Through a lens darkly…

by Michael Fox

Good news, noir aficionados: It’s raining. During our hot streak of parched winters, it took a certain panache to attend Noir City—let alone strut around town—in a trench coat. Bogie could pull it off, and so can Eddie Muller, the long-reigning mastermind behind San Francisco’s annual cinematic cavalcade of dashed dreams and waking nightmares. But you and I, not so much. Fortunately, the deck is stacked for nocturnal, street-slicked treks to the Castro between January 22 and 31.

NC14 Teaser_with text“The Art of Darkness” (uttered with a catch in the throat) is the theme Muller has chosen for the 14th annual San Francisco Noir Film Festival, and he’s picked 25 movies brimming with both. In lieu of the usual lineup of doomed mugs and molls, Muller has compiled a rogue’s gallery—nay, an entire wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Melancholic Misery—of angst- and anguish-plagued artists and writers and their muses, tormentors, patrons, exploiters and lovers.

Peering through a lens darkly, the fest opens with the curmudgeonly photographer double-bill of Rear Window (masterfully choreographed claustrophobia on the big screen, with wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart resisting the heart-poundingly beautiful Grace Kelly) and The Public Eye (Howard Franklin’s 1992 riff on the unflinching pre-war Manhattan photojournalist known as Weegee, starring Joe Pesci). We’re expecting a photo booth in the lobby. As always, bring your own flask. (Editor’s note: The Castro management does not condone any illegal activity. Immoral, maybe, but not illegal.)

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Lucille Ball in Dark Corner (1946).

After packing the house with household names, the festival takes a deep dive into the dark past with a Saturday matinee (Jan. 23) pairing of relatively unknown pictures from 1946. The Dark Corner co-stars Lucille Ball (already pretty good at keeping her tongue in her cheek) opposite her P.I. boss Dan Stevens, while Crack-Up offers reporter Claire Trevor helping her amnesiac boyfriend, art curator and critic Pat O’Brien, solve a mystery that proves to be something other than existential. That night, Noir City premieres the Film Noir Foundation-funded (with help from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust, a beneficiary of the Golden Globes telecast moola) restoration of the 1956 Argentine classic Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems). It’s paired with Swedish master Hasse Ekman’s Girl With Hyacinths (aka The Suicide), starring his fabulous wife Eva Henning. These twin (re)discoveries are guaranteed to be the hottest ticket of the entire festival.

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Los Tallos Amargos (Argentina, 1946)

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Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Is there anyone in San Francisco who hasn’t seen In a Lonely Place (Jan.25) three times? Nick Ray’s unsettling portrait of an L.A. screenwriter (Bogart) who’d just as soon go to prison for a murder he might not have committed as kiss (or shake) the hand of an industry player he doesn’t respect co-stars the sublime Gloria Grahame. Bogie plays another possible murderer opposite the always-remarkable Barbara Stanwyck in The Two Mrs. Carrolls in the other half of the bill. Brit director Terence Young, the man tapped to helm the first Bond movies, made his debut with the vertiginous relationship drama Corridor of Mirrors (Jan. 26) in 1948. Longing for pre-war days, a painter seduces his lover into a doomed fantasy journey into the past. The appetizer is Albert Lewin’s 1945 chilling take on The Portrait of Dorian Gray, starring the brilliant Angela Lansbury opposite Hurd Hatfield.

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The Big Knife (1955)

Skipping ahead to Jan. 20, frustrated movie star Jack Palance chews the furniture and the carpets of his Beverly Hills living room trying to keep his integrity, his career and his wife (Ida Lupino) in The Big Knife, Robert Aldrich’s fierce rendering of Clifford Odets’ caustic script. Hollywood also takes the fall in Vincent Minnelli’s multiple Oscar-winning curtain raiser, The Bad and the Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas as a ruthless producer.

The brilliant and prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht also directed a handful of pictures, including the genre-blurring Specter of the Rose (1946) featuring Judith Anderson as a ballet impresario. With Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Technicolor triumph, The Red Shoes, up first, dancing in the dark is the theme on Jan. 30. Who said a noir has to be in black-and-white? If you’re dubious, just ask Eddie. Or come back the next day, when Noir City splatters red and purple before packing up the canvases and corpses ‘til next year. Face your devils with Peeping Tom, the brilliant 1960 film about a malevolent cameraman that nearly killed Powell’s career by indicting moviegoers as voyeurs who get off on not merely watching people live but die. (It was Powell’s bad luck to open just a few months before Psycho softened up audiences and critics.)

Bring a beret to go with your trench coat; you’ll want it when you hit the café or wine bar to debate—yet again—the meaning and myth of Antonioni’s quintessentially existential murder-in-the-park mystery, Blow Up. When fashion photographer David Hemmings realizes that a sports car and never-ending flock of birds can’t shield him from the seamy underbelly of human nature, he becomes a noir anti-hero—obsessed, unheeding and desperate.

Check out the complete schedule of events and program notes for the 14th annual San Francisco Noir Film Festival.


fox, michaelMichael Fox is a longtime film critic, journalist and teacher. He also curates and hosts the Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics Institute in downtown San Francisco.


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