Noir City. You might expect darkened back alleys, shadowy figures moving furtively through rain-soaked city streets, the sounds of taxis blaring, police sirens, maybe even gunfire. Instead, on the mezzanine level of the Castro Theatre, you find well-dressed men and women sipping champagne, drinking highballs, talking about John Garfield, Gloria Grahame, Michael Curtiz, John Alton, Raymond Chandler. You also find another area filled with tables displaying hardboiled fiction, detective stories and neo-noir novels, as well as non-fiction works on everything from San Francisco movie locations to tomes on the history of film noir. Between these two areas stands a short man with a face showing the wear of three lifetimes; a bouncer, if you will, checking to make sure only passport-holders (Noir City’s ticket to all movies and festival events) cross from the book tables to the land of fedoras and padded shoulders. The bouncer must’ve recognized me from years past; he gives me a slight nod and I’m in.
This passport-holder area is a 1940s/50s-era wonderland, a time capsule, cosplay for film noir lovers. It’s as close as any of us will ever get to being in a film noir movie and yet, no one has any regrets. On the contrary, they’re all delighted to be a part of Noir City. This is my third year to attend the San Francisco flagship festival (although I’ve attended four of the Noir City DC festivals) and it seems more crowded this year, probably due to the popularity of Noir Alley, the weekly film noir movie feature programmed each Sunday (10am ET/7am PT)* on TCM, hosted by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller. But there’s plenty of room for everyone.
As you make your way downstairs to the theatre stage, you hear music from a bygone era performed by the fabulous Century Sisters, San Francisco’s Vintage Close Harmony Trio. Songs like “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “Blue Skies” float through the air, reminding you that we have nothing in 2018 to compare to them.
Then we’re brought back to the present with a small technology snafu: Serena Bramble’s 2018 Noir City video overture starts, stops, starts again, stops again. Many (including me) didn’t realize that this was an overture from a previous year. But none of that matters right now because Eddie Muller has taken the stage with Miss Noir City 16, Annabelle Zakaluk.
Muller assures us that the video snafu will be corrected in time for tonight’s second film and welcomes us all to Noir City. The theme for this year’s festival is “Film Noir A to B – 1941 to 1953: A Dozen Double Bills! Classy As and Trashy Bs.” This festival will replicate what it was like to go to the movies during these years (without the newsreels, serials, etc.). Each night, Muller promises a big-budget “A” picture featuring high production values and recognizable stars, followed by a low-budget “B” picture from the same year, the type of movie that ran usually under 75 minutes and normally didn’t receive a lot of recognition. Muller notes that one of the real treats of the festival will be in watching film noir evolve chronologically from 1941 to 1953. Those lucky enough to see all the films will feel as if they’ve zipped through a bit of film history, sort of a crash course in the development of film noir.
As if all of this isn’t exciting enough, Muller ups his game even further, introducing special guest Victoria Mature, daughter of Victor Mature, star of tonight’s first film I Wake Up Screaming (1941). From where I sit, Victoria – an opera singer – looks quite young, far too young to be the daughter of a man making movies in the early 1940s. Muller asks her what it’s like watching the “big, giant shadow” of her dad on the big screen. Victoria replies, “Well, I didn’t know him when he was in his 20s or 30s… or 40s… or 50s…” Victor Mature was 64 when his daughter was born. Victoria mentions that her dad was always self-deprecating, offering up the famous line, “I’m no actor and I have 64 films to prove it!” (Ms. Mature also proceeds to knock the audience out with a brief sample of her vocal talent.)
Muller comments that I Wake Up Screaming checks off all the boxes of film noir, especially visually, in 1941. “This film has a lot going for it and looks as much like film noir as any other film” from that year. Plus it features an actor who also appeared in two other important noir films from this general time period (The Maltese Falcon and Stranger on the Third Floor): Elisha Cook, Jr.
The film opens with Frankie Christopher (Mature) being grilled by the police for a murder he swears he didn’t commit. In the first of several flashbacks, we learn that Christopher, a young talent promoter, discovered a local waitress named Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) and groomed her only to watch her take off suddenly for the lures of Hollywood. Only she didn’t live long enough to get there…
Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) wants to help clear Christopher’s name and find the real killer, but police officer Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) hounds Christopher day and night, obsessing over how he can nail the talent scout for the murder.
I Wake Up Screaming (originally titled Hot Spot) is mostly a mystery with components of suspense and romance, but containing elements of noir so strong they can’t be ignored or dismissed as accidental. The first such element is the interrogation of Christopher in a darkened room, trying to escape a blistering white-hot lamp while surrounded by policemen. The scene has a slight German expressionistic feel, dark-edged and bleak, a somewhat disquieting opening for a 1941 American film.
Once the flashbacks begin, the tone of the film changes dramatically. Christopher and two of his pals (Alan Mowbray, William Gargan) visit a diner where he meets Vicky for the first time, clearly stricken with her. Before she gives them the check, Vicky asks, “Is that all?” One of the men says, “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” Vicky comes back with “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” It’s a fairly light establishing scene, but it does two things: first, showing us what Vicky is made of (which further attracts Christopher to her), and second, acknowledging that even this early in the noir canon, scriptwriters are pushing the limits of the code a bit.
Still, little else in this scene – and many others like it – seems to proclaim that we’re watching a film noir, which actually works to the film’s advantage, contrasting the “normal” world with the noir world. We know we’re fully into the deep end of the noir pool, however, anytime Laird Cregar appears onscreen as police inspector Ed Cornell.
We suspect something is up with Cornell and there is. He’s a strange character, using strange expressions, especially for a policeman. He frequently hounds Christopher, even to the point of appearing in his bedroom while Christopher is asleep. At one point he informs Christopher, “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” Later Cornell asks his superior officer, “Have you ever read The Sex Life of a Butterfly?” which stuns us as much as the officer. These scenes – especially the nighttime scenes – are given a wonderful shadow-filled atmosphere by cinematographer Edward Cronjager. Hello, noir.
As the film progresses, the flashbacks pile up and things begin to get convoluted, but not necessarily in a bad way. This is, after all, film noir, and you expect those elements to be present. The film does, however, contain weaknesses, one of which is the believability of Vicky being discovered so quickly from behind a hash counter at a diner. Perhaps more of an irritant is the overuse of “Over the Rainbow,” which becomes so tedious that you might start screaming.
At intermission, as promised, the audience is treated to the new Serena Bramble video overture, always a highlight of the festival. Right now you can only see this video at Noir City, but for a taste of Bramble’s work, may I direct you to one of her earlier works, “The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir.”
Next comes tonight’s B picture, Among the Living, starring Albert Dekker in a dual role as twins: one a successful industrialist named Paul, the other his dangerously insane brother John, who has been (unbeknownst to Paul) hidden and sheltered by the family doctor, Dr. Saunders (Harry Carey) since the boys were 10 years old. John soon escapes his attic prison and flees into the city, finding an alluring young woman named Millie (Susan Hayward) who doesn’t know she’s got her eye on a madman.
Theodor Sparkuhl’s cinematography combines traces of horror and Southern Gothic with the shadowy depths we’ve come to recognize from film noir. The sets and production values might look like a B picture, but director Stuart Heisler moves the story along at a rapid pace. Among the Living is a great introduction to the world of B pictures, films that sometimes deliver more entertainment value than many A pictures.
And with that, the first day of Noir City 16 is over. But tomorrow we have two double-features, four very different movies from the years 1942 and 1943. Please join me next time.
*Starting March 10, Noir Alley will move to Saturdays at midnight ET/9pm PT, with an “encore” presentation in its current slot, Sundays at 10am ET/7am PT.
Photos: Noir City, Film Posters, About the Artists, Film Army, 1940s Mystery Films, Miss Diosa, Movies Over Matter, Movie Actors