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Murder, Femme Fatales and Gumshoes

Noir City 5 Opens at the Castro


By George Carvalho
Photography by Jim Ferreira



    Dishy dames with sheer black-seamed stockings and tough guys with snap brim fedoras will crowd into San Francisco’s Castro Theatre Jan. 26 through Feb. 4 for the fifth annual installment of the Noir City Film Festival. And Alameda’s own Eddie Muller, aka the Czar of Noir, will be on hand each evening, as per usual, to orchestrate the festivities.
    Classic film noir from 1940s Hollywood is right up there with Italian neorealism and French New Wave in the canon of universally acclaimed epochs of world cinema. Muller, who’s written three books about film noir, including Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, deftly characterizes these films as possessing a vivid comingling of lost innocence, doomed romanticism, hard-edged cynicism and desperate desire. The festival is a unique opportunity to experience them as they were meant to be seen—in 35mm on the big screen with a live audience.
    This year’s special guests are rumored to include legendary glamour queen Rhonda Fleming, 83, who’s said to have been the reason Technicolor was invented, and Marsha Hunt, 89, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. The festival has secured a print of Fleming’s 1950 RKO thriller Cry Danger, in which she tangles with tough guy Dick Powell, who’s trying to settle an old score. Likewise, there are plans to screen two noir classics featuring Hunt. These include Raw Deal, partially set in San Francisco and one of Muller’s top 25 noir picks, and the extremely rare Kid Glove Killer in which she plays a police forensics expert in 1942.
    Backstage, Bill Arney, 50, who lives in Dashiell Hammett’s old San Francisco apartment and is partial to silk display handkerchiefs and spats, will return as the official Noir City Announcer. With the gravitas of a voice actor from the Golden Age of Radio, he delights in occasionally bursting in upon the revelry via the public address system with a thought-provoking remark or stern admonition.
    Money generated by the festival bankrolls the Film Noir Foundation, which Muller founded to institutionalize his determined efforts to safeguard the celluloid underpinnings of Hollywood’s film noir heritage for future generations. His stellar reputation and tireless energy convinced Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River, and James Ellroy, the author of L.A. Confidential, to join the foundation. They sit side by side with movie critic and film historian Leonard Maltin, the author of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, a museum curator, a university professor and an intellectual property lawyer.
    Their combined efforts have paid numerous dividends, including the discovery of a beautiful 35mm print of the legendary Woman on the Run (1950) deep in a vault at Universal Studios where it had languished for 50 years. “The last rights holder of record had a Beverly Hills address and a Crestview-2 kind of telephone prefix. I could imagine the Venetian blinds and the cigarette smoke,” says Anita Monga, 54, Noir City’s programming director and a founding member of the Film Noir Foundation.
    The festival’s audience runs from teenagers to octogenarians who saw the films when they originally opened. Both genders are equally enamored. “These movies seduce you,” Muller says, “They don’t shock.”
    The home entertainment divisions of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox picked up on film noir’s wide appeal and have been busy releasing select titles on DVD. This created a need for commentary tracks, and Muller has done nearly two dozen. To be effective as a marketing tool, they must be entertaining, so his credo is, “barroom not classroom.” This approach, combined with his expertise and enthusiasm, has made him the most sought-after film noir commentator. He’s now asked to do more than he can manage.
    Besides being the founder, producer and host of the Noir City Film Festival, Muller is also a talented writer. Fresh from the success of Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, his most popular book so far, he’s busy editing a noir-themed short story collection and working on two new books. One is the next installment of his Billy Nichols crime fiction series, and the other is a thriller. Down the road his goal is to branch off into screen writing.
    So where will you be during this year’s Noir City Film Festival when the lights go down at the Castro Theatre and the projector rumbles to life? Think it over real good. But be quick about it. And should you decide to join the fun, consider using public transportation. An understated civic-minded entrance like that will keep Arney from announcing he’s sending some boys around your way.

NOW PLAYING

    As usual, many rarities are scheduled for Noir City 5, including some films not screened in 35mm for decades. Included in this year’s lineup are I Walk Alone, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Lizabeth Scott, on a double bill with another Lancaster rarity, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands; Abandoned, a fast-paced exposé of the black market baby racket in 1940s L.A.; 99 River Street, a hard-as-brass-knuckles crime drama directed by the great Phil Karlson; a double bill of films shot by film noir’s greatest cinematographer, John Alton, The Spiritualist and The Big Combo; a double bill tribute to the late Glenn Ford; and a Library of Congress print of the rarely-seen cult classic The Devil Thumbs a Ride, starring Lawrence Tierney, affectionately known as “The Meanest Man in Movie History.”
—Eddie Muller

NOIR NOTES

  • The Noir City 5 Film Festival runs from Jan. 26 through Feb. 4 at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro St., 415-621-6120). Advance ticket purchases are recommended. For more details, check out the festival’s Web site, www.NoirCity.com.