Noir City by the Bay: The San Francisco Film Noir Festival

| January 31, 2003

The unique urban landscape of San Francisco–foggy, dreamlike, full of dizzying heights and stunning vistas of sky and sea–pictorially canonized numerous films of the 1940’s and 50’s. Despite a cinematic era when the term location shoot frequently meant Bronson Canyon or Griffith Park in Los Angeles, many productions headed northward to the Barbary Coast in an attempt to evoke the shaded tension, moodiness and desperation that are emblematic of classic film noir.
Noted local author Eddie Muller utilized the thematic backdrop of San Francisco in compiling a ten-day film noir retrospective at the Castro Theatre that concluded this past Sunday. Programming a film noir festival in his hometown was a labor of love for Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames, The Art of Noir and two period noir novels set in 1940’s San Francisco, The Distance and the recently released Shadow Boxer. Judging by the box office lines stretching down the block and the wildly enthusiastic audiences, his passion for dark film was readily embraced by an always eclectic and hip San Francisco.
The schedule presented twenty films, combining several well-known noir mainstays with a clutch of rarely screened selections. The quality of the fine 35mm prints obtained by Muller and Anita Monga, the regular Castro Theatre programmer, did not disappoint. For nine days, the City by the Bay experienced a dark cultural Epiphany and became Noir City, U.S.A.
The dramatic opening night Friday featured searchlights, press coverage, period-costumed patrons, and a blockbuster double feature: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Dark Passage (1947). Overwhelming crowds soon caused the Castro to actually open their balcony as the house sold out–a rare and thrilling event for this massive vintage movie palace. A discussion of The Maltese Falcon is unnecessary except to note that this classic film deservedly appears on nearly everybody’s ‘Best Films of All Time’ list and is savored with every viewing. Dark Passage pairs Bogart and Lauren Bacall in an improbable, but enjoyable tale of an escaped con from San Quentin getting under-the-table plastic surgery and emerging looking like, well, Humphrey Bogart. Beautiful location photography of San Francisco is predominant (including Bacall’s apartment building in the film–I noticed over the weekend that nowadays a poster of Bogey peers at passersby from a second floor window!) The chemistry between Bogey and Betty in this picture is sizzling, with Agnes Moorehead lending great support.
The screenings for the first weekend included The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Woman on the Run (1950), Sudden Fear (1952) and Shadow of a Woman (1946).
Both the genius and lack of discipline of Orson Welles were on display in The Lady from Shanghai. The beautiful cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. culminates in the famous House of Mirrors denouement and trumps the indifferent acting and bollixed-up plot, partially attributable to severe prerelease cutting by Columbia.
Woman on the Run is a terrific lost film noir starring the frequently overlooked but always pleasing Ann Sheridan. She plays a tough, cynical dame whose offbeat artist husband witnesses a murder and takes it on the lam rather than testify in court against a lethal killer. Ann scours San Francisco in a race to find her hubby before the killer does, and the result is a superb edge-of-your-seat thriller laced with sharp wit and enhanced by an amazingly shot climax on the roller coaster at San Francisco’s long-lost Playland amusement park. Eddie Muller expressed the hope that this rediscovered; never-before-screened 35mm print will be made available to the public in DVD format in the near future.
Sudden Fear showcases the Oscar-nominated performance of Joan Crawford in one of her finest roles. She plays a middle-aged San Francisco playwright who marries a youthful actor, played with creepy élan by a youthful and buffed Jack Palance. What she doesn’t know is Jack secretly loathes her for firing him from his first starring role, and he’s two-timing her with noir femme fatale extraordinaire, Gloria Grahame. This classy RKO production, directed by David Miller, is probably Crawford’s best work from the later portion of her long career.
Despite being shown on Monday night, Out of the Past (1947) drew an impressively large crowd. This film’s reputation has grown to legendary proportions over the years and it’s now considered the epitome of the noir style. Mitchum is a tough private eye with a fatal soft spot for one badass woman (Jane Greer, who defines the term femme fatale in this picture). The story unfurls via a spinneret of flashbacks about love, betrayal, desire and murder and concludes in a very dark corner of the human condition. Another personal favorite, this film is simply a classic.
Mitchum’s luck with women continued on a downhill spiral in the evening’s second feature, Where Danger Lives. A do-gooder M.D., he hooks up with a crazed Faith Domergue and gets hitched to Faith while on the lam into Mexico after awkwardly leaving Claude Rains lying around with the indent of a fireplace poker on his skull. Mitch gets so screwed over in this one, you almost feel sorry for him.
Race Street and Thieves’ Highway were on the bill for Tuesday 21 January.
Race Street is a formulaic noir with a strong supporting cast of William Bendix, Henry Morgan, Frank Faylen and Marilyn Maxwell bailing out the usual tight-lipped, cue card reading performance of George Raft.
Thieves’ Highway (1949) is a sleeper noir from famed director Jules Dassin, scripted by A.J. Buzz Bezzerides from his novel, Thieves’ Market. Noir heavyweight Richard Conte stars as a merchant seaman who returns to his Central Valley homeland to find his father has been swindled and crippled by a corrupt produce manager, played by Lee. J. Cobb. Conte’s quest for revenge and restitution constitutes the plot of this unusual noir, but the real kicker is the immigrant streetwalker who aids him in his efforts. As embodied by Italian actress Valentina Cortese, this saucy, sexy, and refreshingly liberated woman wowed the Castro audience, and everyone agreed afterwards that the sexually daring scenes between her and Conte are simply extraordinary in a film of this vintage. Excellent story, acting and pacing combine with snappy dialogue and a wonderful supporting cast including Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell and Joe Pevney. This film stands solidly with Dassin’s other better-known period noirs including The Naked City, Brute Force and Night and the City.
Born to Kill (1947) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) rounded out the bill for Wednesday. Famed director Robert Wise helmed both of these films. His early work is frequently overlooked due his later, big budget spectaculars such as West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles and The Sound of Music.
The House on Telegraph Hill (cited by Muller as one of the most-requested films in the festival), went over well with the locals, who greatly enjoyed the clever use of San Francisco’s hilly terrain in several suspense sequences. Richard Basehart’s subtle performance was a success, and folks cheered the return of the previous night’s hit actress, Valentina Cortese.
I strongly encourage anyone who thinks vintage films are passé to watch Born to Kill (1947). A debased socialite (Claire Trevor) pushes her naive but wealthy sister to marry a cold-blooded killer (Lawrence Tierney) while she carries on a back door affair with him! One of the most cynical and twisted films to come out of Hollywood during the 1940’s–the dialogue and characterizations are priceless, with Walter Slezak and Elisha Cook Jr. lending unforgettable support. Muller’s lively introduction, peppered with anecdotes about the late and legendarily truculent Lawrence Tierney, started the show in a good-humored mood; but even the sophisticated San Francisco audience seemed a bit unhinged by the dark, depraved denouement of this legendary noir.
Thursday evening juxtaposed two entirely different films, Nora Prentiss (1947) and The Woman on Pier 13 (1950).
Nora Prentiss might be more accurately described as a melodrama or, in the Warner’s lexicon of the time, a women’s picture, rather than a film noir. No matter which genre label is used, the moody, fatalistic script makes this film a triumph–director Vincent Sherman bought the story for a mere $2500 and it was well worth it. A married doctor falls for a heart-of-gold San Francisco chanteuse and his life rapidly goes down the tubes as love and pain become indistinguishable from one another. As lit by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe and gowned by Travilla, Ann Sheridan is absolutely stunning, and even does her own singing. She gives a complex, intelligent performance and is matched by a surprisingly effective Kent Smith as the ill-fated physician.
The Woman on Pier 13 (1950) has the frenetic pace of a Roadrunner cartoon after numerous cups of hot java. This historically absurd piece of Howard Hughes Red Scare propaganda is as retrospectively amusing as it is fascinating. Originally titled, I Married a Communist, Communist agents are portrayed as Embarcadero waterfront gangsters squeezing former fellow traveler, now shipping company executive, Robert Ryan. Although this film is relentlessly entertaining, I couldn’t help wondering what distinguished actors such as Ryan, Laraine Day and Thomas Gomez thought about this film in their later years.
Shakedown (1950) and The Raging Tide marked a week in Noir City.
Shakedown brought down the house on Friday night. This rarely screened film stars Howard Duff as one of the most amoral noir characters ever. A conniving, ambitious San Francisco newspaper photographer who orders a terrified woman to pose for his camera as she jumps from a burning building, Duff blazes new trails of seduction, double crosses, and murder as he gets entangled with competing crime bosses Lawrence Tierney and Brian Donlevy. The action is non-stop with great photography and a solid script. Shakedown marked the directorial bow of character actor Joseph Pevney (see Thieves’ Highway, above), who went on to a distinguished career helming numerous feature films and television episodes. Still hale in his nineties and residing in Palm Springs, it is hoped that Mr. Pevney may be persuaded to attend a screening of some of his fine films in the near future.
The Raging Tide (1951) was a more somber follow-on feature highlighted by crook Richard Conte hiding from the law aboard a San Francisco fishing boat skippered by Danish fisherman Charles Bickford. The interesting location photography of a long-gone San Francisco waterfront counterbalanced a frequently dragging pace and the dubious talents of Shelley Winters.
Saturday featured two more obscure films that were strikingly effective and well crafted.
The Sniper (1951) was a picture ahead of its time: the first serious screen portrayal of a serial killer (Arthur Franz) who terrorizes San Francisco with his depraved sexual compulsion to murder women with a scoped rifle. Starkly directed in the dingy streets, dead-end nightclubs and back alleys of postwar San Francisco by Edward Dmytryk, this watershed film also starred Adolphe Menjou, Richard Kiley and the ultimate film noir femme fatale Marie Windsor. Films about psycho killers became an unfortunate cottage industry in Hollywood that continues unabated. This picture handles the subject deftly without the gratuitous gore. Definitely a must see.
According to Eddie Muller, The Midnight Story (1957) is a benchmark film noir that is representative of the conclusion of the so-called classic noir period in the late 1950’s. Shot in Cinemascope by Russell Metty and directed by Joseph Pevney, the film stars a young Tony Curtis as a disaffected traffic cop tracking down the murderer of a beloved priest in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Curtis is adopted by an Italian family led by Gilbert Roland and has to choose between love and loyalty as he wrestles with his conscience to bring a killer to justice. This picture skillfully mixes superb ethnic family characterizations into a dark tale of passion and murder.
The festival closed with The Lineup (1958) and Experiment in Terror (1962).
Several attendees believed Eli Wallach’s fierce portrayal of a hired killer tracking down a lost heroin shipment with partner Robert Keith was the hit of the festival. The Lineup is a true sleeper film noir: a virtually unknown, stylistic film directed by Don Siegel (Siegel was casing the city well before Dirty Harry) and written by Stirling Silliphant. Siegel features some unique San Francisco period location in this tough little picture, especially during the climactic scenes at the Cliff House and on the as-yet-uncompleted Embarcadero Freeway.
Experiment in Terror is a neatly drawn neo-noir drama concerning a master criminal (Ross Martin) who holds bank employee Lee Remick’s sister (Stephanie Powers) hostage in order to force her assistance in a robbery. Glenn Ford is properly stolid as the lead FBI agent but it is Martin’s tour de force performance which carries the film–wheezing asthmatically into the phone as he makes his threatening calls, menacing the nubile Powers in a sleazy tarpaper shack, and pulling off what is simply the most terrifying drag appearance of all time. The tension-filled climax in a packed Candlestick Park is icing on the cake.
As if this film noir lineup wasn’t great enough, Noir City’s unofficial Mayor Eddie Muller used the intermission and conclusion of several shows to treat the audiences to the unique vocal stylings of singer-songwriter Jill Tracy, who made this Bay area noir experience complete.
The First San Francisco Film Noir Festival was a terrific experience and a great success. Even though I just got home I’ve got my bags packed for next year.

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