Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir analyzes how film noir became a genre and, unlike some other sources on noir, focuses on the role that B movies played in its development. Arthur Lyons is the well-known author of eighteen books, both fiction and nonfiction, including an excellent mystery series. He is not a film scholar, but he is a good writer with the passion of a B-movie fan, and his entertaining look at a niche in film history is readable and well researched.
After defining noir, Lyons’s study follows a topical pattern (from the 1930s to the late 1990s), delving into the cultural, literary, and cinematic roots of noir, exploring the workings of the studio system, and examining the reasons behind the death and eventual rebirth of noir.
Contrary to common assumption that the term "B movie" stands for "bad movie," Lyons points out that these movies were actually quite good, and that the name was a result of the movies being the second half of a double feature (i.e., "A movies" started the show, while the shorter "B movie" followed). The ensuing explanation is fascinating, as Lyons details the social conditions that heralded the popularity of the double feature, and how studios met the demand for the shorter, less expensive "B" by setting up B production units. His research into these production units for all of the studios at the time, who worked where and on what film with what cast and in what genre, is commendable. He relates how each studio started, who was at the helm, when and how they merged with other studios, and each studio’s specialties. Lyons also includes independent production companies, or "indies." The end of the double feature, and hence the end of the B movie, came in the early 1950s when production was scaled back due to increased costs, the failure of the studios to hold the biggest stars under contract, and the forced divestiture of the big studios from the theaters they owned nationwide.
Lyons follows noir from its foundation to its death, establishing its influences and reasons for the public’s eventual loss of interest in the genre. Lyons’s definition of film noir is like that in many other texts: they are films characterized by haunting lighting and disturbing camera angles with story lines that focus on crime and characters who occupy a lonely, hardened, and cynical world. While many films of the 1940s and 1950s had these qualities, they were not all noir. Conversely, not all noir films had these qualities. Lyons’s defining quality of noir is the story: all films noir have a "hard-bitten, cynical tone." A film is noir if its protagonist, whether gangster, femme fatale, juvenile delinquent, serial killer, sociopath, or convict, occupies a universe that is unforgiving, corrupt, and out of control. Though these themes did appear in mainstream cinema before the classic period of film noir (1939-59), audiences during World War II were drawn to the darkness of noir as a mirror of their own lives.
Lyons looks at post-World War I pulp magazines and paperbacks that showcased violence, crime, and corruption as precursors to the world of noir on film. An influential development that Lyons says most film scholars have overlooked is the introduction of the paperback in 1939, in which the imagery and tone of noir first appeared. Paperbacks were portable, disposable, and inexpensive, and sales soared during World War II. When the war ended, and soldiers, who had been among the main buyers of paperbacks, returned to jobs, publishers altered the content and look of the books to a much more graphic tone in an attempt to boost flagging sales. Aware of their popularity, studio heads began to bring stories of a similar atmosphere to the screen.
Lyons claims that 1939 saw the advent of the first true film noir–all B movies and good films–with the release of three films: Columbia’s Let Us Live and Blind Alley and Universal’s Rio. He explains that limited budgets forced studios to be creative in their expenditures, recycling sets, using fewer lights, reusing footage, shooting brief stories, and, perhaps most important, hiring foreign directors who immigrated to Hollywood during World War II, many of whom brought with them an expressionistic form of filmmaking that would encourage the emergence of film noir as a coherent style.
According to Lyons, social changes, such as urban flight, resulted in a change of taste from crime to secure suburbia and the corporate milieu. People began to watch more TV and they wanted material that reflected their post-World War II lives. Meanwhile, technological developments like Technicolor, wide screens, and larger studio budgets that allowed for huge sets and location shooting contributed to the end of the double feature. In 1959 film noir was dead–or at least it became lifeless until the revival of the 1980s and 1990s.
A filmography is a valuable element of Lyons’s book. Listing 138 "forgotten" films, it covers year made, studio, running time, producer, director, screenplay writer, cinematographer, editor, music, cast, plot description, review, and availability on video for each film. There are also list of the B films by year of release and by studio. These are helpful resources that show both the pinnacle of B movie production (1950, with 36 films) and the studio that produced the most B movies (United Artists, with 64 films).
Lyons credits the resurgence of noir films in the 1980s to the writings that began to appear on the subject and to its appeal to young filmmakers who were attracted by both its economy and its style. Here he poses as a scholar, if briefly, when he concludes with this statement: "we must ask whether film noir was a ‘true cultural reflection of the nation’s mental dysfunction of a nation in uncertain transition . . .’ [itself a garbled thought] or whether these films were and continue to be popular because they provide escape, entertainment, and vicarious thrills and are artistically interesting and different."
Lyons draws some excellent conclusions as to the relationship between the B movie and the origin of what became known as noir. Death on the Cheap is not the definitive source on films noir, but it is an excellent reference, an engrossing read and an invaluable source on obscure B movies.
– Jane Hoehner