Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Noir City Fest Celebrates Dark Side of American Film

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday January 25, 2008

There is no shortage of great film festivals in the Bay Area, celebrating the cinematic heritage of every corner of the globe.  

However, there is just one San Francisco festival that focuses purely on American film, or at least on a purely American film genre. For despite the Frenchified name, film noir is uniquely American in origin and in tone. 

The annual Noir City festival begins today (Friday) at the Castro theater in San Francisco, screening double features every day—20 films in all—through Sunday, Feb. 3. 

Film noir was not a self-conscious movement. Indeed, it was only defined in retrospect, and by outsiders, hence the French term. And yet, nearly 70 years since its genesis, it is still not easily defined.  

The genre stems from the crime fiction that emerged during the 1930s, when the Great Depression rocked the foundations of the devil-may-care America of the Roaring ’20s. Writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and multitudes of lesser-known pulp authors reshaped the literary landscape with dark, cynical, morally ambivalent tales of crime, sex and vice, stories steeped in shadowy imagery, tough talk, and a hardscrabble hyper-realism that portrayed a brutal, hostile world. There were no heroes, only anti-heroes, self-preserving pragmatists whose cynicism was born of dashed hopes and faded ideals.  

The genre didn’t spread to film until the 1940s, where it took on the darker undercurrents of the American psyche during and following the horrors of World War II. And while there is still some debate over which film deserves the mantle of the first noir, the most influential of the early efforts was John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, in which Humphrey Bogart captured the cynicism and weariness of San Francisco private eye Sam Spade as he fell into and then delicately extricated himself from a web of deceit spun by Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), though not itself a noir, had a strong influence on the visual side of the genre, with its shadowy sets, striking German Expressionism-derived camera angles and somber tone. And Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 thriller starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, is frequently cited as the film that essentially codified the genre and its dominant characteristics, including the ruthless femme fatale as personified by Stanwyck’s icy Phyllis Dietrichson. 

Noir City, the festival and the foundation, were founded by Eddie Muller and Alan Rode to present and preserve this cinematic legacy. And it is a legacy greatly in need of preservation, for although noir has enjoyed a great resurgence in recent years, many of these films were B pictures, cheap studio products created simply to fill out a double bill, and then forgotten days after they closed. The Film Noir Foundation helps to rediscover, preserve, and strike new theatrical prints of these neglected classics so that they can be presented in all their tawdry glory. 

The festival starts Friday with a two-film tribute to actress Joan Leslie, who will be interviewed on stage during the intermission. Repeat Performance (1947) is the first of the festival’s many rare films, none available on DVD, many not available even on VHS, and some which have not screened in decades. Leslie stars as a young woman given the opportunity to relive the past year of her life, and the chance to opt this time not to kill her husband in what the festival program describes as a noir version of It’s a Wonderful Life. The Hard Way (1943), directed by Vincent Sherman and photographed by the great James Wong Howe, is what the festival has termed an “honorary noir,” for though it doesn’t quite qualify, it is certainly one of Leslie’s darker films. 

Other highlights include Saturday’s tribute to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, featuring The Prowler (1951), presented in a brand-new 35-millimeter print, and Gun Crazy (1950); Hangover Square (1945), a quintessential noir featuring a melodramatic plot of madness and murder, beautiful but dangerous dames, Wellesian camera angles, and an ominous and evocative score by the great Bernard Herrmann; a double feature by director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton (Jan. 30); D.O.A. (1950), set in San Francisco (Jan. 31); and Conflict (Feb. 1), one of Bogart’s lesser-known noirs. 

Saturday Feb. 2 will feature three films, including the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the most recent production on this year’s program, along with (schedule permitting) an onstage interview with actor Billy Bob Thornton. And the festival will close Feb. 3 with a screening of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), one of the darkest films in the genre. 




Through Feb. 3 at the Castro Theater,  

429 Castro St., San Francisco. 

For more information see or