By Ben Terrall
(Updated January 25,2023)
If you’re looking for a double dose, or more, of big screen escape from the exhausting ills of our modern world, you could do a lot worse than a film festival exemplified by this bit of turgid narration: “If I’d known where it would end, I’d never let anything start, if I’d been in my right mind, that is. But once I’d seen her, once I’d seen her, I was not in my right mind for quite some time…me, with plenty of time and nothing to do but get myself in trouble.”
Torrid stuff, and that’s just a taste, courtesy of Orson Welles’s double and triple-cross laden feast for the eyes and ears, Lady From Shanghai.
The 20th anniversary Bay Area Noir City film festival will be held from January 20 to 29 at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre. Though for most of its existence the festival has been held annually at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, given the changes being proposed by Another Planet Entertainment at that storied venue — including a plan to rip out orchestra seats — the East Bay is Noir City’s new home for now. (Editor’s note: A bonus double feature of Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears has been added on Monday and Wednesday, January 30 and February 1. Times and tickets here.) Festival Passholders get in free. Others pay a single price for a double feature.
Noir City founder and MC Eddie Muller, who crime novelist James Ellroy dubbed “The Czar of Noir,” speaks highly of the Grand Lake’s owner Allen Michaan. When Muller was filming introductions and closing comments for his Turner Classic Movies show “Noir Alley” from his Alameda home during the shelter in place phase of Covid-19, Michaan offered up his theater as a more appropriate studio. Muller was impressed by the care put into the 1929 Grand Lake’s upkeep, including maintaining the mid-20th Century look of its interior. Designed by prominent Bay Area architects Reid & Reid (the Hotel Coronado, The Fairmont Hotel, New Mission Theatre, Balboa Theatre, Rafael-originally named the Orpheus) it was an obvious choice to house the first pandemic-era Noir City, held at the Grand Lake for four nights last spring.
With its former balcony now accommodating a second large auditorium, the Oakland venue’s main space has about half the capacity of the Castro. But the downstairs is majestic in its own right, making it an appropriate movie palace for noir-inflected big screen extravaganzas.
Muller pointed out that while the Grand Lake’s main theater has fewer seats than the Castro’s floor area, it allows more legroom for attendees. Though Oakland mask mandates have been lifted, he describes Michaan as “Covid-sensitive” and says, “we encourage people to mask up when they are watching the movies.”
Noir City traditionally has an overarching theme. For Noir City 20 all of the movies presented will be celebrating their 75th anniversary. Muller told me that the ten-day lineup of 1948 features is “for the loyalists” and also a way to “see if we can bring in some new folks.” He pointed out that when he started the festival in 2003 there were kids too young to come to the Castro who are now at a prime age to enjoy “Golden Age” Hollywood cinema. Muller explains, “I didn’t want to color outside the lines, which I sometimes do,” with past programming having included more recent “neo-noir” features and films from other countries.
As in past years, there will be surprise guests and live music, somewhat like what audiences in 1948 might have experienced as part of a night out watching a new release. Muller’s erudite and informative onstage introductions, and his infectious enthusiasm for the material, brings an extra kick to the Noir City experience. He takes his job of providing useful historical context and interesting background information seriously, but his wit and spontaneity guarantees that the result is never pedantic. When I spoke to Muller he was researching relevant events from 1948 to touch on in his pre- and post-screening comments, which will allow him to talk about what happened in the U.S. that year in relation to the original release dates of the films.
The pictures from 1948 which Muller settled on include several titles that have never appeared in previous Bay Area Noir City runs. Among these are the powerful adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons which stars Edward G. Robinson (Saturday, January 28 at 3pm), the quasi-documentary style Call Northside 777 (starring James Stewart, screening Wednesday, January 25 at 9pm).
Another Noir /City first here is the John Huston-directed classic Key Largo, which kicks off the festivities on Friday, January 20 at 7pm. That opening film stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in what would be the final display of their unbeatable onscreen chemistry. Key Largo also features Edward G. Robinson as an over-the-hill but still-murderous racketeer attempting an ill-advised return to his past criminal glory, and Claire Trevor as his perpetually soused, profoundly unhappy mistress. When a hurricane hits the hotel in which Robinson takes the other principals hostage, conditions become as tense as Ron DeSantis in a drag bar.
The Lady From Shanghai**, which Muller describes as “one of the most startlingly inventive crime films ever released by a Hollywood studio,” is the opening night co-feature (screening at 9:15pm). Orson Welles wrote, directed, and starred in this wonderfully unpredictable film, which was his last made for a major studio. Welles intended for it to be a 155-minute epic, but a Columbia editor cut daily rushes Welles sent back to Hollywood from location shooting in Acapulco down to a frenetic 88 minutes.
In the estimation of esteemed film historian Foster Hirsch, “Welles’s connection to noir, like his connection to virtually everything else in the history of American film, is that of bold innovator rather than intelligent follower.” Cast aside expectations of traditional narrative structure: studio chief Harry Cohn disgustedly offered a thousand dollars to anyone who could explain its plot to him.
Instead sit back and ponder the short hairstyle and “topaz blonde” dye job Welles inflicted on his star and estranged wife Rita Hayworth, which wag reporters called “The Million Dollar Haircut.” Then revel in the film’s amazing visuals, including one of the wildest shoot-outs in movie history, and, in the San Francisco finale, views of Chinatown, the original Steinhart aquarium in Golden Gate Park, and the gone-but-not-forgotten Playland at the Beach.
Muller created The Film Noir Foundation to use profits from Noir City festivals, which now take place in cities throughout the United States, to preserve at-risk vintage noirs. One such restoration (screening Tuesday, January 24, at 9pm) is The Hunted, which stars Olympic figure skater Belita. Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, and Salvador Dali created a ballet and skating show for her when she was a teenager, but an injury resulted in Belita moving from England to Los Angeles to receive medical care. Soon she was signed to a multi-picture deal by low budget studio Monogram. In his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, recently reissued in a revised and expanded edition which will be available at the Noir City merchandise table in the Grand Lake’s lobby, Muller writes that though PR hacks described Belita as a “ballerina on blades” she was actually “more like Audrey Totter on ice.” Calling her “the only Ice Queen of Noir,” Muller deems The Hunted to be her best film.
Over the years the Foundation has also persuaded studios to strike new prints for limited Noir City exhibition. Among such titles screening this week are Night Has a Thousand Eyes (starring Edward G. Robinson, directed by John Farrow, and scripted by Jonathan Latimer; onscreen Saturday, January 28 at 1pm) and the oddball Raymond Chandler homage/parody I Love Trouble (Wednesday, January 25 at 7pm). Franchot Tone stars in I Love Trouble but in this compulsive typist’s opinion the best reasons to watch the picture are Raymond Burr, Janis Carter, and Adele Jergens, all of whom eat up the screen.
Muller has also been adept at coaxing studios to loan out pristine 35mm prints. But he told me that this process has grown more difficult as industry contacts he developed over the years have retired and been replaced by younger executives less familiar with Hollywood’s output from the 1940s and ‘50s. Conglomerates controlling archives are also less willing to open their vaults to loan archival prints, which are too frequently the only 35mm copies of those titles in existence. “We’re seeing a crackdown at studios, where they are not printing new copies of a film if one wears out. In some instances I think we’re showing the only print there is,” he told me. “We are looking at potentially the last time you’ll see some of these films in 35mm.” Seventeen of this year’s twenty-four films are 35mm prints. We love seeing our movies projects from film but when there aren’t good prints note that the digital transfers and restorations screened will be high-quality; don’t skip them just because they aren’t on film.
In addition to classics that bear re-watching, Noir City typically presents obscurities that few attendees will have seen before. The obvious examples this year are two films playing Monday, January 20: So Evil My Love, a gothic noir starring Ray Milland which Muller calls “a good, perverse movie,” and Sleep, My Love, an early rarity from that master director of turgid melodrama Douglas Sirk.
Milland also stars in The Big Clock (Saturday, January 21 at 7pm), another impressive film from director John Farrow. Jonathan Latimer based his script on a novel by Kenneth Fearing, who drew on experience toiling in the Time/Life building to depict a highly efficient and wildly profitable publishing empire which eats its employees alive. Milland plays a writer who winds up evading a manhunt which he is forced to help coordinate, guaranteeing maximum paranoia. Charles Laughton is a treat to watch as Earl Janoth, a vile publisher whose resemblance to Time, Inc. magnate Henry Luce is more than coincidental, and Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester excels as painter Louise Patterson, a character Fearing based on his friend Alice Neel. Laughton is sublimely evil, oozing smarminess and insincerity, but for my money Lanchester steals the show with her hysterically funny portrayal of a free-loving boozehound at gleeful war with convention.
Other standouts of Noir City 20 include the Thursday, January 26 double feature of Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Frank Borzage’s Moonrise, described by Muller in Dark City as “the two most romanticized, poetic works in noir.”
There’s also Raw Deal (Friday, January 27 at 7:30), directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by ace cinematographer John Alton, which Muller tagged “Pure Pulp for Noir People.” Dig that swinging lightbulb and Raymond Burr at his most savage, then thank your lucky stars you got to see it in a movie palace.
Descriptions of further treasures can be found by checking out the festival website, Noir City, which includes the full schedule, program notes, and links to buy tickets and Noir City Passports (all-access passes). And the new issue of Noir City Magazine. For tips on creating your own Film Noir Festival check the end of this page.
(Editor’s Note:And don’t miss our exclusive sneak preview of Eddie Muller Bar Noir here.
And Two Galleries of Posters and Trailers from every film in the Festival.. Gallery One and Gallery Two.)
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.
**Read in depth about The Lady From Shanghai by Chris Justice on Senses of Cinema.
“The Lady from Shanghai – the weirdest great movie ever made” goes into detail about the plot, behind the scenes and what it all might mean with lots of photos. Courtesy of aenigma.
Previous articles in EDF related to Noir City and Eddie Muller
THE CZAR OF NOIR MAY NOT RING TWICE BUT HE ALWAYS DELIVERS THE GOODS (March 2022) by Ben Terrall
NOIR CITY 18 CROSSES BORDERS (January 2020) By Monica Nolan
DASH’S CRIB- Where modern crime fiction was born (February 2016) by Eddie Muller
Catching Up with the Czar of Noir at Café du Nord (January 2014) by Thomas Downs
Through a Lens Darkly…. (January 2016) By Michael Fox
Noir City 13: ‘Til Death Do Us Part (January 2015) by Kelly Vance
The Grand Dame: My Date with Lauren Bacall by Eddie Muller
It’s About Beauty, Man: My Film-Fueled Friendship with Jazz Legend Charlie Haden by Eddie Muller
Hollywood Noir by Gary Meyer
The Noir World of Serena Bramble
Read Brian Darr’s terrific article about The Lady From Shanghai at SFGate.
If you don’t live in the San Francisco area check to see if Eddie will bringing Noir City to your city. Watch him of TCM hosting Noir Alley. You can find many of these films streaming or from DVD/BluRay dealers-some from Criterion Collection, Flicker Alley , Fox Film Noir, and many others have highly regarded commentaries by Muller; Check your local library for DVDs or online via Kanopy. And many are streaming for free because they are in the public domain. Do an Internet search of easier is to look for titles using Just Watch. You can create your own Festival.
The new issue of Noir City Magazine features Veronica Lake on the cover and is packed with great reading. It and past issues are available via digital or hard copy.