One of the pleasures of film noir is the presence of an array of last-century anachronisms, from fedoras to stenographers to nickel cups of coffee. This year's Noir City film festival spotlights another once-familiar part of daily life that's going the way of the double-breasted suit: newspapers. "Stop the presses" once signified a dramatic crescendo, the hardboiled program reminds us, not a funereal hum.
Have no fear that I'm going to strike a maudlin tone here, for Noir City festival director, Eddie Muller's annual parade of doomed hustlers, scheming femme fatales and slick nighttime streets is nothing if not a celebration -- of grown-up style, of stained virtue, and of our own hard-won cynicism and urban smarts. Of cities, above all, and their solid edifices and shadowy inhabitants.
Newspapers used to be the heartbeat of cities, the clearinghouse through which every event of any importance or color passed. (Perhaps that's why my father instructed me to keep the papers when he and my mother went away on vacation every year, and religiously went through them when he returned.) Read properly, your city paper was a kind of real-life, serialized Chekhov novel that, over time, captured the unique contours and character of your hometown.
Chicago Deadline, presented in an ultra-rare print as the second half of this Saturday's matinee double bill with the mystery-writer tingler Blind Spot, gives us an intrepid reporter (Alan Ladd) trying to unearth the identity of a woman he finds dead in a low-rent brothel. This is a profile of the newspaperman as urban conscience, aiming to preserve a level of compassion and service long abandoned by the corrupt politicians and seen-it-all cops. This sordid tale is one of a million in the naked city, but it reveals that as early as 1949 everything wasn't all sunshine and roses in postwar America.
For a more poisonous take on the journalist's creed, look no further than Kirk Douglas's ambitious, amoral reporter in Billy Wilder's jaw-dropping Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), playing Sunday with the little-seen hunted-fugitive drama City of the Hunted. Wilder's prescient tale anticipates the calculated sensationalism of cable news (as well as reality TV), while alerting us to the threat that untrustworthy media pose to our democracy.
No doubt some in the Castro audience this Sunday will be reminded of the media's complicity in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. But shoddy newspapers are still better than no papers, and the Noir City titles with ink-stained wretches as their heroes and villains invite us to consider what lies ahead for our print-challenged democracy.
I should note that only a portion of the dark artifacts from the '40s and '50s in the 10-day program deal with journalism or publishing, leaving plenty of room for other juicy morsels. An unqualified highlight is the Arlene Dahl double feature this Saturday night, January 24, with the alluring actress fielding Muller's questions and spinning anecdotes between movies. Here's another tip: When in doubt, check out a twin bill that's not available on home video. By joining a horde of strangers parked in front of a big screen, you're embracing the unspoken theme of Noir City 7: New technology ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Noir City 7 plays January 23-February 1, 2009 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit noircity.com.