Murder. Theft. Corruption. Greed. Betrayal. It’s good to be back in Noir City.
The sight of impossibly steep streets, the cable cars, the diversity of architecture, the unapologetic uniqueness of its stores and shops, the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants so good you’ll swear off fast-food franchises for the rest of your life — all of it awakened a longing for a place I’d missed during the previous twelve months of routine-filled East Coast living. Then I walked from my hotel two blocks southwest down Market Street, seeing more and more familiar buildings and storefronts… I turned left onto Castro Street where I recognized the Twin Peaks Tavern, signaling that my destination was literally right around the corner. And there it was: The Castro Theater, home of Noir City, and on Friday night proudly proclaiming what must be one of the greatest film noir double features of all time, Criss Cross (1949) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
I picked up my Noir City passport, allowing me early admittance to all the films (as well as entrance to the opening night reception) and was immediately welcomed by smiling men and women, many of them decked out in 1940s and 50s fashions. Whereas in 2016 I felt a bit like a party crasher, I now felt a genuine part of the film noir community. Much more so than last year, I joyously realized “These are my people.”
The Castro Theater’s grand elegance also welcomed me back and I wanted to drink it all in at once. Before I did anything else, I stepped into the theater proper, saw the giant “Noir City” logo projected onto the screen curtains, looked up at the majestic “leatherette” (actually plaster made to look like leather) ceiling and took in the 1,400 seat theater’s Spanish Colonial design. Breathtaking. (You can – and should – read more about the theater here.)
Forgive my reverie, but if you’ve ever been to the Castro, you understand.
While waiting for Eddie Muller to kick off the festival, the audience was entertained by the talented close-harmony trio The Century Sisters, dressed in period costume and singing hits from the 20s, 30s, and 40s including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and others. Then finally, it was time.
Eddie Muller burst onstage and was absolutely wound up as if he’d been held in a cage for the past several hours. Muller had posted on his Facebook page that he would be screening Serena Bramble’s latest video mash-up of scenes from the 24 films to the shown at the festival, the seventh overture she’s created for Noir City, and it was spectacular.
Muller thanked Bramble for her excellent video, then moved on to say, “If you’ve been coming to this festival for the past 15 years – or you are a hardcore fan who has made the pilgrimage from somewhere else – I am sure that you have grasped the essential lesson of film noir… Expect the worst.”
Muller, clearly on a roll, continued: “But… we all must do our part to not just survive, but thrive, and dammit, I’m going to do my small part to start this campaign by immediately declaring this majestic venue a sanctuary cinema, and guaranteeing that for the next ten days and nights you all can find respite from the storm by spending quality time with ex-convicts, gang bosses, bank robbers, jewel thieves, fences, safecrackers, sociopaths – all of whom, I guarantee, are more worthy of your empathy than anyone you’ll find glowering from your TV screen over the next, say, four years. And they’re more honorable, to boot.”
You can read Muller’s complete introduction here, but he touched on the community of film noir fans, the uniqueness of the festival, and the (somewhat) controversial inclusion of films from the 70s, 80s and even a handful from the 21st century. But first, one of the greatest double features of all time. Says Muller of Criss Cross and The Asphalt Jungle, “They are both undisputed classics, made by two of the greatest directors in the history of Hollywood, Robert Siodmak and John Huston. And if, like me, you are sick and tired of having spent the last year seeing nothing on your television and computer screens but classless, ignorant, ugly people – I am here to offer an antidote – Burt Lancaster! Yvonne De Carlo! Dan Duryea! Jean Hagen! Sterling Hayden! Marilyn Monroe!….. Fellow citizens: Noir City is back – with a vengeance!”
This was my third viewing of Criss Cross, a film I previously discussed briefly so I won’t get into its details here. If you’ve never seen it, you must. After the screening, Muller was joined onstage by Greer Sinclair, who’s featured on this year’s Noir City poster.
Sinclair is not only Ms. Noir City 2017, she’s also a serious noir fan who knows her stuff, stating that she loves the shot of Yvonne De Carlo with Burt Lancaster in the parking lot as she’s looking into the camera as well as the ending in which De Carlo reads Lancaster the riot act, essentially the “femme fatale manifesto.”
Before the next feature, The Asphalt Jungle, Muller had copies of the new Criterion release of the film to give away. Always eager to expose younger audiences to film noir, Muller announced that the youngest person in the audience would win a copy of the film. “Is there a 12-year-old in the house?” he asked. Muller found a 13-year-old in attendance and presented him (her? I couldn’t see from my vantage point) with a copy of the film. Lucky kid.
John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is nothing short of a masterpiece (noir or otherwise) featuring exceptional performances from what may be the greatest ensemble cast of all time (with the possible exception of Huston’s The Maltese Falcon). Big dreams meet harsh realities, which is what film noir is all about. The film is filled with great scenes and lines (my favorite delivered by Sterling Hayden to Jean Hagen: “Why don’t you quit cryin’ and get me some bourbon?”) but the kicker for me is the scene in which Dix (Hayden) gets achingly closer and closer to his life’s dream. Pure noir.
Just like that, the opening night of Noir City 15 was over. And although it was cold and rainy outside, things inside were just starting to heat up. Stay tuned for more from Noir City 15.
Photos: Dennis Hearne , The San Francisco Bar Experiment, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Joyless Creatures