The 1407 seat Castro Theatre was packed solid last night for the opening night of what has become a veritable San Francisco tradition, the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City film festival.
For the past 13 years, film aficionados passionate about the dark side of classic cinema have flocked to San Francisco to experience this distinctly American genre on the big screen, with films spanning several decades introduced by none other than “the czar of Noir” himself, Eddie Muller. Muller, the head of the Film Noir Foundation and a legend in the cinematic world, is a native San Franciscan and the Film Noir Foundation itself is a San Francisco organization, fitting tokens for a city already deeply steeped in the noir tradition.
But what is film noir? It remains a genre difficult to describe in words, but for cinephiles, it is unique and unmistakable. Usually in black and white (with a few exceptions, Gene Tierney’s beautiful Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven is the obvious one), a noir film deals in the dark underbelly of society, riddled with crime, murder, and mystery. Often a beautiful and evil woman takes center stage, a woman who has become known as the famous “femme fatale,” manipulating the men around her and driving them to madness.
Noir films are character-driven, born out of the gangster genre of the 1930s and developing into maturity alongside the United States’ involvement in World War II. The Production Code was solidly in place by the time film noir developed into a genre, and the plotlines often skate smoothly along the rules against sexuality on film, sometimes coming dangerously close to breaking them. Take a look at this scene from Double Indemnity (1944).
The coy and subtle games that the noir genre plays with the Production Code are integral to its makeup, and I question whether the genre could have developed, as we know it, without the implementation of the Production Code. But that’s another post all its own.
The theme of this year’s festival is “Unholy Matrimony,” and all films screened will have something to do with married life…noir style. Last night we were treated to two films set in San Francisco, a world premiere restoration of Woman on the Run, a 1950 Ann Sheridan film, and Born to be Bad, starring my beloved Joan Fontaine in an atypically nasty role. Woman on the Run was the opening film, and Eddie Muller prefaced the screening with a story about its unusual background. The original negative was lost in a fire at Universal many years ago, and the film was presumed lost. Then another copy was found, quite unexpectedly, but in dismal condition. It was restored by the Film Noir Foundation with a generous grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and this was the print we saw last night.
The story is one of intrigue and mistaken identity–a man witnesses a murder and then runs from the police to avoid going to protective custody and having to identify the killer, thereby risking his own life. To find him, the police go to his wife, who seems intent on helping her husband avoid them. In her effort to protect him, she befriends a man who she thinks will help her husband…who turns out to be the last person who would be helping him.
It is quite a suspenseful and well made movie, and I was pleasantly surprised with how entertaining it was to watch. I was struck by the beauty of Ann Sheridan who, as she aged, looked quite a lot like Rita Hayworth. In her heyday, she was known as “the Oomph Girl,” but never achieved the superstardom of some of her contemporaries, which is unfortunate, and her career declined prematurely. She has a pleasingly deep voice, and much of her acting is done with her eyes, the mark of a true artist.
The second film was Born to be Bad, a movie I’ve seen several times due to my connection with Joan Fontaine. In it, Joan plays Christabel Caine, a man-stealing usurper who destroys the engagement of a couple, then goes on to have affairs with several more men. It is a very unusual role for Joan Fontaine, who is known for playing doe-eyed, naive, well-behaved ladies. She never truly rises to the occasion of this character of the man-hungry snake and it’s not her greatest role, though she’s never looked more beautiful and she radiates charm. It’s a fun movie to watch and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen.
Also, the poster is one of my all-time favorites.
I will be attending Noir City screenings all this week. Stay tuned for further coverage!