Saturday, March 26, 2016

Noir City 14

It was time for the femmes fatales and wannabe private detectives of San Francisco to get their best vintage threads out for Noir City 14, San Francisco’s festival of Film Noir. More people dress up for Opening Night. It’s easy for the males. A hat, suit and tie will usually do it. The women, as usual, put more effort into it. They replicate the old fashion styles.    
The Castro Theater is the perfect place for it. The Art Deco movie palace probably showed some of these films on their first run. There’s an Opening Night reception on the concourse upstairs. Usually there are tables with vendors selling posters, clothes and other Noir related merchandise. There was still room for the good people from Green Apple Books to show their wares. 
There’s been a big change at the theater. People show up early to hear David Hegarty play old tunes on the mighty Wurlitzer organ. A one page handout from the San Francisco Castro Organ Devotees Association (SFCODA) explained that, “The truth is, the once-mighty Wurlitzer had worn out... A temporary and perfectly adequate replacement, an Allen organ, has been installed, so the nightly organ concerts can continue.” 
There will be a new “hybrid” organ that will use some MIDI digital technology to recreate the sound of the grandest movie palace in San Francisco, The Fox Theater. Sadly, The Fox was torn down over fifty years ago. The Castro almost shared its fate. The Fox had an embedded Wurlitzer organ. The Castro hopes to get one too. SFCODA is looking for tax deductible contributions to move the plan forward. David Hegarty plays “San Francisco.” It’s the traditional signal that the show is about to begin. 
We’re treated to this year’s trailer for Noir City 14. It was made by Serena Bramble, the editing wizard who has brought us “Noir Valentine” and “San Francisco Is a Great Place for a Murder.” She edits classic footage and shows us the history of Film Noir. Check them out on Youtube!   
Eddie Muller, The Czar of Noir, comes onstage to open the festival. “We all know what’s going on in the arts scene.” San Francisco has been a magnet for artists and other eccentrics. Odd characters have been a part of the City’s fabric and history from the beginning. Artists have been fleeing the City for some years now. Real estate, especially apartments, are at a premium. It’s almost impossible to find that cheap Bohemian pad.
The tech boom is blamed for the shrinking of the arts community in San Francisco. There has always been change in San Francisco, but the digital revolution is ruining the spirit and soul of old San Francisco. Muller says that, “The gap between the haves and the have nots has never been greater.” So, this year’s theme is The Art of Darkness. This year’s festival programming will revolve around artists and their struggles. Artists have always had their unique problems.
Muller says that some hard core Film Noir fans have questioned some of this year’s programming choices. Is Love Me Or Leave me, a musical and shot in color, really a Film Noir? The Closing Night movie is The Red Shoes, the ballet movie classic. Is that an example of Film Noir? 
Sometimes I wonder if they’re running out of movies, but no, that can’t be it. Every year The Film Noir Foundation comes up with more obscure and/or restored films. Muller says the programming is “expanding the boundaries.”       
Muller says that, “All of my idols were artists.” I find this surprising. Muller’s father was a sports writer for San Francisco newspapers. He was a boxing reporter when boxing was king in San Francisco. Muller had to be exposed to some of the boxing greats of the time. Some of his idols had to be boxers or athletes.  
Muller introduces this year’s Ms. Noir. Aja De Coudreaux is an artist’s model. Muller says he didn’t know this until after she was selected. He gives her the needle a bit. What does an artist’s model do? You just sit around naked, right? 
Ms. Noir brushes it aside and says that, “It’s not all fun being naked.” Artists usually aren’t doing well financially. Their places aren’t the greatest. It can be cold, and she’s had times when water leaked on her! She says she didn’t mind being naked for the Noir City poster.   
Muller praises the Noir City audience. The festival has branched out to other cities, but the best audience is still the original, San Francisco audience. He’s still surprised it draws the crowd it does. 
The first film of the festival is the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Sometimes I think Muller schedules an often viewed classic because he knows the Opening Night audience will show up to make the scene. Most of this crowd has seen Rear Window many times. Muller tells us that Rear Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. The savvy Castro crowd applauds the mention of Woolrich.      
Muller says that the question he’s asked the most often about Noir films is: “Why isn’t it on DVD?” In the case of Rear Window, “It’s because of Sheldon Abend!” Abend bought the rights to Woolrich’s literary estate for $650! Somehow, the film was made without the producers knowing this. Abend played hard ball. He sued Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Unfortunately for him, Stewart was a producer. It took him years to straighten out the legal mess. 
Rear Window sucks us in again. The Stewart character has been laid up with a leg injury. We’re trapped in our seats with Jimmy Stewart, watching the neighbors. He’s climbing the walls a bit. His rear window gives him a great view of his neighbors and their daily lives. He has too much time to watch the little dramas playing out in front of him. He becomes convinced that one of his neighbors, a sinister looking Raymond Burr, has killed his wife and is slowly disposing of her remains.
It was fun to watch with a live audience. People know what’s coming, but they still react. There are laughs. No double entendre goes unnoticed with this crowd! It is a bit of a romantic comedy, so there were some laughs. Jimmy Stewart has doubts about settling down with Grace Kelly. Yeah, right! She is stunning on the big screen. 
The Grace Kelly character is skeptical at first. Her fiancee must be bored. It must be his imagination. In a later scene we can see the light bulb go off in her head. She is not only convinced, but she takes some risks to investigate where her injured boyfriend can’t get to. 
Stewart keeps a close eye on Raymond Burr. Burr suddenly looks up, and realizes he’s being watched. He stares directly back into the binoculars. It’s a chilling scene.  

It always seems to be raining during Noir City. Some of the crowd leaves after the first feature. It’s pouring rain out. The reception area upstairs is now open to everyone, and they’re giving away shots of Four Roses bourbon. A torch singer performs onstage. “Direct from Feinstein’s Nightclub at the Nikko Hotel!” She sings a song about heartbreak, and then does a very hot “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees.
The second film for Opening Night is The Public Eye. It’s the slightly fictionalized story of Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. Fellig was a news photographer in the Fifties. He was famous for being among the first on a crime scene, especially murders. 
Fellig was not above rearranging the body to get a better shot. He had no qualms about moving the body around a bit to get a better shot. “Put his hat on... People like to see the body with a hat on.”  
The producer couldn’t get the rights to the story of Arthur “Weegee” Fellig so they named him “The Great Bernzini.” The Fellig character is played by Joe Pesci. Cops named Fellig “Weegee” because of his unnatural talent of arriving on the scene of a crime. They thought he was using a Ouija board. Among his tricks, he used a police ban radio to monitor their calls. Muller says that Jimmy Stewart was a photographer in the first film so, “Tonight is photography night.” 
The film is a great period piece full of big city sleaze. Bernzini wisely tries to stay “out of” mob politics, but Barbara Hershey eventually talks him into getting too involved.
The Wednesday matinee had a controversial choice for Noir City 14. It’s a musical in color with Doris Day! Would it be Noir enough for the hard core?
It’s the story of Ruth Etting, a nightclub singer who became “Chicago’s Sweetheart.” Jimmy Cagney is the tough mobster who falls for her immediately. He gets her started in show business. Eventually he becomes her manager and husband. 
It’s based on the true story of Etting and Martin “The Gimp” Snyder. No one calls him “The Gimp” to his face. He’s a tough mobster with the show business connections Etting needs to start her career.  
Doris Day is so bright eyed and positive, especially in the early scenes. The limping Cagney has great ambitions for his wife. He becomes heavy handed and tyrannical. He’s driven to see his wife succeed. Being the “Sweetheart of Chicago” isn’t good enough for him.
The movie is, as the program says, “Billed as a musical, but dark and disturbing.” Etting/Doris Day loses her enthusiasm for show business and “The Gimp.” There is a scene where Cagney forces himself on his wife. He holds her down and kisses her. That was as close as The Decency Code of the time would allow. They couldn’t show a rape scene, but it’s obvious Cagney forces himself on his wife.  
The film stays close to the real story. Etting and Snyder eventually divorced. Snyder really did shoot Etting’s boyfriend and pianist, Myrl Alderman. (Played by Cameron Mitchell.) It was a sensational trial. According to Wikipedia, Snyder was convicted but won on appeal, and was released after a year. He was very dissatisfied by his portrayal in the movie.  

The second movie of the matinee is Young Man With a Horn, a Noir Jazz classic. It’s loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Kirk Douglas is the young man obsessed with playing the trumpet from a young age. He’s taught by a black mentor, a jazz musician said to be “The best trumpet player.”
He dumps Doris Day for Lauren Bacall. Bacall is a rich socialite who quickly gets tired of her Jazz playing lover. She’s more interested in a lady friend of hers. Bacall lies so she can rendezvous with the woman. It’s a scene that slipped by the censors. Kirk battles alcoholism. He hits bottom and pawns the trumpet! It’s a classic Noir Jazz story. Harry James plays Kirk’s trumpet parts on the soundtrack.  

Friday was day nine of City Noir 14. I was glad to get to three Noir City 14 shows this year. Tonight’s theme was “the moviemaking business.” It featured two very different looks at the Hollywood production machine.
The Bad and the Beautiful is directed by Vincent Minnelli. During his introduction Eddie Muller points out that he avoids the words, “A Minnelli film, or a Curtiz film.” The director is only one of many making “a very collaborative effort.” Every film is a team effort, from the stars to the crew.  
The Bad and The Beautiful has quite a cast of stars. Kirk Douglas is the cutthroat  Hollywood producer. He started by working for Walter Pidgeon making B movies. He gets tired of the problems of producing cheap fare. He’s assigned “The Cat Man.” The cast they’ve just dragged off of the Bowery are unconvincing in their cat man costumes. The seams are showing. Boss Walter Pidgeon doesn’t care. He wants movies that are guaranteed to sell tickets.
Years later Pidgeon calls Lana Turner and Dick Powell. Would they ever work with Kirk Douglas again? The answer is a resounding no, and we find out why in flashbacks. It’s Citizen Kane style. Pidgeon reminds them that they were nothing when they started with Kirk and he made them stars. 
Muller told us that Hollywood buzzed with the rumor that the Kirk Douglas character was based on David O. Selznick. After seeing it, Selznick was mad enough to consult a lawyer to sue for libel. It’s the only film to win five Oscars, but not win Best Picture.
The Internet Movie Database ( says that Leo G. Carroll’s cameo was a dig at a demanding director: Alfred Hitchcock.
During the intermission there is a raffle. It almost seems a bit quaint nowadays. The winner must be present to get a Film Noir related prize. 
The second feature is The Big Knife. Jack Palance is Charlie Castle, a big movie star who has abandoned any artistic ambition for money and the trappings of success.   Although he has sold out, he still loathes the phony Hollywood scene. His wife is played by Ida Lupino. She wants him to get out of the Hollywood rat race. Palance was an idol of mine long before he did the one handed pushups at the Academy Awards.
There was a sense of humor to The Bad and The Beautiful. Muller warns us that we won’t see any of that in The Big Knife. It’s a relentless and depressing look at Hollywood reality. The Palance character gets embroiled in a sticky situation. Should he help cover it up to save his career? Rod Steiger plays the evil studio head. It was believed that the character was a thinly veiled Harry Cohn of Columbia pictures.  
With and other technological advances that make it much easier to find and watch Noir films, it’s still great that Noir City brings fans together to see the movies as they were meant to be seen, with an audience on the big screen.
You can see Serena Bramble’s Noir City 14 trailer at: