Film Noir. Noir City. January 28.
San Francisco’s Film Noir Festival, Noir City, has become one of our favorite events of the year. It’s held at the historic Castro Theater. We’ve been to this grand, historic theater enough times that it can be taken for granted. It’s hard to believe that this movie palace was almost turned into a parking lot. There were only seats in the balcony, but it’s quite a view. David Hegarty amuses the crowd with Noir themed songs on the mighty Castro pipe organ.
It’s Noir City 12. We’ve rarely missed going at to at least a couple of nights of the festival. Tonight is night five. How many Noir films are there? Could Noir City become stale showing the same classics every year? The Film Noir Foundation finds and preserves many films that were feared lost. Noir City is a rare chance to see these resurrected treasures.
This year Muller found a novel way to keep the festival fresh. The theme this year is “It’s a Bitter Little World.” Films from Mexico, Japan, Germany, Britain, Spain, Norway, Argentina and France will be shown. We went to a Film Noir Festival and an International Film Festival broke out! So now if asked if they’re running out of Noir films to show Muller can say, “No, we just started.”
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but they may be inevitable. These films are rarely shown anyway, and don’t we usually know how they will end?
Eddie Muller, The Czar of Noir, takes the stage. He’s really created a niche for himself. San Francisco has always had a vibrant film scene with knowledgeable fans, but Muller’s evangelizing for Film Noir has really brought Noir fans out of the woodwork.
Maybe Muller was born in a Noir film. He’s the son of a newspaper reporter who wrote about the boxing scene in San Francisco during its heyday. Noir has to be in his blood. He’s looking his usual dapper self. This guy knows how to wear a suit. Hard core fans dress for the part tonight, but no one is as nattily dressed as Muller. There are suits, ties and hats. Some women have a chance to wear cocktail dresses. Tonight is Death Night! We’ll see Death of a Cyclist (Spain, 1955) and Death is a Caress. (Norway, 1949)
Muller tells us that over the years he’s enjoyed making sarcastic remarks about the censorship film makers faced after The Production Code went into effect. The censorship seems silly now. “But can you imagine making movies in Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco?” There are hisses from the audience. “This is great! A mention of Franco still brings contempt from a San Francisco audience ... and he’s been gone since 1975!”
Muller tells us that Spanish cinema did suffer under Franco from 1939 to 1975. “No criticism of King or clergy was permitted.” Director Juan Antonio Bardem was a Communist. He criticized the situation in Spain and “cloaked it in a Noir film.”
“Muerta de un Ciclista” (“Death of a Cyclist”) was made in Spain in 1955. Bardem wrote the screenplay from a story by Luis Fernando de Igoa.
Maria Jose (Lucia Bose, a former Miss Italy.) is having an affair with Juan (Alberto Closas.) They’ve led a bored, decadent existence. After one of their trysts they hit a bicyclist on a lonely, remote road. The legal repercussions from the accident wil expose their affair, and social scandal that would result. They leave the injured cyclist to die on the road.
Did anyone see them? It’s a dark film, dripping with paranoia. One of their social circle is a sleazy character, Rafa. He hints that he knows what’s going on. Did he just figure out they were having an affair, or does he really know what happened? The couple isn’t sure. He acts friendly, but it’s obvious he has blackmail on his mind. Juan thinks of a solution.
Foreign films mean subtitles. I can deal with them, but black and white films can be a problem. The subtitles can get lost, especially if most of the screen is white. Maybe it’s not that important to understand every line.
Another great thing about this festival is that the intermission is never boring. It’s more than a bathroom break. The lobby upstairs is heaven for Noir shoppers. Books and vintage Noir posters are available. Every year a lovely young lady is named Ms. Noir City. You can get your picture taken with her for twenty dollars. I assume the proceeds go to Noir City.
We popped back into the theater for the onstage intermission festivities. Muller comes onstage. “What is Spanish for ironic? She gets killed swerving to miss a cyclist!” There’s a drawing for the raffle. One prize is The Encyclopedia of Noir. It’s a large book. “This guy is insane,” Muller says while hoisting the phone book size volume. Most of Film Noir history must be in it. The big prize in the raffle tonight is a $250 gift certificate to the Betty Page boutique on Haight Street.
We were in the balcony and there was plenty of room. That’s good for us, because we can just walk up and buy a ticket, but I hope Noir City is doing OK. There always seems to be an ominous shadow over some of these events. Will they survive? Noir City is a great deal. Ten bucks for a double feature. It’s hard to find that nowadays. Muller admits that every year they sweat out conflicts with Forty-Niner playoff football.
Noir City distributes a nice hand out schedule, but the real deal is the small booklet they hand out in the lobby. It’s colorful and has photos of vintage Noir posters. There are short descriptions of the films and Noir City activities to come. The ads are Film Noir related. It’s worth the price of admission alone and they hand it out for free.
The second film is from Norway: Death is a Caress. 1949 was made in 1949. Scandinavian Noir is popular now. This may be the first Norwegian Noir film. During the intro Muller tells us about the husband and wife team of Otto (Screenwriter) and Edith (Director) Carlmar. She may be the first female Film Noir director. “Caress” predates Ida Lupino’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” made in 1953. Muller admits he knows nothing about the actors. Usually Muller has seen the films at the festival numerous times, but this one is so rare that he’s going to watch it with us.
An older woman, Sonja Rentoft (Bjorg Riiser-Larsen) seduces her young auto mechanic, played by Claus Wiese. She’s an older, wealthy socialite and can offer him a new life. He resists at first, but eventually abandons his childhood sweetheart for life in the fast lane with the evil temptress.
There’s always smoking and drinking in Noir films, but this one was over the top. They spend a honeymoon wandering Europe with a series of shots showing much revelry and martini drinking. They party their way around the world. In one scene the numbers on a clock are martini glasses and the hand keeps spinning around. Scenes of their parties are superimposed on the face of the clock.
The program says that the Carlmars “pushed enough buttons” that they received death threats.
The lovers seem to get tired of each other. Maybe it’s the age difference. There is a “Norwegian solution.”
The festival this year goes from January 24 to February 2. We only go to two nights, but one of these years maybe I’ll live out the fantasy of escaping real life for ten days and getting the “passport” pass. All 27 films, early entry to all films and a reception on opening night for $120.
The second night we go is day eight for the festival. Outside the theater I see Jason Weiner, creator of the blog “Jason Goes to the Movies.” He’s easily recognizable with a wild head of hair, mustache and beard. He’s a regular at San Francisco film festivals. He always looks excited and enthusiastic, and usually takes a seat in the first row center. Jason is a nuclear scientist and I wonder how he finds the time to see so many films and describe them on his blog. He goes to almost every program on the festival. On the blog he says that tonight is the highlight of the festival.
Muller begins his intro by saying that tonight we’re “the luckiest movie audience in the world.” There will be a rare showing of “La Vampira de Negra” and the second film will be the classic “Wages of Fear.”
Muller brings programmer Fernando Martin Pena onstage for special recognition. He helped find some of the films. It was more of a challenge this year with the international theme. Pena is a film historian who found some fame when he unearthed a version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” with missing scenes. Tonight we’ll see a new print of “La Vampira de Negra” that he helped restore.
It’s the twelfth year of Noir City and Muller still has great enthusiasm. With a robust Spanish accent he shouts, “Now for La Vampira de Negra!” as the curtains part.
“El Vampire del Negra” was made in Argentina in 1953. It has nothing to do with vampires. It’s a remake of the Fritz Lang 1931 classic “M.” It was the movie that made Peter Lorre a star. Muller says that “M” may be the first cinematic masterpiece of the sound era. One of the first classics in the history of sound film was about a very controversial and socially objectionable subject.
Children are being found dead, victims of a pedophile. Nathan Puzon was a comedy actor who takes Peter Lorre’s role as the perverted child killer. It must have taken great courage for any actor to play such a heinous and despised role.
There are some great scenes in a seedy, smoky nightclub. Olga Zubarry is a cabaret performer who by chance gets a look at the killer near one of the murder scenes. A suspicious detective questions her, but she’s afraid of getting involved. Later, she must save her daughter from the pedophile.
Just like in the original the local police face increasing pressure as more children are found dead. The city is in a state of terror. The police are desperate, and put heat on the underworld to find the perpetrator. If the criminal underworld wants to continue doing business, they must help find the killer.
Muller says people are asking him about the nightclub. In previous years there was a gala party at some local nightclub for the festival. He says they spent too much money on movies this year, so there won’t be a night club. They do pour some free drinks in the upstairs lobby.
One of the few surviving bookstores in San Francisco, Green Apple has quite a presence in the upstairs lobby. It looks like business is good and they have great Noir volumes on display. Kathy buys me “Redheads Die Quickly,” a collection of short stories by Gil Brewer. He was a hard boiled pulp writer. It’s a quick read. Just about every story ends in some hapless male being the victim of deception or treachery by the femme fatale. He usually gets revenge.
Muller has to explain the intricacies of entering a raffle. “This is a raffle. Keep the ticket!” The winner does have to be present to win. One of the big prizes tonight is a $350 gift certificate to Pat’s Hats. It would be a great addition to any Noir wardrobe.
The last day of the festival will be on Super Bowl Sunday. Muller says that as a special perk for the hard core there will be a party after the last film in the upstairs lobby.
It’s time for “the greatest suspense film ever” Wages of Fear. Directed in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Muller mentions that Hitchcock was a huge fan of Clouzot. “Don’t confuse him with the character played by Peter Sellers.”
Expatriates are wasting away in a miserable Mexican town. They’ve come to escape or flee Western civilization, but now they scheme to get the money to go back home. The only real way out is working for a large, sinister oil company, Southern Oil Company. The expatriates apparently don’t qualify. Muller tells us in the intro that Standard Oil demanded and got twenty one minutes of the film cut. The name of the company was a little too close for comfort. “Tonight you will see it as it was meant to be seen.”
A fire burns out of control near refineries. The company has decided to use nitroglycerine to create a firewall to stop the fire. Union truckers cannot, or will not drive the explosive loaded trucks over the rough mountain terrain. One bump in the road, and it’s over! The company is forced to offer a comparative fortune to lure drivers.
The expatriates compete savagely for the jobs. Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) are two of the drivers. They start off over a long flat area. They must keep the trucks speed over fifty miles an hour or they’ll slip off the road. They haven’t even made it to the mountains.
It sure looks like Sierra Madre territory. The mountain roads are rocky and treacherous. It’s hard to believe they make it over the terrain. In one long flat area they must keep the speed of the trucks over fifty miles per hour. If they slow down they will slip off the road to a fiery doom.
In one scene they must inch across a rope bridge that looks like it would be hard to walk across. This scene stood out in the remake “Sorcerer” that William Friedkin made in the Seventies.
All the old cliches are true. It’s gripping and spell binding. The audience squirms in their seats and gasps. One of the teams goes up in a plume of smoke that the other drivers can see. They know what happened.
After the credits roll the Noir City announcer, Bill Arney, tells us to “Please drive home safely.”