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San Francisco Film Noir Fest Knocks 'Em Dead
Sixth Annual Noir City strictly fabulous
Benjamin Terrall (bterrall)     Print Article 
Published 2008-02-07 03:18 (KST)   
Castro Theatre audience at Noir City 6, the S.F. Film Noir Festival
©2008 David M. Allen
On Jan. 25, an appropriately rain-slicked evening, the Sixth Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival opened at the city's legendary Castro Theatre. In operation since the 1920s, the Castro is an ornate movie palace which holds 1,400 people and features an organist playing between films on the theatre's "mighty Wurlitzer."

As festival founder and host Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir" notes in a useful online history, the term film noir was first used by French critics to describe post-WWII movies which "were called either Crime Thrillers or Murder Dramas" in the US. Muller writes, "Film Noir is the flip side of the all-American success story. It's about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave." The look of the films is heavily influenced by German expressionism, not surprising given that many stalwarts of the genre (or style, as some define it), were escapees from Hitler's Germany.

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Since its inception, part of the festival's appeal has been personal appearances by writers, directors and stars. Opening night featured Muller interviewing lively octogenarian Joan Leslie onstage between screenings of two films starring her, "Repeat Performance" (1947) and "The Hard Way" (1943). Leslie discussed her upbringing during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when she entered show business in her family's vaudeville act. She also regaled the crowd with memories from her movie career, including meeting noir icon Humphrey Bogart ("he was unique, no doubt about it ... he had a leering kind of look, but he could be kind and gentle too").

The next night actress Marsha Hunt, who appeared last year, returned to introduce "The Grand Inquisitor," a new short film written and directed by Muller in which she stars. Hunt strode onstage to a standing ovation and saluted the sold-out audience. In Muller's words, "That woman is 90 years old and she has five times the energy that I have. She is the most remarkable woman I've ever known." Hunt charmed the audience by singing Muller's praises, and thanking the short film's crew and fellow cast members. Her performance as a widow with a troubling secret won kudos from the audience.

That night also served as a tribute to Dalton Trumbo, who, like Marsha Hunt, had been blacklisted during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. Large numbers of liberals, like Hunt, and more radical leftists, like Trumbo, had their careers curtailed by studio cooperation with Washington witch-hunting, but Trumbo was one of the lucky few who continued working through "fronts." Trumbo wrote both features screened, "The Prowler" (1951) and "Gun Crazy" (1950), but didn't receive onscreen credit for either.

Eddie Muller and Marsha Hunt
©2008 David M. Allen
Muller and several like-minded cinema obsessives started the Film Noir Foundation, dedicated to preserving and making new prints of endangered films. Using the Castro festival's box office profits as evidence of audience interest, the foundation persuades studios to strike new 35mm prints of movies in their vaults, and prevails upon monied cineastes to pay for restorations. Modern noir novelist James Ellroy (author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia) helped finance restoration of "The Prowler," which earned him an opportunity to indulge his "demon dog of crime fiction" persona from the Castro stage. Ellroy introduced the film with the proviso, "You will need antidepressants, booze, drugs and bleak anonymous sex after you see this movie ... and believe me, you are in the perfect city to find that!"

Though the film lived up to Ellroy's characterization of it as "a masterpiece of sexual creepiness, institutional corruption and suffocating, ugly passion," the other half of the double feature was even more of a sensation with the packed house. "Gun Crazy," aptly tagged "a shot of adrenaline" by Muller, has long been a favorite of both high octane B-movie enthusiasts and Freudian critics trolling for sexual symbolism in pop culture.

The story of a young man irresistibly drawn to handguns and a sharp-shooting beauty with evil in her heart, "Gun Crazy" boasts one of the greatest long takes in the history of movies, a bank robbery in which the camera remains in the back seat of the getaway car throughout the approach to the bank, the actual robbery, and the escape. High-velocity, overheated dialog includes such gems as "Two people dead, just so we can live without working!" and "we go together, Laurie ... I don't know why, maybe like guns and ammunition go together."

Throughout the 10-day run of double features, Muller gave the audience background on (and quick-witted wisecracks about) filmmakers, actors, cinematographers and other creative contributors to the films in question. His encyclopedic knowledge of late 40s-late 50s Hollywood films (the period which most experts define as the classic film noir cycle) makes the festival something of a wildly entertaining course in film history, taught by an extremely knowledgeable, unpretentious, and ebullient movie fan rather than a dry academic.

Muller isn't dogmatic about positioning himself in the debate over whether film noir is more a genre of mid 1940s to late 1950s Hollywood films or a style and set of themes. He is also willing to stretch definitions if it means that an interesting movie will be saved and seen by new audiences. A good example of this broad-minded enthusiasm was the festival's inclusion of "Reign Of Terror" (1949), a "histo-noir" set during the French Revolution. Far from a costume epic, the movie was directed by noir icon Anthony Mann and lensed by ace cinematographer John Alton. Its high-contrast, shadow-laden visuals, and a story rife with paranoia, suspicion and betrayal, made it an appealing entry in this year's lineup.

Between features the night of the "San Francisco Noir" pairing of "D.O.A." (1950) and "The Story of Molly X" (1949), I asked Eddie if he'd considered showing "subtitled noir," given the range of movies from around the world that have been influenced by classic Hollywood noir films like "Double Indemnity," "Out of the Past," and "Touch of Evil." He acknowledged the noir look and feel of Akira Kurosawa's classics "The Bad Sleep Well"(1960) and "High and Low"(1963), and told me that "we're moving in that direction." The next night Graham Leggat, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, joined Eddie to announce their joining forces to organize an international film noir festival, exciting news to the movie-crazed crowd.

But there are limits to inclusion in the noir canon. On the night the festival was screening two films being reissued by 20th Century Fox on DVD ("Hangover Square" (1945) and "Dangerous Crossing" (1953)), titles on the theatre's marquee had been changed for a film shoot on the street outside. For scenes in "Milk", directed by Gus Van Sant and featuring Sean Penn as the late gay community leader and San Francisco Selectman Harvey Milk, Castro Street was made over to recreate the look of the neighborhood in the 1970s. Eddie explained, "As many of you know who have attended this festival over the years, my definition of film noir can be somewhat elastic. It is not so elastic as to include 'The Poseidon Adventure.'"
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Benjamin Terrall

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