By Monica Nolan
For seventeen years now I’ve devoted the last week of January to Noir City, and the festival never fails to thrill me. This year’s annual valentine to the dark side of the dream factory opens at the Castro on Friday, January 24, and all over the Bay Area cinephiles like me are beginning to dream in black and white, the vintage-minded among us brushing off fedoras and veiled hats, polishing wingtips and spectator pumpsin preparation for opening night. Soon we’ll be sinking into the Castro’s cushioned seats for ten days of heists and double-crosses, killers and con-artists, revenge, paranoia, and bleak despair.
Although the festival, the brainchild of Eddie Muller and co-conspirator Anita Monga, now travels to seven cities and attracts visitors from across the country and abroad, Noir City San Francisco still feels more like a cozy village than growing metropolis.
Come Friday, Rory O’Connor will be under the Castro marquee, a dapper greeter from fedora to wingtips, Dennis Hearne will be snapping pictures on the mezzanine, and Bill Arney will be introducing host Eddie Muller with a rim-shot worthy joke. The popcorn line will be long, the bathroom lines will be longer, and the familiar regulars will stake out their favorite seats with scarves, hats or programs well before showtime.
For a festival focused on the darkest parts of the human condition, the proceedings are remarkably cheerful. At Noir City, celluloid depravity and darkness have always come wrapped in circus razzle-dazzle. Songs, giveaways, contests and the occasional striptease are part of the pre-show, which culminates in Muller’s film intro, a blend of ringmaster ballyhoo and erudite film history. “Okay. The film you’re about to see—” he begins, and then, like a chef beating egg whites to towering heights, whips the audience into a frenzy of anticipation for the rare, unique, truly special, unbelievable, amazing, just extraordinary film we’re about to see.
By the time Muller leaves the stage, we’ve floated away from the present (perhaps aided by free booze on the mezzanine) and drifted back seventy years or so to the middle of the last century. When the theater darkens and the curtains open, we are in a state of quivering readiness for what lights up the screen.
The films, of course, are the rich, dark center of the festival, and this year there’s a heightened excitement about them because Hollywood has vanished completely from the lineup. Instead, Noir City is crawling with immigrants from Argentina, Mexico, Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia, as well as a few pre-Brexit Brits. Every year, I wonder what trick Muller & Monga will pull to refresh the festival, when it seems we’ve screened every lost masterpiece that exists. This year, the world has come to our cozy little village, and with it the promise of undiscovered gems. We can experience movies just as 1950s audiences experienced them: not knowing what’s going to happen next.
But isn’t Hollywood essential to noir? “I wanted this year to be an international festival because the time is right for it, because of what is happening in this country,” says Muller, in a brief phone interview. “To take something that we think of as purely American and say it’s a melting pot.”
Noir City has always pushed the boundaries of film noir, treating its borders as porous; earlier festivals have programmed female-centered melodramas, B-movies from the 1930s, comedies, and even (gasp) technicolor. For Muller, the mood of paranoia and angst that permeates the genre is more important than visual style or genre. “I think of film noir as a movement,” Muller says. “It swept up all these people who otherwise wouldn’t have made these films.”
And as a movement, it makes sense that the same conditions that spawned Hollywood noir during the cold war era, with its red-baiting and repression (“that period where noir exists in this country was kind of as close as we came to a fascist state,” says Muller), would produce the same results in other countries. Whether it was Germany grappling with the legacy of nazism, Poland and Czechoslovakia struggling with the USSR’s iron grip, Argentina under Perón, noir’s dark dreams found fertile ground.
The international theme does includes some familiar faces, reminding us that even Hollywood icons have been crossing national borders to work for quite some time. There’s something irresistible in the notion of official Hollywood nun Ingrid Bergman playing a disfigured gang leader in A Woman’s Face/En Kvinnis Ansikte (1938), one of her last Swedish films before she emigrated to Hollywood.
And who can resist the lure of American beefcake Victor Mature tangling with British cheesecake (or sticky toffee pudding) Diana Dors in The Long Haul?
But I’m particularly excited about the Robert Siodmak film playing the second Friday. Siodmak is, after all, one of the directors who defined film noir in Hollywood, with films like Phantom Lady and Criss Cross. What’s he doing here?
Unlike most of his fellow exiles from Nazi Germany, Siodmak returned to his native land in 1953; there he made, among dozens of other films, The Devil Strikes at Night/Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam in 1957. A rarely screened gem set in wartime Berlin and based on an actual police case, it’s the story of a detective hunting a serial killer in a world where mass genocide is hiding in plain sight, and is simply not to be missed.
When foreign films first broke through Hollywood’s monopoly on US theaters in the 1950s they were typically consigned to the arthouse circuit with all that implied to the general public—intellectual, dull, for snobs. Pulled into the noir fold, the movies take on new meaning. This year’s festival refreshes three arthouse stalwarts for jaded viewers.
It seems suddenly obvious that no one is more noir than Antonioni, who built his career on the existential despair of unhappy couples. His debut film, Story of a Love Affair/Cronaca di un amore, comes straight from James M. Cain territory: a wealthy husband, a discontented wife, a past lover, and a detective. Let the familiar games begin, this time against a backdrop of a post-war Italian disillusionment.
Ashes and Diamonds/Pópiol I Diament, Andrzej Wajda’s study of a doomed WWII resistance fighter, won top prizes at international festivals—and its machine-gun toting anti-hero, with his tight leather jacket and dark glasses became known as the Polish James Dean.
This year’s Noir City may be your last chance to see art house darling The Housemaid on the big screen. What is art house fare in the US is quite often popular entertainment at home. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) has described the 1960 film as his country’s Citizen Kane, citing it as inspiration for his own film. It’s dysfunctional family noir, tinged with incomparable Korean-style horror.
Noir City regulars who saw Victims of Sin/Victimas del Pecado at Noir City 12 and more recently La Otra/The Other for Noir City Xmas, have begun to suspect that Mexico is a treasure trove of noir. “Yes,” confirms Muller, who credits Daniela Michel, director of the Morelia International Film Festival, with reintroducing films from Mexico’s golden age to the world. “She introduced me to Roberto Gavaldón, one of my favorite directors now,” says Muller. “I could have shown ten or a dozen of these.”
For now, we will content ourselves with Saturday’s four; especially since one of them is Gavaldón’s Night Falls/La Noche Avanza, starring Pedro Armendariz as a cynical gigolo who arouses lethal impulses in everyone around him. Gavaldón was a premier director during Mexican film’s golden age, another border-crosser who briefly lived in Los Angeles in the 1930s and directed a film for Eagle-Lion in 1948. Critics have described Night Falls as Gavaldón at his most noir, which, when I remember the The Other’s death-house “Merry Christmas” curtain line, is saying something.
When I ask Muller for his festival highlight, he unhesitatingly picks opening night’s double bill, The Beast Must Die/La Bestia Debe Morir and The Black Vampire/El Vampiro Negro, both films directed by Argentina’s Román Viñoly Barreto, and both Film Noir Foundation restorations. The Black Vampire screened in Noir City 12, and I’m looking forward to watching the sparkling new DCP. “Barreto is a fantastic director, not known outside of Argentina,” Muller promises, and that’s enough to whet my appetite for the top of the double-bill. I don’t know anything about The Beast Must Die, and I don’t want to, until I’m watching it unspool on the Castro screen.
Noir City programs used to trumpet the slogan, “Not on DVD!” but nowadays it’s more complicated to sum up what makes the festival essential. We have the illusion that the world of movies is at our fingertips, and the plethora of streaming services, online channels and Youtube videos conceals the fact that the reverse is true. It’s easy to to be seduced by the convenience of online viewing, limited though it is, but the rewards of venturing away from the glow of the computer and making our way through the cold night to the Castro theater are incalculable. Amped audience and hard-to-find films feed off each other to create an alchemy that transforms a double feature into pure gold. Even if the remote corporate gods who are currently controlling our access decide to someday stream the whole festival lineup, it won’t be the same. A Noir City screening is unique, a composite of giant flickering images, collective gasps, wild applause, and passionate post-film discussions with strangers.
Come January 24, think globally, watch locally.
The complete schedule with informative notes and wonderful images plus buying tickets, the Noir City magazine and merch can be found at Noir City.
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Monica Nolan is a novelist who has written about film and culture for The San Francisco Chronicle, Bitch Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Release Print, Noir City Annual, and Frameline
Editor’s Notes: There has been much written about Film Noir in terrific books and articles. A favorite piece that the EDF editor often rereads going into Noir City is director Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir”from Film Comment, Spring 1972.
Richard Brody’s “The Elusive Genre” in The New Yorker, July 23, 2014 looks at the roots of these films.
“Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller maintains websites with many links to terrific resources.
A series of very short comments on Noir and its slang.
His “Noir Alley” appears on Turner Classic Movies every Saturday night with a Sunday morning repeat. The selection mixes the classics with terrific discoveries. Even if you have seen the movie recently, do not miss Muller’s fascinating introductions and after comments. It is simple enough for most of us to DVR them—just set your machine to record every week. Samples are available here.
For more international Noir with an emphasis on French films. check out Don Malcolm’s Midcentury Productions website for info about both past and upcoming programs. 101 noirs have screened in seven festivals from 2014-19, laying the groundwork for a massive re-evaluation of the history of both film noir and of French film.