consequently books often don't receive the "going-over" by the publisher that was standard practice of years past...which is all the more reason why authors/editors must take on the responsibility for checking manuscripts themselves. It may be inconvenient, but one would hope and expect that after investing untold time in authoring a book, they would want it published in the very best condition possible.

Best wishes,

10:30 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I wonder if some of these guys have ever heard of "spellcheck"? It's right there on the computer fellas.....


9:59 AM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

That list of errors and sloppiness is depressing. Many errors you mention are the kind of things that spell checker can't catch. IN other words, no human proofreader, let alone someone familiar with the subject, just perused by some software. I shall not purchase this book except for a few dollars from a used bookseller. phooey.
Hopefully, criticism will embarass the publisher enough to improve the next edition.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Raquelle said...

As someone who works in book publishing (and has been in the industry since she was 17), I am horrified by the number of errors you found. Publishers either have to have competent copyeditors and proofreaders in house or at least have competent out-of-house freelance ones. There really is no excuse. The quality of the book reflects on them!

Does the Siren know about this book? She's a copyeditor. She would be horrified.

On a side note, Overlook was supposed to send me this book to review and never did. When I was at BEA, I was tempted to stop by their booth and inquire about it but I didn't.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I have a feeling the errors I found may only be the tip of the iceberg, Raquelle... Aside from the issues I identified, I am really wondering now about the substance and what I'll find when I delve more deeply into plot descriptions, etc.

Based on the proportion of errors I found to the time I invested in reading it to date, I have reason to believe that there must be lots more minor errors.

I'd love to have input from the Siren if she's familiar with this book...haven't seen anything about it on her site.

Thanks very much for your feedback! It's especially interesting to hear an opinion from someone with experience in the business. If you get a look at it yourself I'd love to hear what you think.

Best wishes,

5:08 PM  

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