The Alameda author, historian and raconteur Eddie Muller displayed a touch of genius when he elbowed the annual Noir City festival onto the January movie calendar. Winter in San Francisco is a damp, dank, spirit-snuffing affair that corresponds perfectly to the noir view of the world as an uncaring wasteland. Furthermore, our winters encourage people to go out and practice a kind of awkward communalism Â–- in bars, mostly, but also for 10 days at the Castro Â–- that's near impossible in cities with snowdrifts and sub-freezing temperatures. But surely it's more than dreary but passable weather that makes Noir City (opening Friday night, Jan. 25) one of the most popular film festivals in town, and San Francisco the noir capital of America.
The typical rap is that San Franciscans are more cynical, or more jaded, than the denizens of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. I don't buy it. I might suggest, however, that we're more realistic. Manhattan and L.A. are full of ambitious achievers and overachievers, Type A characters with plenty of room to push their way to the top. But anybody who succeeds here is merely a big fish in a little pond Â–- and anyone who claims bragging rights in a pond looks ridiculous. Or have you forgotten Willie Brown?
So if you moved here, or were born here and didn't head for one of the major cities, you knowingly opted out of that singular American dream called grab as much as you can. You were tuned in to the big lie, and the fixed game, and the high- and low-level corruption, and you turned on and dropped out. Moreover, and here's where film noir comes in, you empathize with so-called losers, the mopes with bad judgment, bad timing and bad luck. (Am I saying that liberals love noir? I guess I am.)
The common thread in the postwar, low-budget, black-and-white crime stories and revenge flicks we call film noir is that most, if not all, of the characters are doomed. Hence, most folks I know simply attend every Noir City program they can squeeze into their schedule without regard to title, star, director or plotline. On any given night, they're assured the menu will include criminal behavior, requited lust, crack dialogue, brutal beatings and double-breasted suits.
That's not to minimize the effort Muller expends every year to track down obscure films that have never been released on VHS or DVD, and to shine the Castro spotlight on gracious actresses who long ago delivered their last line to a camera. So the opening night double bill of Repeat Performance and The Hard Way, sandwiched around an onstage interview with nice gal Joan Leslie up from L.A., promises to be the most upbeat and electric night at Noir City.
The mood darkens on Saturday with two all-time doozies scripted by Dalton Trumbo, The Prowler and Gun Crazy. As a bonus, Muller caps the night with the world premiere of his 20-minute short film, The Grand Inquisitor, starring the quintessential tough cookie Marsha Hunt. The late Gail Russell, who died way too young, is saluted on Sunday with Moonrise and Night Has 1000 Eyes.
On the male side of the cast sheet, a couple of genuine roughnecks are fondly remembered at the bar at the dark end of the street. Alan K. Rode's excellent new biography, Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy , provides the excuse (as if one is needed) to showcase the actor's stellar work in Reign of Terror and Border Incident Wed., Jan. 30. Richard Widmark serves up last call in the festival's closing shows, Roadhouse and Night and the City Sun., Feb. 3.
This is just a sample of what's on tap at Noir City, the only film festival in town that isn't in the business of educating moviegoers about the world. See, we already know that (small-time) crime doesn't pay, a sucker never gets an honest break, dames will always disappoint and you can't ever get what you want. The pleasure is in sitting in a theater with several hundred other wise guys and gals, watching some poor sap up on the screen learn the score.
Noir City 6 runs Friday, Jan. 25 through Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008 at the Castro Theatre. For tickets and information visit noircity.com.