- Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films by Sheri Chinen Biesen’s
Sheri Chinen Biesen opens her text with brief summaries of two classical Hollywood films, Gilda (1946) and A Star is Born (1954). She describes them as “complex” works that elude “tidy categorizations” or “conventional definitions” (1). Gilda has typically been classed as a film noir and A Star is Born as a musical. Biesen makes the case that these films and others, such as Blues in the Night (1941) and The Red Shoes (1948), can be considered part of a hybrid genre, the “noir musical.” The films that Biesen considers noir musicals bring together elements of both genres: the performance of musical numbers and downbeat storylines involving crime. Positing this hybrid genre also means that definitions of what counts as a musical and a noir are expanded. Thus, [End Page 53] Biesen treats black-and-white films with occasional jazz performances as musicals and technicolor films with numerous musical numbers as noirs.
This 176 page analysis makes mention of exactly 200 films (as counted in the appendix), but the number of films analyzed in extensive detail is limited to the four mentioned above. A few titles—To Have and Have Not (1944), Young Man with a Horn (1950), Young at Heart (1954), and West Side Story (1961)—receive a moderate amount of attention (mentioned or analyzed on 10 pages or more), and many more titles are examined for two to three pages. Though the films that receive the most thorough attention are all from the studio era, Biesen brings her study through “later neo-noir musicals,” as she briefly evaluates films like Cabaret (1972), All That Jazz (1979), ‘Round Midnight (1986), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Chicago (2002) (172).
Biesen effectively summarizes the most significant work of previous scholars on both the musical (for example, Rick Altman) and the film noir (for example, James Naremore) (4-7). This early section introduces readers to prior work on each genre separately before Biesen studies them in combination. The author also includes important background information about the industrial and historical contexts in which these films were produced. There is, for instance, a useful discussion of popular cinema’s transition into the television era that partly explains some generic tendencies of this hybrid genre (78-79). Biesen points to affordable budgets, claims to realism, and increasing depiction of sex and violence as responses to the emergence of television that are evident in the noir musical. The author also studies how the evolution of this genre relates to a gendered audience. She argues that apart from an interlude “during and just after World War II” which featured more “female-centered musical noir films,” the noir musical is a predominantly masculine genre (174).
The films that receive the most attention are treated to well-organized analyses placed into distinct subchapters with headings. For example, three sections on The Red Shoes sequentially cover plot, genre, and style, production history and promotion, and, finally, critical reception and box-office performance. Music in the Shadows makes heavy use of original archival materials. Two archives housed at the University of South California—the Warner Brothers Archive and the USC Press Book Collection—are the most frequently cited. Biesen not only works with written material from these archives but analyzes images of numerous publicity stills and lobby cards as well.
Readers expecting consistent investigations of style might be disappointed. At times, Biesen does focus principally on aesthetics. For instance, she offers a capable aesthetic analysis of the beginning of A Star Is Born, describing, almost shot by shot, the use of “deep shadows,” “splintering lines,” and the contrast between “bright white light” next to a “black background” (107). She also investigates the use of low key lighting in some portions of The Red Shoes, but the aspects highlighted here—cast shadows—are also meaningfully present in many more scenes, including the opening one. The somewhat marginal focus on style is also reflected in the appendix, where only lighting (not cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing, or sound design) is...