The struggle of World War II and the triumph of its conclusion brought to the silver screen a vision of a nation bold and patriotic, wholesome and optimistic. From propaganda films to brassy celebratory musicals, Hollywood’s program of A-list releases rolled out a bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked presentation of Norman Rockwell’s America.
But there was another side to the story.
Not everyone could forget the horrors of war, could ignore the blood and mud stains of battle, could wipe away the imagery of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Many found it impossible to simply lay down their weapons and retire to the suburbs; for them the terror of the war lingered, and in Hollywood that creeping malaise manifested itself in the form of an anxious, fearful and pessimistic cinema—the stuff of B movies.
More than a decade later the French would give a name to it: film noir. But in America, during the genre’s heyday of the 1940s and ’50s, it had no name. Crime dramas, they were simply called, but it went deeper than that. The urban angst that was allowed no expression in the can-do spirit of mainstream film gave rise to a genre that went beyond mere crime in the depiction of a pervasive moral corruption and a spiraling spiritual decay. Living in the shadow of the Holocaust and under the cloud of imminent nuclear annihilation, there were, as William Faulker once said, no longer problems of the spirit but only the question: When will I be blown up?
Noir City, the San Francisco film festival that celebrates this era of cinematic darkness, perversity and mayhem, presents its annual 10-day orgy of angst beginning this Friday at the Castro Theater. The festival screens a double bill every day through Feb. 1.
The stark, gloomy, high-contrast imagery of noir came from Germany, carried across the Atlantic by filmmakers who left Germany just ahead of Hitler’s stormtroopers. The expressionism of 1920s and ’30s German cinema, replete with its shadows, darkness, and undercurrents of psychic decay, infiltrated the Hollywood studio system and merged with the American gangster genre of tough-talking wise guys inspired by the pulp fiction of the 1930s. This new hybrid genre introduced a stock of dramatic characters: the dangerous and brooding urban gangster-villain; the tormented middle-class innocent caught up in nefarious circumstances beyond his control or comprehension; the icy, diabolical femme fatale; and an array of edgy protagonists ranging from the introspective, world-weary anti-hero—think Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep—to the twitchy, slippery, would-be hero, the third-rate, small-time hood looking to get ahead in a hostile world for which he is ill-equipped—think Richard Widmark in Night and the City.
Eventually the netherworld of noir infiltrated the A list, its blackness spreading like spilled ink on porous newsprint. Billy Wilder, one of the many European refugees who worked in the genre, perfected it with the star-studded Double Indemnity (1944), and the style became so prevalent and nearly respectable that only a few years later, in 1950, Wilder saw fit to take it down a peg, satirizing noir and Hollywood itself with impish glee in Sunset Boulevard.
Noir City impresario Eddie Muller has crafted another program of classics and rarities, cleverly centered for maximum publicity on a theme guaranteed to bring him plenty of ink: “Newspaper Noir.” For with newspapers themselves currently immersed in their own noirish melodrama—jobs on the line and the fate of the medium in doubt—what film critic could resist a chance to wallow in that uncertainty by delving into Muller’s festival of fear and loathing?
For beleaguered journalists, the pleasures are many, beginning with the temptation to indulge in the nostalgic fantasy of the old-school newspaperman, a gumshoe reporter gazing skeptically from beneath the brim of a jaunty fedora, coldly examining the facts through the drifting smoke of an angled cigarette. No white-collar J-school grad, he; his sleepless nights are spent roaming rain-soaked streets and decadent nightclubs, trash-strewn alleys and cut-rate motels—places where anything can happen, and often has, just before he arrives. But enough of romance; the flip side of this coin is a dose of hard-boiled reality served with a dash of existentialist nightmare, as the modern-day journalist is more akin to Widmark than Bogart—cowering, doomed and anxiety-ridden, forever on the run from controlling forces poised to dispense a fate worse than a pink slip.
The festival begins with the former. Deadline USA (1952) is a bold and elegiac story of old-school journalistic integrity. Editor Bogart battles the avarice and ignorance that leads two spoiled and spiteful heiresses to put his paper on the block, and worse still, to sell it to an unworthy, scandal-mongering competitor who doubtless intends to bolster his own tawdry tabloid by closing down the competition. It’s a familiar story here in the Bay Area as the MediaNews chain has gobbled up a string of once-proud papers, large and small, to encircle the metropolis with a newspaper empire that consolidates its profits in Denver by cutting local staff and starving its newspapers of news. As rumors circulate about an impending MediaNews takeover of the only remaining Bay Area prize, the ailing San Francisco Chronicle, and as publicly traded corporations continue to run the nation's smaller independents out of business, Deadline USA only gains in relevance.
The festival closes with a look at the underbelly of the news world with the classic Clifford Odets-penned Sweet Smell of Success (1957), in which Burt Lancaster, as gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker, toys with Tony Curtis in a demonstration of the heady abuse of power acquired through the pen. And between there are several more classics—including The Killers (1946), another Lancaster vehicle—but many more rarities, most not available on DVD, including Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps (both 1956), two wrongly neglected noirs by another towering figure of German cinema, Fritz Lang, whose early work was instrumental in shaping the genre.
Occasionally the selections veer slightly from newspapers into other media. The Unsuspected (1947), for example, stars Claude Rains as a radio personality who manages to maintain his celebrity as those around him begin to mysteriously die off. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian director best known today for Casablanca (1942), and scored by German émigré Franz Waxman, the film is produced with a deft touch, including a lovely expressionist motif in which the killer’s reflection, upside down and ominous, always appears just as he commits his crime, drifting into focus in the glass top of a table or in the black wax of a record—a succinct visual cue that the world is out of kilter.
Desperate (1947), a quick and dirty thriller, features the always suave and menacing Raymond Burr tracking innocent Steve Brodie to exact revenge over the execution of Burr’s hoodlum brother. Director Anthony Mann sets the tone in the first few minutes with a classic mise en scene that shows a darkened gangster hideout illuminated only by a swinging lamp, set into motion by the flailing arms of a man sent flying with a right hook from Burr’s ruthless gangster.
Noir City 7. Friday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Feb. 1 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. www.noircity.com.