Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Noir City X San Francisco Film Noir Festival

It was a stormy Friday night in San Francisco. There had been very little rain lately. Somehow it made sense that we were going to see two vintage Noir thrillers on this wet night.

There was more than the usual festival crush under the Castro Theater marquee. If anyone was waiting for someone, they would have to huddle near the box office to stay dry. Kathy had scored tickets online and we went right in and took some of the last seats on the main floor.

David Hegarty treated us to a cavalcade of hits from the Thirties and the Forties on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. “Embraceable You” “The Lady Is a Tramp” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and a song from one of tonight’s movies: “Too Marvelous for Words.” After seven o’clock the audience knew the organist was stalling for time. There were the usual opening night delays. We were waiting for the reception to break up, but no one seemed to mind.

It was time to settle back and enjoy the fantastic interior of The Castro movie theater. Soak in the huge ceiling and chandelier. The Castro is a combination of Spanish style architecture and Art Deco. There are classical frescoes on the side walls. Banners hang from the side boxes. The initials TC, for The Castro, are on the banners. A large Noir City logo is projected onto the stage curtains. People walk up the aisle to take pictures of it. “The Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of” is the Festival’s motto this year.

It’s hard to believe, but in the Seventies there was talk of closing The Castro movie theater. It would have been hollowed out and turned into a parking lot. This had been the fate of several old movie theaters around town. There’s nothing sadder than seeing the shattered hulk of a treasured local theater turned into a parking lot. The Castro stayed open and became a registered landmark.

In December, there was a rumor on a movie blog that The Castro would close. The carnage suffered by other local movie theaters made this easy to believe. The Balboa out in the avenues had just avoided shutting its doors. This rumor turned out to be false, but it was still unsettling.

Any night at the Film Noir Festival is an event, but more people dress up for opening night. It’s easy for men. They can just put on a suit and tie and wear a hat. That easily puts them in the uniform of the day. The women have to work more on recreating the look of the time. There are cocktail dresses, hats and more makeup than usually seen now.

Everyone waited for the traditional playing of “San Francisco” from the classic Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy movie. It signals that we’re near show time. The crowd claps along with the song. It’s a San Francisco tradition: “Open your Golden Gate!”

The lights dim and the voice of the Film Festival welcomes the “ridiculous saps who don’t know the difference between right and wrong.” The voice belongs to Bill Arney. He gives a long and enthusiastic introduction of the boss: The Czar of Noir, the man who started it all, Eddie Muller.

Muller climbs the steps onto the stage. He fills out his sharp suit. Muller has what used to be called a “boxer’s build.” He’s as native San Franciscan as you can get. His father was a boxing reporter for The Examiner, when boxing was huge in San Francisco. The crowd greets him with applause. Muller does have charisma. There were many Noir fans in San Francisco. Muller recognized that, and with a hard core of them organized the Noir Festival. He’s almost become a Noir character himself.

He thanks us for braving the elements tonight. “This could only happen in San Francisco! ... I’ll save you my spiel on restoration. It’s in the program.” Muller admits that, “I was getting a bit verklempt backstage.” He had been thinking about reaching this ten year milestone with the Noir festival.

Muller had been in France promoting Noir and appearing at film festivals. If the French could see the sold out Castro Theater for two Noir films, they “would not believe their eyes. Fourteen hundred people are here tonight!”

Muller has been asked why the Noir Festival was held in January. He’s always asked, “What if it rains?” This year he said, “As long as The Niners still suck and don’t make the playoffs, we’ll be all right.” Despite the unexpected playoff frenzy, ticket sales have been great, and they’re very happy for tonight’s sellout.

Muller tells us of tasting Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey at the reception upstairs. “It’s an experience that should be tried, but Bogie wouldn’t have liked it.” It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. I imagined the sponsors cringing somewhere in the theater.

This year there would be special events for the tenth anniversary. On opening night we will see the two films that opened and closed that first festival. There will be a fundraiser party next Saturday, and a Dashiel Hammett marathon of six films next Sunday.

The Noir City X poster and trailer were shot in the Dashiel Hammett apartment on Post Street. It’s near a plaque marking the spot where Miles Archer’s body was found in “The Maltese Falcon.” It was rented for years to the Voice of the Festival, Bill Arney. Writer Robert Mailer Anderson took it over. He has been renovating the apartment back to how it looked when Hammett lived and wrote there. It may be opened to the public at some point, but right now it’s become “a clubhouse.”

It’s time for some film. We’re treated to a showing of “The Endless Night: Noir Valentine.” It’s a sharply edited mash of classic Noir scenes with music that fits the scenes perfectly. The scenes are recognizable to even casual Noir fans. It starts with a scene from “Double Indemnity.” Doomed Fred MacMurray is walking down a dark street. The sound track starts with a pounding bass heart beat. The song is “Angel” by Massive Attack. A haunting alto voice serenades a parade of iconic Femme Fatales and Tough Guys. Historic Noir scenes flash by. Lana Turner still gets a big Castro crowd reaction in the scene from “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The music gains pace and the tension builds. Something bad is going to happen. We know violence will erupt. There’s a series of shoot outs and murder scenes. Then it slows down as characters recoil in fear or revulsion. Some of them show doubt or remorse. The music slows. There are signs of regret. There will be repercussions. Lives are changed or ended. Someone is going to jail.

“Noir Valentine” was unveiled at opening night a couple of years ago. It was made by Serena Bramble. She’s a nineteen year old film student. Muller says she was the target audience for the festival. The goal was to get younger people interested in Noir. “She would have been ten years old for Noir City One,” Muller says.

Muller offered to buy Bramble a drink, “In lieu of payment.” That’s how he found out she was underage. “Maybe next year,” Serena told him. Bramble made another Noir mix that showed on opening night last year. “San Francisco Is the Scene of a Perfect Crime” features scenes from Noir films made in San Francisco.

Muller is very excited that Angie Dickinson will be appearing onstage at The Castro the following night. “I can’t believe Angie Dickinson will be standing right ... about ... here!” Muller points at the spot where the film heartthrob will be.

This year’s big event will be a party next Saturday at the Swedish American Hall. “Because, as we all know, I’ll see you at ...?” Many in the crowd yell the answer, “Rick’s!” It’s a classic line from “The Maltese Falcon.” “You are a savvy audience,” Muller says. This year it’s, “Everybody goes to Eddie’s!” They will recreate a Forties era nightclub atmosphere. Music will be provided by The Late Night Callers and Steve Lucky and The Cocktail Party. Muller promises surprises.

And it only costs seventy-five dollars! Muller must have anticipated the groans in the audience. He says it is a fundraiser. If you bought the full festival pass for one hundred and twenty dollars and paid seventy-five dollars for the party ticket, that’s about two hundred dollars. Not a bad entertainment value for San Francisco these days. (The price for the fund raiser was later lowered to $40, with rebates given at the door.)

How did it all start? Muller says he’s always asked where his interest in Noir began. “It was Dialing for Dollars with Pat McCormick!” Those who grew up with the local afternoon television show applaud. Dialing for Dollars showed old movies and called lucky viewers with quiz questions for cash.

“It was low tech.” McCormick would call names he picked out of the phone book. Local television was very different back then. “When is the last time you heard a phone actually ringing on television?” Muller asks us. Viewers had to wait with McCormick to see if anyone would answer. “Oh, she’s not home. She’s probably out grocery shopping,” Muller cracks. Some people who answered the phone knew about the program. Most did not.

The first Noir film Muller remembers getting hooked on was “Thieves’ Highway.” He saw it one afternoon on Dialing for Dollars. “It had everything. It was blue collar and had a local angle.” The movie was an expose on the seamy side of the vegetable market that once thrived on The Embarcadero. The young Eddie Muller fell in love with Valentina Cortese, the mysterious Italian Gypsy woman in the film. Another movie he remembers seeing on Dialing for Dollars was tonight’s second film, “House On Telegraph Hill.”

Muller introduces Anita Monga: “It couldn’t have happened without you.” The former programming director at The Castro gets warm applause. When the owners of The Castro got rid of her, the Noir Festival moved to the Balboa theater for a couple of years. It’s a great local theater, but it wasn’t big enough to handle The Noir Festival. A hatchet was buried and the festival moved back to The Castro. Monga is a programmer with the Noir Festival.

It’s time for a few introductory words about tonight’s first film. “Dark Passage” has a strange plot. The program calls it, “A bizarre ramble through nocturnal 1940s San Francisco.” Muller tells us that Bogart and Bacall stayed at the Mark Hopkins during filming. I wonder what they did while they were in San Francisco.

There are possible spoilers here. The festival tries to show rarities, but tonight we would see two films that most hard core Noir fans are familiar with.

“Dark Passage” starts with views of the Ring Mountain area in Marin. It’s a great hiking spot that we found by chance years ago. It does have an ominous view of San Quentin across the water. The area still seems remote, even though it’s near Highway 101. The trail isn’t used much. Maybe it’s because San Quentin looms across the water. The opening scenes of the film are rare footage of the territory between San Quentin and the Golden Gate Bridge. There wasn’t much there in the Forties. There’s a great shot through the tunnel leaving Marin. The Golden Gate Bridge is framed in the distance.

Noir does require some suspension of disbelief. For the first third of the film, we see everything through the eyes of the escaped convict. Then he has plastic surgery and turns into Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall is landscape painter Irene Jansen. She helps the desperate Bogie escape Marin and get through a road block on the Golden Gate Bridge. Later it’s explained that her father was unjustly imprisoned, but even that’s a bit of a stretch. Was she was out painting landscapes waiting for Bogie to escape?

“Dark Passage” has great shots of Telegraph Hill in the Forties. The Art Deco building with Irene Jansen’s apartment on Montgomery Street is still there. It’s a magnet for Noir fans. There was a time you could snoop around inside the lobby. Someone put up a life size cardboard cutout of Bogart. He’s watching from a window with his jacket slung over his shoulders.

I don’t know if they cleared streets for filming back then, but any San Francisco resident is amazed at the amount of parking in movies. Kathy noted that,"There aren’t many people around.” It’s one of the main attractions of watching these films. It’s a San Francisco from the past, and as anyone who has lived here learns, the San Francisco from the past is always better than the San Francisco of today. It was always better, “Before you got here.”

Was San Francisco so great? Bogart is on the run and has to hide in the evil sinister underworld of The City. He wanders the streets and hooks up with a cabbie who figures out who he is. The cabbie has a gut instinct about people. He’s convinced that Bogart is innocent, “I know you didn’t do it.” He takes Bogart to an eccentric looking underground plastic surgeon.

After the surgery, Bogie wants to hide out with his cool trumpet playing friend George. When he returns to the friend’s apartment, Bogie finds him dead. He has to go back to Irene Jansen’s apartment. She is more than willing to help. He will have to be tied down when he sleeps so he doesn’t ruin the plastic surgery by scratching his face in the night. “I’ll bet you want to get untied,” the sultry voiced Bacall says. There were chuckles in the crowd. The Castro crowd wasn’t going to let that kinky line slip by without a reaction.

The film broke! The audience remained calm. A few volunteers and Noir employees scrambled up the aisles. Some of the audience used the short break for a bathroom run or to stretch. There was a short delay and then the film came back on.

Bogie was framed for murder by his bitter ex-wife. She is played by Agnes Moorehead. Many recognize her from her role as Samantha’s mother on the TV series Bewitched. He visits his wife at her apartment. She lives in one of the tall white buildings on Russian Hill. When she realizes that Bogie is her escaped con husband, she panics and falls out a window to the pavement below. It’s one of Noir’s oddest scenes.

This won’t look good. Bogart takes off. He has to go up to the roof and then climb down the fire escape. This gives us great views of the Bay and the Russian Hill neighborhood. He gets on the Powell Street cable car going down town.

After about twenty minutes the film broke again! After the second break, The Voice said, “We have to be cautious.” The audience applauded and patiently waited. This crowd didn’t want the print ruined at an event dedicated to film preservation.

The rain storm hit hard near intermission. We could hear the wind and rain from our seats near a side door. Some people left at intermission. They struggled out of the double doors into the pouring rain. Maybe they had somewhere better to be on Friday night, or maybe they had seen “House on Telegraph Hill” too many times.

The Castro theater was built in another era. When there’s a big crowd the lobby can be chaotic during intermission. It is an old building and there are only two small bathrooms. This creates ridiculous lines during the intermission. Volunteers struggled to keep the bathroom lines away from the concession stand lines and creating a human logjam. It made me wonder how they did it in the old days.

The Voice teases Muller a bit: “Oh, good one boss ... probably out grocery shopping.” Muller comes back onstage. He fell in love with Valentina Cortese when he saw her in “Thieves’ Highway” on Dialing for Dollars. She made four films in America. Two of them were shot in San Francisco, including tonight’s second feature, “House on Telegraph Hill.”

Muller says that she was nominated for an Oscar that Ingrid Bergman won. In her acceptance speech, Bergman said the Oscar should have gone to Cortese. The other nominees were insulted. Poor Ingrid. She couldn’t do anything right off the set.

Allessandra Gallo joins Muller onstage for a short tribute to Valentina Cortese. Muller had planned to go to Milan to interview Cortese for footage that would have been shown tonight. Then “French and Italian film directors got involved,” and the project stalled. Gallo told Cortese that she had a big fan in Muller. “Is he attractive?” the ninety year old actress asked. Cortese’s health was an issue. It looked like Muller would get the interview, but then she fell and “didn’t feel up to it.”

Muller pulls out an iPhone. “These things are good for something.” He videos the audience while we shout to Coretese: “Ciao! San Francisco loves you!”

The second film, “House On Telegraph Hill” opens with scenes of The City’s Embarcadero taken from Coit Tower. The views get applause and cheers from the audience. Half the fun of seeing these films is figuring out where the scenes are in San Francisco. You can see the changes The City has gone through over the years. It’s a San Francisco that we’ve heard about, but can only dream about living in.

“House On Telegraph Hill” is another strange Noir film. The plot is weird, but it shows the San Francisco of the Forties. Valentina Cortese is great as the wife in fear for her life.

Valentina Cortese’s character helps a friend survive in a World War II concentration camp. When the friend dies, she switches identities with her. She pulls the old Don Draper. As luck would have it, her friend had married into a wealthy family in San Francisco. There is a son in San Francisco who hasn’t seen his mother since he was an infant. It’s quite a break. She goes from the refugee camp to a mansion on Telegraph Hill.

The backyard of the mansion is the area behind Coit Tower. There will be danger, but beautiful views. Cortese becomes convinced that her new husband is trying to kill her. She survives an out of control car ride down Telegraph Hill. Was it an accident, or did someone cut the brakes? She goes to a family friend, Marc Bennett, for help.

Valentina Cortese runs into Marc at a small grocery near the top of Union Street. She banters with the Italian proprietor. She plans to meet Bennett at his office downtown. She enters the ornate lobby and runs into her husband. This won’t look good. How can she explain it away? Oh, she was going to the dentist, she says. “That’s in the Medical Building,” the husband says. The Medical Building’s Art Deco exterior still draws attention on Suttler Street.

Some buildings look the same. The cityscapes do not. It’s amazing how small The City’s skyline was. The Mark Hopkins hotel was the largest building and dominated the view.

It’s great to watch these films with a hard core Noir audience. The wicked nanny is hissed. Bob is trying to make dinner plans with Valentina. “I’m a San Franciscan. Eating is serious business,” Bob tells her. The Castro audience gets a laugh out of that line. San Francisco has been a foodie town for a long time.

There’s a fascinating scene in a Chinese nightclub. A Chinese band is playing and a woman dances onstage. This may have been a set, but Chinese nightclubs were a huge tourist draw in San Francisco. It was part of the mystery of The City.

Cortese and co-star Richard Baseheart fell in love on the set and married shortly after making the film.

The films are short by today’s standards, but a double feature will have you living back in the Forties for a while. Opening night is over and we go back to the reality of the wet, shiny streets of San Francisco. We had seen these movies as they were meant to be seen, on the big screen in a theater with an audience.

Kathy O’Shea made many contributions to this post. You can read her at: