A new fashion among San Francisco film festivals: adding another branded event during the year, months before or after the annual festival. Both the Silent Film Festival and Noir City have winter film events — Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, uses the December Christmas-themed evening to reveal the program for the upcoming January Noir City. This year’s theme, for lucky Noir City 13: the bonds of matrimony, or, as Eddie intoned: "Engagement ring, wedding ring, suffering."
This year the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival‘s all-day, six-film Winterfest 2015 was scheduled opposite the second day of Noir City, making life difficult (but not impossible) for an intrepid (and compulsive) festival-goer. It was cleverly programmed: first a German fiction film, "Let’s Go," directed by Michael Verhoeven, about an expatriate woman reflecting on her Jewish family’s life when returning to Germany after the death of her father; then a moving documentary, "Yalom’s Cure," about a well-known Stanford philosopher/therapist/writer, Irvin Yalom, who appeared at the Roxie for a Q&A; followed by another documentary, "The Decent One," found footage illuminating the letters and diaries of Nazi Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler.
Enough tears! The ensuing documentary, "Deli Man," features interviews with delicatessen owners (and, as an extra added incentive, promised nosh from noted local modern delicatessers Wise Sons). Then a powerful narrative film, "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem," Israel’s submission for the 2015 Academy Awards (alas, it did not get nominated), about a woman’s years-long quest to get a religious divorce from her recalcitrant husband (which played Cannes, TIFF, the Mill Valley Film Festival and more). And, to end the evening on a light note,, a Jewish zombie romcom from last year’s Sundance film festival, "Life after Beth," starring the delicious Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan and John C. Reilly.
I was torn between the Jews and the Noirs, especially after Friday night’s thrilling, rather over-the-top sold-out opening night in the 1400-seat Castro Theatre. A glorious new 35mm print of the San Francisco-set "Woman on the Run" (1950), restored by the Film Noir Foundation in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive (largely financed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust), debuted, followed by an archival 35mm print of the also San Francisco-set "Born to be Bad" (1950).
The always-exquisitely-produced Noir City evening also featured a quick-cut noir montage by Muller protege Serena Bramble, a delightful video from Reel SF comparing the actual shooting locations for "Woman on the Run" (gasp! some were shot in Los Angeles!) with how those locations look today, and, after "Born to be Bad," a screening of its alternate, rather more sly ending shown outside the United States.
And, mysteriously, the ever-increasingly theatrical Eddie Muller, clad in what he was quick to point out, earlier, was his own dinner jacket, crawled onstage during the intermission, bound and gagged, presumably by his two glamorous peignoir-clad Miss Noir City colleagues, dark-haired Evie Lovelle and redheaded Audra Wolfmann. I was so flummoxed by the sight that I don’t remember the storyline behind the skit.
Also playing Noir City over the weekend were Alfred Hitchcock’s "Suspicion" and Ida Lupino’s "The Bigamist," both of which I’ve seen many times before. Sam Wood’s "Ivy," though beautifully mounted, was something of a disappointment — especially after seeing Joan Fontaine’s considerably more witty and nuanced performance of a less-murderous femme fatale in "Born to be Bad." Eddie Muller continued his theatrical turn by appearing in a full-on period English tailcoat, complete with tricky ascot-like tie and fancy vest, dressed by Decades of Fashion, one of Noir City’s advertisers and supplier of one of its nightly raffle prizes.
Narcissistically (of course), I rate the seductiveness of each Noir City based on how many new-to-me screenings are offered, and by that system, Noir City 13 suffers in my esteem, especially after last year’s internationally-themed Noir City 12, which featured many rarities. But Noir City films, no matter how familiar, will benefit from being seen on the huge Castro screen, in the presence of the attentive and responsive Noir City audience. Will we ever get a chance to see any of these films on the big screen again?
Sunday offered two screenings each of Douglas Sirk’s "Shockproof" (screenplay by Sam Fuller), starring the then-married-in-real-life Cornell Wilde and Patricia Knight, and his "Sleep, My Love" (independently produced by Mary Pickford), with Claudette Colbert tormented by Don Ameche (understandably distracted by the sexy Hazel Brooks), and rescued by Robert Cummings — a fabulous double bill. Monday, Martin Luther King Day, offered two screenings each of "The Thin Man" and "After the Thin Man," neither really noirs, but, as the excellent Noir City 13 program book allowed: "In honor of this year’s festival theme, NOIR CITY steps from its sinister shadows to pay tribute to the most marvelous (fictional) marriage in the history of the movies, the blithe and boozy union of Nick and Nora Charles." (And here’s where I part company with the fanatical 35mm print fanatics: both of these copies were worn and well-used, especially "The Thin Man," which often jumped out of frame and was missing a bit of dialogue at a changeover or two. I would have preferred a glossy projected DVD.)
I chose the earlier pairing of each, happy to have a couple of free evenings to catch up with DVRed television and the like, because for the next week or so I’d be irresistibly drawn to the Castro on a nightly basis. And nightly reassured as to the blessings of my (somewhat accidental) single state.