Noir City 4

| January 19, 2006

The Noir City film festival in San Francisco has grown legs in year number 4… long ones that are sturdier, but still have the willowy look of film noir.
Noir author and cultural archeologist, Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation ramped up this eagerly anticipated festival into a synergistic noir event that opened on Friday night at the sumptuous Palace of Fine Arts at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the cavernous lobby, the dulcet rhythms of The Johnny Nocturne Noir Combo and Marcus Shelby Trio blended perfectly with the femme fatale blowup portraits and scenes of noir films and posters flashing on both sides of the stage. With a fully stocked bar adjacent to the bandstand serving complementary cocktails, several patrons wondered aloud whether Ida Lupino would appear in a skin-tight cocktail dress, warbling “Don’t Call it Love” to complete the backdrop ambience of a film noir nightclub, circa 1948.
The chronology of rare film screenings, celebrity guests and special events is a wide-angle, kaleidoscopic view of Pax Americana–Film Noir Festival Style. For event details, the screening schedule and information about the Film Noir Foundation please check out the festival web site at .
The festival is being staged at dual sites with the marquee presentations and special guest appearances at the Palace of Fine Arts being buttressed by three days of film screenings at the historic Balboa Theatre highlighting films from the gateway year of 1946.
All Noir City 4 festival proceeds support the non-profit Film Noir Foundation whose goal to restore ‘America’s noir heritage’ by preserving classic film noirs in their glorious 35mm original format. Two films presented during the festival, “The Window” (1949) and “Nobody Lives Forever” (1946) will be screened with brand-new 35 mm prints courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation.
From special guests ranging from the relentless’ demon dog’ of noir literature James Ellroy to iconic film noir leading man Farley Granger and superstar actor/director Sean Penn plus a jazz concert by renowned jazz bassist Charlie Haden and his quartet, Noir City 4 has the cover charge down this year on the national film noir renaissance.
The sell out crowd on opening night was treated to a landmark double feature starring the legendary Farley Granger: Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and Nick Ray’s poetically tragic “They Live by Night” (1949). The iconic star, making his first Bay Area appearance in 43 years, joined Eddie Muller on stage for a prolonged interview after a standing ovation. Granger discussed his close friendship and complete admiration for Alfred Hitchcock- “he knew exactly what he wanted to do and had it already done…” and his eventual souring on Hollywood film acting that he departed from to the stage and New York City over half a century ago. “I like to act in things that have a beginning, middle and an end” declared the still debonair Granger. At 80 years of age, this reluctant film star who simply wanted to be an actor remains a wry charmer whose soon-to-be-published autobiography is eagerly anticipated by multiple generations of cinephiles.
The Saturday evening double-feature highlighted the “B” movie roots of film noir with two classics- “The Narrow Margin” (1952) and “Decoy” (1946). Producer/Writer Stanley Rubin joined me on stage with a special surprise guest who flew in from Texas, Jacqueline White, star of “The Narrow Margin”. Rubin, a seemingly ageless oracle of Hollywood history who arrived in Tinseltown on a Greyhound bus in 1933, was accompanied by his wife of 51 years, the lovely “Queen of 3-D” film productions, Kathleen Hughes.
“The Narrow Margin”, routinely labeled ‘the greatest ‘B’ movie ever made’ was Rubin’s first production that launched him on a long and fruitful career as a film and television producer after grinding out scripts and original stories for over a decade. The veteran filmmaker succinctly described how the obsessive Howard Hughes almost ruined the film with ill-advised post production cuts and retakes that were a near miss. Jacqueline White reminisced about an all-too brief career that ended with “The Narrow Margin” as she opted for a spectacularly successful marriage and family life. This unique guest appearance at Noir City 4 was a rare return to the limelight for the still-glamorous star. Both of these cinematic veterans proved to be a tribute to enduring talent, grace and courtesy with the duo seemingly having a lock on the elusive Fountain of Youth.
“Decoy” (1946) starring the deliciously evil and tragically short lived Jean Gillie was a delightful, fanciful romp with Gillie’s performance being compared to Widmark’s in “Kiss of Death”- she played a femme fatale that was a female ‘Tommy Udo’.
After a Sunday afternoon paean to one of Hollywood’s most pithily skilled screenwriters, Bill Bowers with the screenings of “The Web” and “Larceny”- starring the late, great Shelley Winters-the evening show was ‘Demon Dog’ hour.
Following the comically bizarre ‘nuclear noir’ film, “Split Second” (1953), James Ellroy, author of noir classics including “The Black Dahlia”, “L.A. Confidential” “American Tabloid” and the gut-wrenchingly introspective, “My Dark Places”, took to the stage with Eddie Muller for an extended interview and Q&A.
“Took to the stage” is insufficient. Ellroy runs on full throttle as an elemental force of dark delight. The resultant badinage, while alongside Eddie Muller, was like watching a Noir City version of Abbott and Costello. The rangy writer’s uproarious and profane takes on film noir, his writing and tumultuous life were a series of verbal karate-chops reminiscent of a Coltrane sax riff that had the audience delightedly shaking their heads. Who else would use his own Mother’s murder as part of a comedic punch line?
Martin Luther King Day was graced by two esteemed classics- “Nightmare Alley” and “Kiss of Death” both Fox Productions that were released in 1947. One of the original Dark City Dames and the star of both films, Coleen Gray, charmed the audience with amusing career reminisces and an easy chemistry with Eddie Muller that dates through numerous personal appearances by the duo over the last decade. The star’s recollections of legendary Hollywood personages including Tyrone Power, Richard Widmark and Henry Hathaway were preciously memorable.
Miss Gray, still moved to tears at the climatic ending of “Nightmare Alley” stressed a life of ‘virtues ahead of the vices’ that allows her to take a nostalgic look backwards while living relentlessly in the present.
The festival continues at the Palace of Fine Arts through January 22 and at the Balboa Theatre from January 23 through January 26. Tickets are still available. Hope to see you in Dark City.
Noir City 4…continued
The Noir City 4 festival at the Palace of Fine Arts concluded the week with a whirlwind of landmark screenings capped by a special appearance by contemporary superstar actor/director Sean Penn on Saturday night.
The Tuesday evening screenings were a tribute to legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht.
Hecht, who was arguably the most prolific and skilled screenwriter of the 20th century (Underworld, The Front Page, Scarface, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, Lifeboat, Duel in the Sun, Kiss of Death,–Hecht’s list of credits is a virtual excellence-in-cinema histography tour) partnered with Charles MacArthur at Paramount’s Long Island Astoria Studios at the height of the Depression. Producer Walter Wanger persuaded Paramount head Adolph Zukor to ink the Broadway wunderkind duo to a four picture deal to write, direct and produce their own features without studio brass interference.
“Crime without Passion” (1934) and “The Scoundrel” (1935) were the artistic high points of an all-to-brief creative epoch which marked one of the few occasions that writers were given sole authority by a major studio to make their own films. The stellar prints, courtesy of the UCLA television archive, gave added heft to the screening of these rare classics.
The former picture stars the vigorously brilliant Claude Rains as a caddish lawyer who adeptly plays one end against the other with multiple love affairs, but ultimately ends up outsmarting himself. The jaw-dropping cinematography of Lee Garmes is matched by a beautifully cast story and screenplay by Hecht. For purists who believe film noir didn’t originate until the 1940’s, this film is a must-see: pure noir at its best!
“The Scoundrel” is not film noir, but an acidic fantasy about a vitriolic, amoral publisher (Noel Coward) who uses the numerous women and other people in his orbit like disposable handy wipes. When destiny intervenes and Coward has to find one person on Earth to mourn his departure from this mortal coil, the wormy publisher executes a 360 degree pivot. This truly unusual, entertaining film is carried by Coward while earning Hecht the 1936 Oscar for Best Original Story. The dyspeptically delightful dialogue in “The Scoundrel” could have a PH acidic content listed on the credits. Audience reaction to both of these pictures was overwhelmingly positive.
Far from dampening the festivities, the evening rainfall in San Francisco appeared to enhanced attendance at the Wednesday night screenings. A print of “The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1951) had been sought by Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation for the last three years and was finally located in the dark recesses of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. While the prosaic plot of homicide dick Lee J. Cobb covering up the murder of his lover’s inconvenient husband (Jane Wyatt plays the unlikely fatale) is nothing special, the first public screening in over 50 years of this San Francisco location- filmed programmer sold out the house.
Jules Dassin’s “Thieves Highway” (1949) is not only a prime example of how to relate an adult story of revenge and passion that somehow skirted the pernicious Production Code. This classic Fox release was the cinematic catalyst that launched festival host and author Eddie Muller down the dark path of noir fixation after cutting school to catch it on local Bay Area television back in the 1970’s. The A.I. Bezzerides’ story set against the backdrop of the San Francisco produce market is a beautifully cast and written picture that becomes more memorable with each successive viewing.
John Garfield was on display at the Palace of Fine Arts on Thursday night. While “Nobody Lives Forever” is a handsome film that highlights the beauty of Geraldine Fitzgerald and the visual magnetism of Garfield, I found that the script lacked the usual élan normally associated with the great crime writer, W.R. Burnett. The new 35 mm print of this film was funded by The Film Noir Foundation as an initial step towards rescuing our film noir heritage from disappearing forever or being solely consigned to DVD/Video.
The second Garfield feature was better. Much better. “The Breaking Point” (1950) was recently resurrected by directors Curtis Hanson and Alexander Payne. For my money, this film is the definitive version of Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not”; easily trumping it’s more famous Bogey and Bacall 1944 predecessor. John Garfield simply becomes fishing boat skipper, Henry Morgan, torn up between two women (Patricia Neal as a blond hottie and a lovably dedicated Phyllis Thaxter) and how to feed his family while holding onto to lost dreams. This is unquestionably one of Garfield’s best films that should spur a renaissance of interest. Warner’s Home DVD: are you listening?
Friday night was a “B” film doubleheader deluxe. The 35mm print of “The City that Never Sleeps” was loaned to the Film Noir Foundation by Martin Scorsese from his personal collection. The audience enjoyed one of the most underrated films of the 1950’s, scripted by ace noir writer Steve Fisher.
Gig Young is a conflicted policeman who loathes the ‘men in blue’ family tradition. He wants to leave the force and wife Paula Raymond for the twin allures of more money and gorgeous stripteaser, Sally “Angel Face” Connors (Mala Powers).
The Chicago-based story becomes darkly complex as both stars become entwined with the machinations of corrupt lawyer Edward Arnold and his alluring, but deadly wife, Marie Windsor. When the duplicitous Windsor teams up with bug-eyed heavy William Talman for a bollixed double-cross of her husband, all hell starts to break loose. Only in the 1950’s world of “B” films are the over-the-top dialogue and clichéd situations so delectable.
“Hollow Triumph” aka “The Scar” is a classic exercise in noir fatalism. Shot in L.A. by that master of low-key, characusco photography, John Alton, the picture is carried by Paul Heinreid as an arch criminal on the run from the mob. When Heinreid assumes the identity of a dead ringer Tinseltown headshrinker while wooing Joan Bennett, mundane matters become darkly complex. Joan herself sums it up best with a cogent film noir epistle about existential life in Noir City, telling Heinreid that, “It’s a bitter little world…”
Saturday afternoon featured a literary Noir event, co-produced by Noir City and Litquake, San Francisco’s nationally known literary festival. An estimable group of local noir fiction writers read from the collected works of Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, Burnett, and Ellroy among others. Following each reading, film clips from the applicable adaptation were screened. This well-attended event underscored the underlying premise of Noir City 4: noir is a cultural vibe that runs through all of the arts like a vein of dark ore- literature, music, theatre as well as film. With that being said, stay tuned for next year!
Superstar director/actor Sean Penn was the guest of honor on Saturday night. Penn is one of the few contemporary filmmakers whose pictures, “The Indian Runner”, The Crossing Guard” and the ‘s special screening “The Pledge” (2001) embodies both the tradition and spirit of noir cinematic storytelling. Jack Nicholson stars as a burnt-out Nevada homicide cop who promises to catch a mother’s brutally murdered child. As professional dedication deepens into dangerous obsession, Nicholson literally becomes the single track detective; a character absorption that is light-years from the eye-brow lifting, comedic caricature that the great actor created as a preferred brand for several generations of film audiences.
During an insightful post screening discussion on stage with Sean Penn, Eddie Muller queried the director on how or whether the director “kept Jack from being Jack”. Penn responded that Nicholson is so consummate a performer that a singular bit of counsel from the director was gently rebuffed with a Nicholson riposte that Sean related with a spot-on imitation of Jack’s imitable vocal style.
When Muller asked him how he obtained financial backing for his films that did not necessarily have the tidy, upbeat finales usually preferred by Hollywood, Penn sardonically stated that one just has to laugh and smile at the end of the ‘pitch’ screening for the bigwigs and “they will think it is a happy ending!” This particular punch line captivated the packed house at the Palace. Sean Penn’s graciousness and affability both on and back stage belied the tabloid crapola reputation of his earlier years. Take it from me: Sean Penn in person was a true class act.
Penn credited rocker and close pal Bruce Springsteen with turning him onto the film that Penn selected as the surprise ‘director’s choice’ for the evening’s second feature: “Out of the Past” (1947). Much of the sold-out crowd stuck around for this legendary noir feature that has become an iconic standard bearer for the genre. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas (why don’t young stars look that good anymore?), this picture remains a delicious revelation despite the unrelenting television and film festival screenings.
The Sunday afternoon matinee was a Cornell Woolrich double-feature, “Deadline at Dawn” (1946) and “The Window” (1949) both from RKO. With legendary playwright Clifford Odets scribing the verbal lyrics, “Deadline at Dawn” sets high audience expectations but disappoints. The film misses the mark with a literately ambitious, but muddled story that doesn’t ring true. Although the acting is fine- Susan Hayward is gorgeous, Bill Williams earnest and Paul Lukas nobly unctuous- and the dark photography is visually striking, the direction by Group Theatre eminence, Harold Clurman, really needed a Bob Wise or a Richard Fleischer to move matters along more cogently.
“The Window” (1949) is a terrific suspenser directed by Hitchcock’s favorite cameraman, Ted Tetzlaff. The pristine print of this classic shown at the festival was funded by the Film Noir Foundation.
Shot on location in New York’s Greenwich Village, the film depicts a bored youngster (Bobby Driscoll- special Oscar winner for his performance) who relates iterative tall tales to the point of disbelief of his parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). When Driscoll witnesses his upstairs neighbors (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) rolling and then murdering a sailor, no one believes him… except the sleazy couple that committed the dastardly deed! This film remains taut, believable and gut-wrenching. The shattering finale in an abandoned building takes on darker significance when one considers that the talented Driscoll subsequently turned up dead in a nearby West Side tenement nineteen years later after years of tragic drug abuse.
The spectacularly successful 12 day run at the Palace of Fine Arts codified Noir City 4 as the seminal event in the vanguard of the national film noir renaissance. With attendees traveling from as far as Sweden tp adding to a hard-core of Bay Area loyalists, the lineup and plans for next year’s festival are already being eagerly anticipated.
But wait!!!! Noir City 4 is not over yet. There are four days of screenings celebrating the seminal year of 1946 at the historic Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Here at a smaller, neighborhood venue, patrons can eat popcorn and enjoy a lineup that includes obscurities such as “Night Editor” and “Suspense” along with genre classics such as “The Blue Dahlia” and “The Killers” in a celebration of the year when ‘Hollywood went dark’.

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