You know you’ve got it bad when you find yourself standing outside the Castro Theatre, home of Noir City 16, six hours before the festival’s opening. If you’ve ever attended even one screening at any Noir City festival, you understand how easily someone can fall under the Noir City spell. That spell is strengthened by the attendees wearing 1940s and 50s outfits, the regal ambience of the Castro Theatre itself, and certainly the films. Yet at 1:30pm on the first day of Noir City, those things were only hinted at as I looked up at the marquee. Still, I felt like Walter Neff standing outside Phillis Dietrichson’s house; it was only a matter of time.
In his book The Phantom Empire (1993), Geoffrey O’Brien discusses how our memories of movies are often tied to the the places we saw them and the people who saw them with us. I watched Shadow of a Doubt (1943) with a woman named Christine, who had studied criminology at Cambridge University in the early 1970s. Just minutes after meeting my Twitter friend Brian in person, we saw Julien Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy (1943) together, and afterward discussed library life and documentary films. At the end of Conflict (1945), a young man named John (a newcomer to Noir City) seated next to me asked, “How do they get these films? Who chooses them? This is really cool…” All of these instances (and several others) resulted in great conversations, connections that only happen after a shared experience such as watching a movie together.
Some of the people I sat next to were hardcore fans who attend every year. Some, like Christine, only attend occasionally. John had simply walked in off the street because he’d seen a Humphrey Bogart movie years before and thought Conflict looked interesting. Some couldn’t tell you the difference between Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine. Others can tell you the name of the bartender at the beginning of The Blue Dahlia (1946) and all his other film appearances. (That’s Matt McHugh, by the way.) Yet no one (at least no one I’ve met) comes across as a braggart or a film noir snob. Those who may know nothing about film noir are welcomed just as much as the experts. You can (and should) talk to anyone you like at a Noir City festival. And although you’ll always see lots of people around him, you can (and should) say hello to Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir himself.
The films eventually end, but several of the relationships established at Noir City festivals have developed into friendships more valuable than a truckload of loot from a heist. I’ve said before that comics fans are some of the most welcoming people on the planet, but I can say the same for film noir (and classic movie) fans. I can’t really understand how people who celebrate movies about killers, rogues, femmes fatale, deception, betrayal, murder, and a never-ending parade of other criminal activity can be so nice to each other, but they are. These are my people.
Next time I’ll tell you about the Noir City 16 line-up as well as my report on Day 1 of the festival, which featured two films from 1941: I Wake Up Screaming and Among the Living. Please join me.