The following review was also posted on my blog The Aesthetic Adventure on June 12, 2013.
The Noir Style by Alain Silver and James Ursini is a seminal book for anyone interested in creating atmospheric photographic lighting and should be part of any photographer's library, most especially those who still shoot with black & white film.
The book consists of publicity stills, largely taken from the golden age of Hollywood film noir. The authors carefully analyze each photo to show how lighting is used to create an atmosphere of dread and suspense. Along the way, the book pays tribute to the masters of noir lighting, particularly the great John Alton, whose contributions have not received nearly the credit due them.
As anyone who has read Cornell Woolrich knows, there is an existential component to noir as it follows its protagonists down a rabbit hole, watching as they are pulled from their everyday lives and entrapped in a senseless world of crime and violence. Almost always, this fall takes place in a big city environment where individuals are reduced in size among towering skyscrapers that symbolize the megalithic forces threatening to crush them. And the action is almost always set at night in order to better emphasize the protagonists' distance from the sunlit workaday world where all is neat and in order.
The photographs included in The Noir Style are definitely not a nostalgic tribute to the big stars of Hollywood's studio era. Most of the films were intended as "B" movies and star character actors whose hardened features are hardly flattered by the films' harsh lighting. This is entirely appropriate since noir films were never intended as escapist fare. Instead, they show the underside of the American dream and the ease with which an ordinary person can slip off track into a milieu where murder takes the place of law.