Friday, January 27, 2012

Noir Is...Noir Ain't

A pre-code exposé of municipal corruption. A 1964 made-for-television remake of a Robert Siodmak classic. An Antonioni-esque meditation on the futility of vengeance in a corporate-controlled culture. A glossy, multiple-Oscar-nominated whodunit with intense Freudian undercurrents and a relatively happy ending. A career-defining vehicle for the biggest star at Columbia Pictures, Rita Hayworth. A pair of out-and-out comedies. A Technicolor, Cinemascope interracial romance shot on location in post-Macarthur Japan. For those who hear the term film noir and immediately think of low-budget, fatalistic B-movies like Detour and D.O.A., none of my above descriptions (which I trust no-one will find too distorting) make the films they describe sound like they'd play at a film festival devoted to noir. Yet Afraid To Talk, The Killers, Point Blank, Laura, Gilda, Unfaithfully Yours, The Good Humor Man and House Of Bamboo are all among the films seen so far this week by attendees of the tenth edition of Noir City at the Castro Theatre.

For 2012, festival producers Eddie Muller and Anita Monga have put together the most diverse slate of films in the decade-long history of Noir City. From year one the festival has built a reputation of showing the best available prints of canonized classics of the genre as well as bringing to light some of the obscurities most deserving of being rescued from the cultural memory hole. Both functions are certainly in full force at this year's festival. What's different from previous years is that, more than ever, many of the festival selections represent the boundaries of noir, landing well outside the word's traditionalist definition. There are certainly films in this year's festival that fit snugly into the commonly-regarded parameters: chiaroscuro black-and-white photography, downward-spiraling trajectory for a doomed protagonist with possible assist from a femme fatale, post-World War II themes wrestled with by war vet characters, etc. Tonight's still-underrated Thieves' Highway fits into these very snugly, depending on your interpretation of the final three minutes of the film, that director Jules Dassin had nothing to do with. But many others don't.

Thanks to last Saturday's pre-code double-bill of Afraid To Talk and Okay, America (the latter of which I unfortunately had to miss) and the four early adaptations of Dashiell Hammett stories that make up the afternnoon portion of this Sunday's Hammett Marathon, there are more films from the 1930s than in any previous edition of Noir City. According to my calculations, the average year of release for a film at this year's festival is 1946- the earliest ever (other years averaged between 1947 and 1951). It took five early-1930s proto-noirs to balance out the record number of 1960s selections: The Killers, Point Blank, The Money Trap and Underworld U.S.A. (the latter two being, respectively, the weakest and strongest of the festival films I'd never seen before. So far.) Strange, if the noir period ended by 1958 or so, as many sources contend. Color is another sticky issue for noir purists. Noir City has shown the occasional color film before- Leave Her To Heaven and Slightly Scarlet for instance. This year there are three: The Killers, Point Blank and House Of Bamboo.

I'm interested in the heated debates about what qualifies as noir and what doesn't. Articles like this multi-parter that look at the historical roots of the term are sure to attract my attention, especially when they argue against enshrined classics like Laura and festival closer The Maltese Falcon as true noir. But I really don't have a dog in that fight. I don't attend Noir City because it celebrates noir, but because it celebrates film. Learning that a film is considered a noir doesn't make me any more or less likely to want to see it. Learning that it was made by a great director, or written by a reliable writer, or acted by a terrific cast, or shot by a favorite cinematographer, probably will. Learning that it has influenced other filmmakers, or that it has been unjustly locked in a studio archive away from public view for years, might tantalize me as well. But what I am ultimately interested in seeing is a wide sampling of interesting films from every genre, from every period of history, using every technological development and aesthetic approach available. Ideally under historically accurate circumstances, which means theatrically with an audience if it was something made before scare quotes began appearing around the term "ancillary markets". It's an unending and perhaps ultimately futile quest, but I'm thankful for local institutions like Noir City, the Stanford Theatre (which has just released its most impressive calendar in a couple years), and the Roxie (which brings a pre-code series in March) that help me remain on it.

I know some cinephiles who avoid Noir City, or at the very least limit their attendance, because they dislike the atmosphere. Yes, audiences do dress up. They appreciate Eddie Muller's introductions, especially when he's accompanied by a special guest. They're not shy about expressing themselves during the film, whether to applaud Rita Hayworth's Gilda entrance or to laugh at dialogue about coffee shops in Underworld U.S.A. (Eric Beetner wrote about the laughter phenomenon in the Noir City Sentinal, reprinted in the first of three increasingly expansive, but not increasingly expensive, books available for sale at the festival or online.) I understand the desire for a more austere setting in which to view the work of great filmmakers, and I'm glad that, at least for now, the Frisco Bay region supports other venues when they showcase some of the same restorations seen at Noir City. But I take another view. I think it's great that we have in Muller an impresario with the deep knowledge and the show biz sense to annually attract to the Castro not only dyed-in-the-wool film lovers but also innocent bystanders who have never even heard of the films they're about to watch. Weren't we all there someday? And won't it take all of us working together to send a message to the studios that the preservation and exhibition of 35mm prints must not end?

I've often wondered if the success of Noir City and the Film Noir Foundation could be replicated with other Hollywood genres I adore. Imagine a comparable destination festival called "West County", for instance. Or a similar series devoted to musicals, or swashbuckling adventure films. Until somebody tries out the Noir City model on non-noirs, I'm grateful that Noir City can expand the umbrella of films it preserves and projects to include films that are (to borrow Elliot Levine's term) "not necessarily noir". Like pre-codes. Or 1960s films. Or comedies. Comedies?

I missed Tuesday's screening of Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours (which I've seen theatrically and adore), but it was a real thrill to experience the second half of the Noir City "Comedy Noir" night, The Good Humor Man. Not every gag works in this Frank Tashlin-scripted slapstick piece, starring Mildred Pierce slimeball Jack Carson as a lovable lunk who gets mixed up in murder plots while doing his daily ice cream deliveries. Some of Heinz Roemheld's music cues, in particular, were awkward and dated. However, the satire of suburbia was sharp and the laughs were abundant. Some of the film's violence, especially in the insane schoolhouse finale where every imagined elective from music and home economics, to physical education and woodshop, becomes a hazardous menace, seemed to outdo the brutality of even the grittiest mid-century noirs. I must wonder if censors didn't take their duties as "seriously" when evaluating comic violence as opposed to its dramatic counterpoint. Of course, Tashlin perfected his gag-writing skills while making Looney Tunes for the most mayhemic cartoon studio, Warner Brothers. The following evening while introducing a Sam Fuller double bill, Muller admitted to getting misty-eyed imagining what Tashlin would have thought if he'd seen an audience of hundreds roaring to bits he'd written over sixty years ago.

The Castro's new programmer Keith Arnold could, at least theoretically, book a series of Tashlin comedies without the help of a non-profit like the Film Noir Foundation to help secure prints. Theoretically, because certain studios are increasingly unwilling to rent out their own prints to repertory theatres, and archives traditionally don't lend directly to for-profit enterprises like the Castro. Still, I'm pleased with the direction Arnold's own programming is taking, and I hope mass audiences are as well. The venue's February schedule has many gems on it, including two films that have played previous Noir City editions: The Lineup on February 18th, and Ace In The Hole February 22.

A February 8th double-bill merits special mention: Robert Bresson's Pickpocket plays with a film by Bresson's most well-known American acolyte, Paul Schrader: American Gigolo. The calendar note for the latter film is marked with a warning: "URGENT INVITATION: This could very well be your last opportunity to see the film in 35mm – enjoy it while you can!" Presumably this message is a result of the increasing unwillingness I mentioned a paragraph ago, and its presence makes me pleased that at least there are no other February films with such a warning label. As for Pickpocket, I'm truly impressed with this booking. I can't remember a Bresson film gracing the Castro screen in the decade-plus that I've been obsessively paying attention. I've seen all my Bresson prints at the Pacific Film Archive, which is currently hosting a near-complete retrospective of the Frenchman's work. If you were sad at the prospect of skipping this Saturday's PFA Pickpocket showing in order to see that day's Noir City screenings and attend the party (or vice versa), it may be a nice surprise to have a second chance to see it so soon.

On Sunday, while introducing Laura, Eddie Muller held Keith Arnold's feet to the fire, relaying that the former Fine Arts Cinema booker had recently mentioned the possibility of bringing a Dana Andrews series to the Castro. A great idea. The fact that Muller was standing next to the Laura star's daughter Susan Andrews made the prospect seem all the more enticing, and possible, and maybe even a little embarrassing if it doesn't come to pass. It was all in fun of course, but I hope that there's the will to put together such a series, not to mention the audiences to attend it. Would encouraging people to dress up as occultists to see Curse of the Demon, or as trappers to see Swamp Water help get people who've never heard of Jacques Tourneur and Jean Renoir out to their pictures? If so, it might be worth doing.

I'm certain there will be plenty of people in suits and fedoras coming out to see The Maltese Falcon on the final day of the festival. Muller has gone on record predicting that this will be the last time a 35mm print of the landmark film will play the Castro. If that's true for the 1941 version, it's likely true for the lesser-known but in certain respects better-made 1931 version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in the Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor roles. Both films are owned by the same studio. I'm hoping to see both on that giant screen one last time. I'm also excited for the weekend's two Alan Ladd films, The Great Gatsby and The Glass Key; Ladd is the star of the 1955 Cinemascope, Eastmancolor gangster picture Hell On Frisco Bay, the namesake for this blog, which is generally seen only in poor-quality bootlegs; it's for obvious reasons a preservation project I'm personally very interested in. Every ticket to an Alan Ladd film bought in 2012 is a vote to see more Alan Ladd films in 2013 and beyond. So come join me and at least a thousand of my closest friends this weekend in celebrating film, or noir, or better yet, both!


  1. Blog post title of the month!

  2. For your sidebar festival listing - California Independent Film Festival (Feb 10 to 16) in Moraga and Orinda.

  3. Thanks, Andy & Adam!

    Added, Dan!

  4. Brian: Such a pleasure to visit San Francisco and attend Noir City as well as sample, yet again, one of the many entries at your site that have made it one of my regular haunts. Your command of how you describe film and the city's repertory listings has only strengthened over the years. And even when I'm far away in Idaho, I feel right at "home" when you write about what's going on in San Francisco. Thank you for your abiding passion for film and film culture.

    Wasn't Underworld, USA absolutely fantastic?!! My favorite entry in the festival so far. So pleasurably pulpy.

  5. Noir City's enough of an "event" now that they can draw big crowds for some real obscurities. While it was hardly surprising to see a full house for DARK PASSAGE on opening night, or the Angie Dickinson appearance, it was pretty amazing to see a full house on Thursday night for the NAKED ALIBI/PICKUP double bill. And there was quite a substantial crowd for the pre-code double bill as well.

  6. Sprattle, thanks for stopping by! I missed "Bad Girls Night" so I'm glad to hear it was a full house. I noticed tonight's double bill (neither film exactly as well known as Dark Passage) sold out a full hour before showtime too. How was Pickup? I was sorry I had to skip it.

    Michael, it's never quite the same at these festivals without you, so I'm glad when you can make a trip back to the area. And I so appreciate your comment on my writing.

  7. Carole Rutherford1/28/12, 11:36 AM

    Great write-up, Brian! I'm a fully addicted (pass-holding) Noir City (and Not Necessarily Noir) fan, but while I recognize names of writers, directors, etc, I'm not the "walking encyclopedia" some are: am very curious about the ending of THIEVES HIGHWAY -- how did Dassin want to end it? Presume studio added the justice-prevailed happy ending (but who WAS the guy in the cap that fingered the bad guys??!?)

  8. Carole, thanks for the comment! I missed Friday night's screening so the precise details of the ending are not fresh in memory. However, I usually try to make every first mention of a film title on one of my blog posts a useful link to an article or other webpage with more information. I feel like I did a pretty good job with that on this post, and the answers to your question (certainly the first, any way) are found in the Thieves' Highway link above.

    Oh what the heck I'll re-link right here.

  9. I’m a regular attendee at Noir City, and I’m rather surprised to hear that some cinephiles won’t attend because of the atmosphere. Noir City is not a Star Trek convention. Very (very) few people come in fedoras or 40s style dresses. The great majority of us are in regular street clothes, but wearing older fashions doesn’t trivialize the event. These films were originally made for entertaining general audiences, and don’t deserve the “you can hear a pin drop” reverence that is found in an art house audience. Those cinephiles you mention need to lighten up and enjoy the medium.
    The definition of what is a film noir will always be debated. I hope the oxymoronic concept of “noir comedy” was a one trick pony for the 10th anniversary. Jack Carson is always fun to watch, but I prefer The Three Stooges for their live action cartoon anarchy.