Dear readers, if you’ve been following my Twitter feed over the past few days, you know that I’ve been attending the 16th annual Noir City festival–a weeklong smorgasbord of film noir favorites and rarities, on the big screen at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It’s been a fascinating few days thus far, and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen.
I’ve been asked several times over the course of this festival, including by my various Lyft drivers and friendly employees at Hot Cookie (San Francisco’s greatest cookie establishment, right next door to the Castro), for an explanation of what exactly film noir is. It’s a bit hard to pin down. Noir is a genre of film that rose up around the time of America’s entrance into World War II, involving dark, shadowy stories that often tease the limits of the Motion Picture Production Code. It has several key elements–noir films deal with crime, shady figures, powerful and seductive women, and the creative use of light and shadow. Frequently, voiceover narration is employed, as in the cases of the classic noirs Gilda (1946) and Double Indemnity (1944).
There is some debate as to whether Hitchcock movies count as noir. Hitchcock somewhat defies categorization, but the storylines, characterizations, and uses of lighting that have become signatures of Hitchcock’s work are also typical of the noir genre. Noir City takes a liberal definition of the genre, and on Saturday night festivalgoers were treated to a showing of Hitchcock’s fantastic Shadow of a Doubt.
The festival is hosted by Eddie Muller, known as the “Czar of Noir” among film fans, and before each screening Muller gives an intro that whets the viewer’s appetite for what’s to come. I was excited to see a Barbara Stanwyck movie on the program this year, as I have a particular fondness for Stanwyck and I know Eddie Muller does, too. I’ve seen nearly all her movies–but this one, Flesh and Fantasy, was one I hadn’t seen. I decided to attend the movie beforehand as well, and I’m glad I did.
The movie that came before Flesh and Fantasy, an hour long story about an accomplice to a bank robbery and his journey of escape entitled Destiny, was originally intended as the first vignette of Flesh and Fantasy, but instead it was cut off the final version and released as a movie of its own the following year. Destiny has some very interesting elements to it, including treatment of a blind character that, in some ways, was quite modern. The ending was important to understanding the beginning of Flesh and Fantasy, and had I not seen Destiny and heard Eddie Muller’s intro, the first part of Flesh and Fantasy wouldn’t have made much sense.
Flesh and Fantasy is comprised of a series of vignettes that explore the human mind and its relationship to fate and destiny. The movie features a stellar cast, and the stories are reminiscent of The Twilight Zone in their eerie twists on reality. Providing a bit of comic relief and introductions to the vignettes are two friends, played by the delightful Robert Benchley, a humorist and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, and David Hoffman, in one of his first film roles (he would go on to have a more prolific career in television). The first vignette introduced by Benchley and Hoffman tells the story of a woman who finds herself unattractive, and she interacts with the world with bitterness and scorn. Putting on a mask of a beautiful woman, she goes to a dance and falls in love with a man who assures her that he would love her no matter what she looks like under the mask. The final scene is comprised of several twists and turns that made the audience gasp with surprise and delight.
The second vignette involves a man (played by Edward G. Robinson) who is told by a palm reader that he is destined to commit a murder. He can’t get his mind off it…and plots a murder to try to outwit his fate. This story reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Illustrated Man,” in the way that the body is used to show an unavoidable future.
The third vignette is where Barbara Stanwyck comes in, acting alongside Charles Boyer. Boyer plays a trapeze artist who dreams that he falls off the trapeze and onto a woman (Stanwyck) wearing very distinctive earrings, shaped like lyres. The dream affects him so much that it throws him off his act that evening, and he wonders if he can ever recover. When the circus sails for a foreign show, Boyer meets a woman on the boat…the same woman he saw in his dream. They fall in love…and she wants to come watch him perform.
Each story was very compelling, and the concept was amazingly forward-thinking for 1943. Directing was the great French director Julien Duvivier, known as one of the role models for French New Wave filmmaker Jean Renoir. Duvivier was clearly ahead of his time, not only with his explorations of dreams and fate, but also in bookending the vignettes–one leading directly into the next. This, perhaps, contributed to the fact that the movie isn’t better known. No one had anything to compare it to–now we have The Twilight Zone and a whole generation of similar TV shows and movies that make Flesh and Fantasy a truly fascinating piece.
After it was over, the audience was tittering with excitement over what they had just seen. I was left with the feeling of how sad it is that the movie is not more accessible–and how lucky we are that festivals like Noir City exist to expose us to such rarely seen gems as this one.
Noir City is traveling this year–here are the dates when the festival may be in a town close by:
NOIR CITY SF: January 26-February. 4, 2018
NOIR CITY Seattle: February 16-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Denver: March 23-25, 2018
NOIR CITY Hollywood: April 13-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Austin: May 18-20, 2018
NOIR CITY Boston: June 8-10, 2018
2018 dates for NOIR CITY Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. TBD
And keep your eye out for Flesh and Fantasy. You won’t regret it.
I’ll be back with more updates from Noir City later on this week. Thanks for reading!