The screen comes painted in startling collisions of black-and-white, but the truth is never anything but gray. It’s classic film noir — courtesy of Noir City5, the fifth edition of San Francisco’s prominent annual noir fest — and its indelible contrasts color the world to this day in iconic images as definitive as the light cut by a Venetian blind.
The term film noir, at least as applied to its original or “classic” phase, came along to define a genre only after the fact. But as aficionados and even novices know, it more or less neatly encompasses a rash of Hollywood crime stories, often B movie fare, that dealt in moody, sultry ways with the shadow side of the otherwise fluorescent American landscape of the 1940s and early 50s.
Sporting a long line of macho loners, slick villains, seedy locales, and dangerous dames, the usually low-budge but stylish look and the preposterously cool, street-smart attitude of these films laid an unruffled surface over a powerful undercurrent of social anxiety, moral uncertainty, and pervasive corruption. It added up to a telling portrait of the system that tended to blur the lines (when it didn’t outright erase them) between business and crime, good guys and bad, autonomy and fate. Sure, some semblance of justice would often be meted out to the worst offenders in the end, but instead of following the condemned out of the room, the guilty verdict tended to hang around afterward like languid cigarette smoke — it got onto everyone there.
Still, the definition of what precisely makes a film a noir film has always been contentious. When asked for his own wording, Eddie Muller, the festival’s organizer and host, and an ardent chronicler of noir history in books like Dark City and Dark City Dames, offers a denotation du jour. “Today, I’ll opt for my most terse definition of noir: People know what they are doing is wrong, and they do it anyway. Then the price is paid.”
The 10-day Noir City festival, which this year returns to its original digs at the Castro Theater after recent removes to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Balboa, boasts 20 films in all, including a generous portion of intriguing rarities, several tribute screenings, and onstage interviews with special guests Marsha Hunt (“Raw Deal”; “Kid Glove Killer”) and Richard Erdman (“Cry Danger”).
As for the move back to the Castro, “Noir City has returned to the Castro due to popular demand,” says Muller. “People want to see these vintage films in one of the last remaining vintage movie palaces in America. I believe in giving the people what they want.”
Number 5 also retreats from last year’s more ecumenical approach to concentrate on the hard core of classic work, including some extremely rare gems (always a serviceable noir plot device). Muller puts the festival’s distinguishing mark this year in one word: “Rarity.” Indeed, 14 of the 20 films culled by Muller and fellow programmer Anita Monga have had no life on any VHS or DVD player. “We really worked hard at unearthing some of these titles, and it’s gratifying to see people respond to them, even if the titles aren’t especially well known and don’t always feature big stars.” Although some sure do. No less than Fred “Double Indemnity” McMurray shows up in one, 1954’s “Pushover,” as a smitten cop opposite an irresistible gun moll — played by a screen newcomer named Kim Novak. And Burt Lancaster fleshes out two more from 1948: “I Walk Alone,” with costar Kirk Douglas, and “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (hard to beat that title) with Joan Fontaine. “I Walk Alone” was thought to be lost entirely, until Paramount came across the archival 35mm print audiences will see on the Castro screen.
Among the highlights this year is a tribute to a seminal cinematographer. If “noir” refers in part to the brooding themes and psychosexual tensions derived from hardboiled American crime fiction, it first and foremost connotes a look. And when it comes to the look we associate with noir, certainly there was no better craftsman than John Alton. His brazen way with high-contrast black and white photography and unusual angles produced some of the most emblematic images in all of film noir. Noir City 5 includes a February 2 tribute to Alton, co-presented with the San Francisco Film Society, with a screening of a restored 35mm print of “The Big Combo,” and a new 35mm print of “The Spiritualist.”
Muller hopes the posthumous Alton tribute brings the cinematographer (who died in 1996) a much deserved new generation of fans. “Alton’s biggest contributions were to make other cinematographers less afraid of the dark — since he’d bathe whole swatches of the screen in blackness,” explains Muller, adding that Alton “helped blaze a creative trail in lower-budget movies by showing that a DP who worked fast could produce striking results; you didn’t have to over-light everything to save time in production.”
Opening night’s film is a famous team-up between Alton and director Anthony Mann, “Raw Deal,” in an immaculate 35mm archival print from the Library of Congress. The evening gets an added boost from a live appearance by star Marsha Hunt. Muller, who will interview her on the Castro stage between screenings of “Raw Deal” and “Kid Glove Killer,” acknowledges that Hunt’s association with noir films was itself rare given the type of clean-cut and respectable characters she normally played. “That’s what makes ‘Raw Deal’ so wonderful,” he explains. “She plays that character again, but you watch her slide inexorably under the thrall of the ‘bad’ man. When Marsha gets the gun in her hand… that’s what noir is all about.”
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