Listen, you mug!

I have repeatedly sung the praises of the Film Noir Foundation (“FNF”) on this website. Its steadfast devotion to rescuing, preserving and restoring vital pieces of our shared cultural heritage is exemplary. The annual NOIR CITY festival has been an essential part of my own film noir “personal journey,” even if I have not attended a festival since the 2nd NOIR CITY Boston in June 2019. Indeed, I anticipate returning to NOIR CITY to discuss, sell and sign copies of my first book, Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own.

For all that, however, one aspect of the FNF to which I have paid insufficient attention in the past is the high quality of their swag. During the first incarnation of NOIR CITY Boston in June 2018, I ran the concession table with remarkable success (the presence of our two young daughters helped immensely); I kept the cardboard placard listing items for sale and their prices as a souvenir.

The “ANNUAL” is the gorgeous book-length compendium of the best articles and other features from the prior year’s quarterly e-magazines. I actually sent its editors a copy of The Noir of Who for possible publication, but it was deemed too esoteric (and too long). The FNF unveils a new design for its noir-black t-shirt every year; I still have four of them. “GUN CRAZY” and “THE DISTANCE” are books written by FNF founder and CEO Eddie Muller – also known as “The Czar of Noir.”

And then there is the mug; there are not two separate designs as I mistakenly thought when I first plunked down my $25, simply a discount for buying more than one. On one side is the FNF logo.

And on the other side is this clever word-art depiction of the words “NOIR CITY.”

If you look carefully, you will see the titles of 50 films. I write “50,” but there are actually only 49, as They Live By Night appears to be printed twice. The t-shirt from, I believe, 2017 has this identical design with a light jade outline. I do not know if this was intentional, but there are some meaningful juxtapositions:

For nearly four years, we have used these mugs without looking too carefully at the titles. However, to celebrate the publication of my first book, I decided to do just that.

**********

Here is how I describe the construction of my film noir database in Chapter 6 (So…What Is Film Noir, Again?) of Interrogating Memory:

Unable to sleep one morning in March 2015, I made a pot of coffee then trundled sleepily down to my home office, turned on my computer, pulled out my recently-purchased copy of Film Noir: 1000 All-Time Favorites, edited by Paul Duncan and Jurgen Miller, opened a new Excel workbook and began to enter its…titles. After that, I pulled out another recent purchase, John Grant’s A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide, and steeled myself to enter vastly more data from its hundreds of pages. Besides the primary title of each film in the encyclopedia, I entered alternate titles and English translations; year and mode of release; photographic color scheme; all listed director(s), cinematographer(s) and country/ies of production; and primary production company. Once I had entered Grant’s 3,253 titles, I began methodically to work through the rest of my film noir reference collection. I examined online lists and used a generous Amazon gift card to supplement my collection. The rapid expansion of sources led me to decide each “list” had to:

  1. Be compiled/published by an expert, such as a film noir encyclopedia or dictionary; comprehensive survey of film noir with filmography; scholarly or historical analysis; or reputable website about film noir or with a substantive film noir section. Thus far, 32 lists meet these criteria.
  2. Include at least 120 films. Duncan and Miller analyzed 100 titles in-depth. This “sub-list” led me to calculate a second, more-expansive measure. Given a maximum “sub-list” of 100 titles, I arbitrarily selected a minimum of 120 titles for criterion #1.

Lists are explicit or implicit. Explicit lists are encyclopedias, dictionaries and clearly-labeled filmographies. Implicit lists are gleaned from textual analysis, aided by Indices. When noir status was genuinely unclear, I made the best guess I could, erring on the side of inclusion and outlining my reasoning in the database. Close calls occurred most often in overviews lacking a dedicated filmography, like James Naremore’s superb More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts or Muller’s landmark Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.

I ignored labels like “proto-noir,” “classic noir,” and “neo-noir,” and distinctions between films noir and “noir-adjacent films.” […] If a film was discussed as film noir, I entered it into the database. This agnosticism permits a more comprehensive and, I argue, accurate examination of the history of film noir and its key titles, unrestricted by time frame, cinematography or geography. […] I used data from 4,825 films…to compute two scores. LISTS denotes on how many of the 32 lists a film appears. POINTS, ranging from 1.0 to 67.5, adds two values to LISTS: 1) reputable sources citing up to 100 films noir…and 2) sub-lists. […] While LISTS and POINTS measure only how frequently a film is cited as “noir” in reputable sources, because a title can attain as many as 23.5 POINTS for “exemplifying” film noir, this metric arguably captures “noirness” better than LISTS. Thus, the ensuing analysis utilizes POINTS.

An examination of the distribution of POINTS suggested three cut points roughly corresponding to 80% (≤5.5 POINTS; Idiosyncratic), 10% (6-11.5 POINTS; Debatable) and 10% (≥12.0 POINTS; Universal) of the 4,825 database titles. Appendix III of Interrogating Memory lists all 514 titles designated Universal – plus director, year of release, and LISTS and POINTS values – sorted by POINTS, from Double Indemnity (32/62.0) to Le Quai des Brumes (8, 12.0).

The epiphany I had constructing this database was just how little agreement there was across experts on which titles were “noir.” For example, it only requires 29.5 POINTS – less than half (44%) of the maximum 67.5 – to be in the top 100 films noir by POINTS. Given the lack of a universally-agreed-upon definition of film noir, though, perhaps this is less surprising than in appears.

So, given these data, how well does the FNF mug fare?

Table 1 suggests the answer is: quite well. Given the constraints of size and a likely opting for diversity (e.g., two full-color films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, albeit not the three most often listed as “noir”[1]), this is a very strong representation of the titles most widely considered film noir by established authorities.

Table 1: Films Noir Displayed on NOIR CITY Mug

TitleRankLISTSPOINTS
Double Indemnity13262.0
Out of the Past23159.0
The Maltese Falcon33258.0
Kiss Me Deadly43254.5
Murder, My Sweet53053.0
Laura63152.0
Touch of Evil73052.0
The Big Sleep82851.5
The Postman Always Rings Twice93251.0
The Lady From Shanghai103151.0
The Asphalt Jungle113049.0
The Killers122949.0
Criss Cross132948.5
D.O.A.143047.5
In a Lonely Place153047.5
Gun Crazy163147.0
Scarlet Street173047.0
Gilda192946.0
The Big Heat203045.5
Sunset Boulevard212945.0
Detour222944.5
The Woman In the Window233043.5
Force of Evil242943.5
Mildred Pierce262943.0
The Set-Up293042.0
White Heat313041.0
Pickup on South Street332840.5
Raw Deal342840.5
They Live By Night362939.5
Night and the City412639.0
Kiss of Death442838.0
Act of Violence452738.0
Thieves’ Highway463937.5
Nightmare Alley482737.5
Ace in the Hole502637.0
Odds Against Tomorrow512836.5
The Prowler522836.5
Sweet Smell of Success552636.0
The Reckless Moment702533.5
The Third Man802132.0
Vertigo1002229.5
The Hitch-Hiker1082628.0
Too Late For Tears1102528.0
The Night of the Hunter1132228.0
City That Never Sleeps1402325.0
Crime Wave1442225.0
Moonrise2191921.0
Tomorrow Is Another Day2641819.0
Rear Window2721619.0
AVERAGE51.527.841.2
AVERAGE Top 50 by POINTS25.529.144.5

Fully 70% (35) of the top 50 films noir by POINTS are printed on the mug, including all but two (92%) of the top 25 (The Big Combo, The Killing) – as well as every film ranked #1 through #17. All but eight of these films (84%) are in the top 100 by POINTS – and three of them are “bubbling under” at #108, #110 and #113. Only three films – Moonrise, Tomorrow Is Another Day and Rear Window – are outside the top 150, though they still rank in the top 275, or 6%, of POINTS values. On average, these 49 films have a more-than-respectable POINTS rank of 51.5. Moreover, their average LISTS and POINTS values (27.8 and 41.2, respectively) are only slightly lower than the corresponding values for the top 50 films by POINTS. And the median film by POINTS – The Set-Up – ranks #29, just below the median rank of 25.5 for the top 50 films by points.

Every published list has its idiosyncrasies, obviously, and this “list” is no different. However, as a representation of 50 “key” titles in film noir, there are few – in any – better.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[1] Strangers On a Train (#63), Shadow of a Doubt (#72), Notorious (#79)

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