Only in its fourth year, Noir City, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival, has already become a bona fide San Francisco institution and amassed a loyal fan base of dedicated noir fanatics. Eddy Muller, the Czar of Noir (as he is often referred to) is not only the artistic director, but impresario presiding over the numerous readings, events and interviews with special guests who grace the stage at Noir City. This year's stellar line-up of visiting luminaries include Farley Granger, Sean Penn, James Ellroy, Coleen Gray and writer-producer Stanley Rubin. And for die-hard noir literary enthusiasts -- a reading event co-sponsored by Litquake.
With veteran programmer Anita Monga (formerly of the Castro Theater), the festival consistently showcases inspired thematic programming, while unearthing buried treasures from the depths of film noir's shadowy past. In its first year the festival screened noir films set exclusively in Frisco, last year they paired double bills of Los Angeles vs. New York noir, and this year's program features a side-bar of heavy hitters from the golden (or the darkest) year of noir, 1946. Notorious B-movie classics and rare prints will seduce even the most jaded film snobs.
My favorite film of the fest, Narrow Margin, is a B-movie noir about a hard cop hired to protect a cheap, tough talking mobsters wife, played with gusto by Marie Windsor. Scheduled to testify before a grand jury, there is a long deadly stretch of train ride between her and the stand, if she can make it there alive. The dame seems to be at the top of everyone's hit list and a ruthless bunch of mobsters will do just about anything to keep her mouth shut. A tight story structure, plenty of red herrings and enough plot twists to keep you on the edge of your seat, propels the story forward like a speeding bullet. The film delivers its noir punch with crisp, rapid fire dialogue that sizzles off the screen.
One of the most attractive things about the Noir City Festival are the bargain basement prices. For the price of a single movie ticket anywhere else in the city, attendees get to see a paired double bill of rare noir films and use their ticket stub to get a free glass of booze. The festival is not merely dishing out the usual Vodka based drinks, but offering up Bourbon and Scotch in a boozy homage to Philip Marlow and countless other denizens of the genre who never hesitate tossing back a stiff drink.
An illuminated Deco bandstand has transformed the Palace of Fine Arts lobby into a swanky lounge area. A perfect setting to mix and mingle, inhale a drink and people-watch in between shows. Since noir is as much a literary genre as it is a film genre, The M is for Mystery bookstore has been a consistent presence at the festival, offering a great selection of classic and neo-noir literature. This is where I discovered Chandler's smooth prose and plowed through his entire oeuvre in a matter of months.
Although the festival is coming to a close at the Palace of Fine Arts, you still have an entire weekend left to catch some of the highlights and special events taking place at Noir City. A not to be missed: rare print of the City That Never Sleeps screens Friday night, the Noirquake reading takes place Saturday afternoon, Sean Penn introduces his favorite noir (a surprise) and screens his neo-noir The Pledge on Saturday night, and on Sunday don't miss A Night in Noir City, a benefit featuring the legendary Charlie Hayden Quartet. The dough helps fund The Film Noir Foundation, which finds and preserves films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged.
Don't get all worked up about missing a few shows. The existential angst continues as the Festival moves to the Balboa Theater starting Monday, January 23.
The Noir City: the San Francisco Film Noir Festival takes place at the Palace of Fine Arts and Balboa Theater, January 13-26.