By Ben Terrall
After a two-year Corona Time hiatus, the Noir City film festival will return to the Bay Area from Thursday, March 24 to Sunday, March 27 at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. This year’s lineup, themed “They Tried to Warn Us!,” features twelve mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies that address social problems which are still all too present today.
Previous festivals had been held in San Francisco, most of them at the Castro Theatre (a few were also held at the Balboa and the Palace of Fine Arts). I asked festival producer, programmer, and host Eddie Muller, who bestselling crime novelist James Elroy dubbed “The Czar of Noir,” why the event was shifted to the Grand Lake this year. Muller explained that the ownership of the Castro was unresponsive to queries about returning the festivities to their former base and given that the Grand Lake is a well-preserved movie palace whose owner has worked at restoring it to its original look and style, the venue was a natural alternative. Though he was born and raised in San Francisco, Muller now lives in Alameda and enjoys spending time in Oakland; his feeling for the city’s environs are apparent in his contribution to the Akashic Books short story collection Oakland Noir, which he co-edited.
The Grand Lake, which is near Lake Merritt and adjacent to various restaurants and the fine Walden Pond bookstore, had its grand opening in 1926, and was used as a temporary studio for the Turner Classic Movies show “Noir Alley” earlier in the pandemic. That TCM program features classics from the golden era of film noir (roughly the early 1940s to the late 1950s), with Muller providing savvy introductions and post-screening discussion.
He is no staid self-appointed expert, as hair-splitting over categories and classifications is not his thing. Muller sees Noir as an organic artistic movement and stresses its elasticity, an angle that makes his comments much more interesting than those of a run-of-the mill host.
Noir City 19 was postponed from its earlier January dates after the emergence of the Omicron variant. Muller explained that this year’s festival will last for four days, rather than the ten-day cinematic binges of past years, partly to provide a “gentle reentry” for moviegoers wanting to exercise COVID-19 caution. The theater will maintain a mask mandate and proof of vaccination for all attendees.
Pandemic skittishness and the resulting tendency to stay at home has combined with the ubiquity of streaming entertainment to make the big screen moviegoing experience a harder draw these days. But even a screen that covers a living room wall can’t compete with one in a traditional moviehouse. Aside from the obvious superior visuals in a non-megaplex cinema, one cannot underestimate the gleeful communal aspect of watching gorgeous crime stories with a crowd of like-minded cinemaniacs, an experience many of us, including yours truly, have missed badly while slogging through too many interminable months of sheltering in place and social distancing.
As in past years, the festival will include what its website calls “noir-inspired activities,” including the traditional pouring and gulping of fine bourbon at the noir bar. That’s in addition to guest appearances, the wallet-emptying Film Noir Foundation merch table, live music, and screenings of surprise celluloid treats. As icing on the cake (watch out for the poison frosting), Muller, a versatile writer as well as a walking encyclopedia of film history, will be signing books at the Grand Lake in the late afternoon of Saturday, March 26.
And every attendee gets a slick color program book (while supplies last).
Muller founded the Film Noir Foundation in order to find and preserve classic films in danger of being lost or irretrievably damaged, with proceeds from its festivals (in addition to the Bay Area, they are held in Chicago, Hollywood, Seattle, and other cities) folded back into preservations efforts. The organization has worked with studios to strike new 35mm prints of vintage films, independently financed the creation of other new prints, and restored fourteen at-risk films. On March 24, the opening night of this year’s festival, the FNF will screen its latest 35mm restoration, The Argyle Secrets (1948). Written and directed by Cy Endfield, who also directed and contributed to the screenplay of Try and Get Me!, a terrific earlier FNF restoration screened for Noir City audiences, The Argyle Secrets riffs on story elements from The Maltese Falcon in a fast-moving narrative involving rich Americans who cut deals with the Nazis to protect their business interests. It stars William Gargan, who played opposite Janis Carter’s voracious, hard as nails murder enthusiast in Night Editor, a delirious oddity from festivals past. Do you really need to know more? I certainly don’t.
Endfield is one of several leftist filmmakers represented in this year’s program who did not fare well at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee. A U.S. Congressional committee initially set up to investigate both right and left wing domestic radicals, by the late Forties HUAC was effectively only focused on anyone it claimed to be tainted by communism. That included people who had severed their ties to the Communist Party, as Endfield had, and others who were never in the CP but were nonetheless tarred as “fellow travelers” for committing such unpardonable acts as campaigning for better movie roles for women and people of color. Endfield later wrote that he could not stomach the “seediness” of testifying before HUAC, a conviction which led him to leave the U.S. for England in 1952.
Joseph Losey, director of The Prowler, which will screen on Sunday, March 29, fled the U.S. for the same reason, resettling in London in 1953. Looking back after a second career making a diverse mix of critically acclaimed films in the UK, Losey considered The Prowler the best work he did in Hollywood.
The Prowler was scripted by another blacklist target, Dalton Trumbo, who had to put a friend’s name on the screenplay for it to be financed. The wildly gifted writer was far less enamored of the film than Losey. Trumbo should have been proud of it, as the picture has more than stood the test of time. It provides a searing critique of the dark side of the American Dream, in which a scheming, power-abusing policeman (played by Van Heflin) lets his desire for a house, live-in lover, and plenty of financial security override any possible feelings of empathy for others. In today’s fractured world of soulless, sociopathic opportunism (in Congress and elsewhere), The Prowler’s vision rings true.
Keyes, an underrated actress who lived an admirably unconventional life completely unlike the cramped existence of Susan Gilvray, her character in The Prowler, told Muller (who interviewed her extensively for his excellent book Dark City Dames) that she thought Susan was the best part she ever had, and her best performance. Bonus tip: listen for Trumbo intoning the radio voice of Susan’s DJ husband.
Robert Ryan, another actor who did great work in low-budget movies, co-stars in three Noir City 19 offerings: Crossfire (1947), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Ryan was a lifelong progressive who excelled at playing unpleasant roles. In On Dangerous Ground, directed by Nicholas Ray, he is a troubled cop with a severe anger management problem who gets sent away from his big-city beat to cool off in the country and winds up encountering Ida Lupino and lots of snowy scenery. The film features music by Bernard Herrmann, famous for his scoring work for Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, whose contract allowed him to compose, orchestrate, and conduct the entire score. On Dangerous Ground was one of his favorite projects.
In Crossfire, which also stars Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, and Gloria Graham, Ryan’s character is rabidly racist and antisemitic, a ball of hate who can play coy and smarmy when the situation warrants. The film’s producer, Adrian Scott, wrote RKO head of production Dore Schary, “This is a story of personal fascism as opposed to organized fascism. It indicates how it’s possible for us to have a gestapo, if this country should go fascist.”
Close friends warned him the role might jeopardize his career, but Ryan committed to it because he felt, as he wrote in an article at the time, “Pictures like this will help show how senseless, how ignorant, how detrimental to fundamental American principles … any kind of bigotry is.”
Ryan was hesitant to play another bigot when offered the role of Earle Slater in Odds Against Tomorrow, but after rereading Abraham Polonsky’s script, he felt the story delivered an important message without being preachy. It helped that Harry Belafonte, who became a lifelong friend, would produce and co-star, with seasoned pro Robert Wise directing. A classic heist film, the movie features memorable location footage of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the then-sleepy town of Hudson, New York, as well as a stellar score composed, arranged, and conducted by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Belafonte was a great admirer of Polonsky and the two planned to collaborate on more dramas dealing with pressing social issues, but, alas, the money men were not forthcoming with financing.
Because he refused to name names of fellow leftists to HUAC, Polonsky didn’t receive credit for the Odds Against Tomorrow screenplay until 1969. Polonsky’s last work before he had to use other writers to “front” for his projects was the closing film of Noir City 19, Force of Evil (1948), which he wrote and directed.
While doing research for his impressive book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, just reissued in a lavishly illustrated revised and expanded edition, Muller spent many hours talking to Polonsky. Muller told me that if Polonsky were around today, “He would say, ‘Goddammit, this all happened before!’” Muller found Polonsky’s attitude about what happened to him, and the country, instructive; reflecting on the blacklist years, Polonsky told Muller, “The way I look at, it we were all victims.” Muller explained, “The equilibrium that he developed helped me gain perspective on the era.” (Though Polonsky’s qualified sympathy for friendly witnesses was controversial among blacklistees, Trumbo wound up taking a similar position.)
Of course, these films are not just political message movies. Muller stressed that the directors in this year’s lineup were progressive in their approach to cinema as well as in their politics. He agreed with me that in Force of Evil Polonsky succeeded in his goal to write and direct a movie that, without sacrificing coherent narrative, moved effortlessly into experimental art film territory.Muller also observed, “Robert Wise is not thought of as an avant-garde director but his work in Odds Against Tomorrow is up there with the French New Wave. Of course, Harry Belafonte was a big factor.” Among Wise’s creative touches was working with cinematographer Joseph Brun to create extra high contrast black and white footage of New York City exteriors by using infra-red film.
Muller continued, “Robert Rossen [All the King’s Men, 1949] was a more classical, traditional director.” On the other end of the spectrum, “Cy Endfield, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, and to some extent Joseph Mankiewicz [No Way Out (1950)] were pushing traditional boundaries,” while Edward Dmytryk [The Sniper (1952) and Crossfire] “was more of a classicist.” So though there are fewer films than in the previous years, with no post-golden age “neo-noirs” or foreign films, Noir City 19 still includes a broad range of filmmaking styles and approaches.
On a more local interest-oriented note, you also get The Sniper’s early 1950s San Francisco street views of Pacific Heights, North Beach, and China Basin. Watch for a cameo by the Paper Doll Club, a gay bar located at the corner of Union and Grant which serves as the backdrop for one of The Sniper’s most disturbing moments.
Most of this year’s movies are being shown in 35mm. For repertory film fanatics disdainful of digital technology, that format remains a key obsession. But Muller observes that it is getting harder and harder to achieve a high proportion of screenings on 35mm, partly because studios are not interested in releasing vintage prints for public exhibition.
The good news is that current digital technology is helping to produce much higher quality, better-looking digital masters than in the early days of that medium. And, as is true with at least one film in this year’s festival, existing 35mm prints are worse for wear and tear and do not look as good as the product of a painstaking digital restoration.
Sadly, given the state of moviegoing today, some of this year’s films may never appear in a Bay Area theater again. “It’s safe to say that to see black and white movies in a theater with hundreds of people is not going to be a common experience in ten years,” said Muller.
Muller notes that he will remain open to new ideas for future exhibition of cinematic noir. He sees it as an advantage that “our organization is nimble enough that we can be responsive and flexible” when it comes to scheduling and trying new things.
So don’t get morose — do the carpe diem thing and enjoy these films while you can. That Muller and his crew at the Film Noir Foundation are still treating us to these screenings should be celebrated and savored. See you in the lobby or in front of the screen before or after the movie!
Visit Noir City for Complete schedule Thursday, March 24 to Sunday, March 27 at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland; and information about upcoming Noir City showings in Hollywood, Chicago and Detroit.
Visit Film Noir Foundation website for hours of fascinating dark pleasures
Visit Eddie Muller’s Website
For trailers and an Eddie Muller cocktail surprise see below.
Ben Terrall’s writing has appeared in the NOIR CITY e-magazine, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Metropolitics, the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, CounterPunch, NACLA Report on the Americas, and other fine outlets.
He is solely responsible for the infamous magazine Namaste, Motherfucker!, which is available via email@example.com and The Green Arcade bookstore.
Terrall thanks his parents for nurturing his movie addiction from an early age.