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San Francisco Loves Its Noir: From Noir City to the Roxie

San Francisco Loves Its Noir: From Noir City to the Roxie

I enjoyed myself tiptop, despite early feelings of disappointment with the lineup. Of the 25 films programmed, there were only two I hadn’t seen before —  Ivy and The Guilty — unlike last year’s international lineup, much of which was new to me.  But, as usual, the combination of the perfect venue — San Francisco’s venerable 1922- vintage Castro Theatre — with Eddie Muller‘s flair for the dramatic (not to mention comedic), the beyond-enthusiastic and attentive audiences, and a mezzanine where one can find tempting books and posters for purchase, as well as nightly pourings of free booze, enhances even the most familiar movie. 

I saw Woman on the Run (the world premiere of the Film Noir Foundation 35mm restoration), Born to be Bad, The Set-Up, and Clash by Night with new eyes in screenings that it’s hard to imagine could be bettered, erasing memories of battered old prints or viewings on tiny TV screens. I’d seen The Honeymoon Killers a few years after its 1969 release, but never since, and seeing it here was a revelation: my younger self was made uncomfortable by the pairing of plump Shirley Stoler and hard-bodied Tony Lo Bianco, as well as the unfamiliar directing style of Leonard Kastle, director maudit par excellence (The Honeymoon Killers is his only writing and directing credit).  Today, I found it a minor masterpiece.  (As I’ve said before, the movies stay the same, but we change.)

My disappointment with the beautifully-mounted, Edwardian-era Ivy was partly a function of having seen Joan Fontaine’s more nuanced and subtle bad-girl performance the night before in Born to be Bad.  But with The Guilty, another world premiere of a Film Noir Foundation 35mm restoration, it was more a matter of reality over expectations: Bonita Granville playing twins (one nice, one evil, of course) in a Poverty Row/Monogram Pictures adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich short story sounded darker and more transgressive in the abstract than it turned out to be.

But, as usual, the ten days of the festival were one of the highlights of the filmgoing year.  I wouldn’t miss it.  Satellite Noir City festivals have sprung up around the country: upcoming venues include Noir City Hollywood (April 13 — 19) (in actuality Muller’s original noir festival, its upcoming iteration will be its 17th); Noir City Austin (May 8 — 10); Noir City Chicago (late August, dates TBD); Noir City Portland (September 18 — 20); Noir City DC (Mid-October); Noir City Kansas City (Mid-November); and Noir City Seattle (dates TBD). 

When asked about how the individual festivals are programmed, Muller replied “The more established festivals, such as Chicago and DC, tend to adopt the theme that we establish in San Francisco.  With the newer festivals — which also tend to be shorter three-day affairs — we like to start out with what I call a ‘greatest hits package.’  Sometimes, as is the case with Austin this year, I’ll work out a schedule with the programmer at the theater that caters to his or her interests.  For example, in Austin we’re featuring ten films based on Cornell Woolrich stories.” I casually wondered if Noir City had any camp followers: “Yes, there are a few folks who follow the festival, like Dead-Heads,” Eddie said.

Noir aficionados don’t have long to wait in San Francisco: programmers Elliot Lavine and Don Malcolm, after the resounding success of their November 2014 The French Had a Name for It festival, are returning this March 19 — 23 to the Roxie with A Rare Noir is Good to Find:15 international films noir from France, Hong Kong, Finland, Japan, Denmark, Mexico, Greece, Brazil, Poland, and Korea, made between 1949 and 1974.  “All the world was noir in the years following World War II,” their website states, and “…it’s interesting to note that as noir’s box office clout began to slide in America, it began to flourish elsewhere.”  

Of the 15 films, I’ve only seen Bresson’s A Man Escaped.  In many instances, I have never even heard of the directors of these films.  My embarrassment as a cinephile is somewhat mollified by the fact that “Incredibly, ten of the fifteen films…have not been seen in American theaters for more than a half-century,” as the programmers point out. Why have I never been able to see personal favorite Jules Dassin’s The Rehearsal?  Its star, Stathis Giallesis (best known for Elia Kazan’s America, America) will appear in person at the pairing of The Rehearsal with another Greek film, The Ogre of Athens, one of the six revelatory six films that they press-screened in advance.  I especially enjoyed China’s The Wild, Wild Rose, (the rare musical film noir!) and was very unhappy to learn that its singing, dancing, and incredibly intense star, Grace Chang, retired from movies only a few years later.  It’s intriguingly double-billed with the Bergmanesque Finnish drama of infidelity The Scarlet Dove, also a press-screening hit.  

I can give no higher praise to A Rare Noir is Good to Find‘s programming than to say I’m intending to go to every double bill, including the films I’ve already seen.  Such rarities would be impossible to program without the advent of digital projection: sourcing the prints and shipping fees would be prohibitive.  I respect and admire the Film Noir Foundation’s commitment to restoring films and projecting them in exquisite 35mm, but I also respect and admire Lavine and Malcom’s obsessive hunt for the obscure and unheralded.  As does the Film Noir Foundation, which plugs the upcoming A Rare Noir is Good to Find in its online newsletter.  As an audience member, I say, let a thousand noir film festivals bloom!

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