Tag Archives: noir city

Noir City 17: BREATHLESS (1960)


Two weekends ago, I braved rainy San Francisco weather and a quickly dying cell phone to attend Noir City 17’s presentation of À Bout de souffle, also known by its English title as Breathless. Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece of New Wave cinema, it is widely credited as having invented the very movement itself. I have long been a fan of this film, and hold a deep respect for the innovations in style, both cinematic and fashion, that Godard has brought about.

I hesitate to call myself a francophile, as I feel that term cheapens the connections I have to France. But I do have deep connections there, both in my heritage and in my personal life. I used to live in Paris, and Backlots was born there. Several branches of my family tree ended up in France and I seem to have endless French cousins (one of those cousins is the operatic soprano Madeleine Grey, a fact that I used whenever I wanted to impress my professors in Paris!) I teach the language and hold near native fluency in it. I try to go back to France every year, as possible.

As such, I’ve always felt quite a connection to Jean Seberg, the American-turned-French actress who stars in Breathless and straddled the line between the two sides of the Atlantic. Despite her excellent French, she never lost her strong American accent, belying her Marshalltown, Iowa roots. That accent endears me to her just as much as her often androgynous fashion. Short hair, capris, striped shirts–combining American casual with French chic–that’s Jean Seberg. Her life was often filled with sadness, and her rocky existence and tragic end merit their own blog post. But her unique image speaks to me as an American who often operates in French spaces, and I’ve always had an intrinsic fascination with her as an actress and a person.

Breathless is a film that the French might call bouleversant, a movie that turned French cinema on its head and changed it forever. It is at once influenced by the style and nuances of American cinema and French cinema of the past decade. While in certain sections the dialogue is reminiscent of the previous year’s thoughtful and pensive Hiroshima mon amour, Breathless also very much belongs on a Noir City program–the story of Michel, a French gangster on the run and his American girlfriend struggling with her attraction to him, her own legal interests, and her own morality. This cinematic duality was intentional on the part of director Jean-Luc Godard, who had longed to make a film himself while writing for the publication Cahiers du Cinéma in Paris.

The story itself was based on a newspaper article that François Truffaut had read about the real-life criminal Michel Portail and his American girlfriend Beverly Lynette. Truffaut and Claude Chabrol collaborated on an early versions of the story, and gave Godard their treatment, acting as advisors on the film and using their clout to help push the movie to distributors with the unknown Godard as the director. Godard, while writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, had come to the conclusion that American directors were the only the ones who really understood how to make important and interesting films, and the French could learn from the way they used the camera and the scenery. Hence, he shot Breathless in a noir style, and the final film really may be considered an American noir set in Paris, in French, with a French director.

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Jean-Luc Godard, director of Breathless.

Eddie Muller discussed these nuances before the film at the Castro, and finished by asking the audience to raise their hand if they’ve never seen the movie before. I was at once surprised and excited to see how many in the audience raised their hands–at least 3/4 of the audience was watching Breathless for the first time. Seeing a movie on the big screen with an audience watching it for the first time is an inexplicably joyful experience for a movie fan, and during the film, I was not disappointed. The audience seemed to be collectively holding its breath throughout the whole movie, as the pursuit of Michel unraveled and the film came to its inevitably dramatic and somewhat eerie conclusion.

Noir City is a carefully curated and lovingly crafted San Francisco gem. We are lucky to have it every year at the Castro, and the passion of Eddie Muller is palpable throughout the entire program. I’m happy to be able to attend every year and I thank Eddie Muller, the Noir City staff, and the Castro Theatre for putting on such a magnificent presentation year after year.

The program is traveling around the country, and here are the upcoming dates and cities:

NOIR CITY Seattle: Feb 15-21, 2019
NOIR CITY Hollywood: Mar 29-Apr 7, 2019
NOIR CITY Austin: May 17-19, 2019
NOIR CITY Boston: June 7-9, 2019
NOIR CITY Chicago: Sep 6-12, 2019

Thanks for reading, and be sure to attend Noir City in one of the upcoming cities if you’re nearby!


CONFLICT (1945) at Noir City 16


Noir City 16 comes to a close tonight, and as usual, it was a delightful week packed with great movies and great audiences. The Castro Theatre is unlike any other theater I’ve experienced in its audience enthusiasm and positivity. Watching a movie at the Castro is like having a movie night with 1,400 of your friends. The audience laughs at all the “right spots,” but there are also knowing laughs and claps when someone makes an unintended innuendo, when a character is overly dramatic, or when there is a connection between a line in the movie and present-day life. The Castro is San Francisco’s historically gay district, and it has a long legacy of loyal neighborhood support and camaraderie. When you watch a movie at the Castro, you are welcomed and accepted into a warm and loving community.

Noir City is similar. Passionate noir fans come from all over the country to attend this festival, and many dress up in 1940s attire for the occasion. The atmosphere is one of friendliness and acceptance. Noir fans tend to be an intellectual crowd, with deep knowledge of the genre, its movies, and its stars. They’re fun to be around, and in combination with the venue of the Castro Theatre, the festival is irresistible. This year’s theme was “1941-1953: Classy A’s and Trashy B’s,” each day presenting a double bill featuring one of each.


Conflict (1945), screened on Monday, has been my favorite movie of the festival thus far. It is reminiscent of The Two Mrs. Carrolls and even Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca in its haunting tone, telling the story of a man (Humphrey Bogart) who has fallen in love with his wife’s much younger sister, and the man plots to kill his wife and cover up the crime. When he thinks his wife is dead, he goes about pursuing the sister. But soon, eerie things begin to happen…and his plan slowly unravels.

It is relatively easy to spot a good noir, and Conflict is a really good noir. There are several features that, when done well, contribute to a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat and glued to what’s happening on the screen. A tightly woven plot where every event and every word forms a chain leading to the ultimate conclusion, with plenty of suspense and cunning, intelligent, meticulous characters. Conflict features all of these. Often, a good noir will have what Hitchcock termed a “MacGuffin,” an external motivator that drives the actions of the main character. MacGuffins are usually used as framing devices, but are not the true focus of the movie (examples are “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, and the falcon in The Maltese Falcon). The MacGuffin in Conflict, I would say, would be Bogart’s desire for the younger sister. It drives him to murder, and then it continues to be relevant throughout the movie, popping up again at a key moment later. But it’s not the focus, though we initially think it’s going to be.

Conflict was actually filmed in 1943 but released in 1945, which perhaps was a detriment to the film’s legacy as the genre was already well established by 1945. Conflict is relatively rare, but its inaccessibility is at odds with how brilliant this movie is. Had it been released in 1943 as originally intended, Conflict may have been considered one of the great noir classics.

In his introduction, “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller noted that despite the quality of the movie, Conflict was one of Bogart’s least favorite movies, due to the fact that it somewhat reflected his real life situation. Much like Katharine Hepburn, Bogart always seems to play Bogart. Whether he’s acting in a comedy or a drama, the Bogart character usually remains the same type–a stoic, crusty type who generally tolerates people. Audiences felt that what they saw on the screen was what Bogart was like in real life. In 1945, Bogart had fallen in love with a much younger woman (Lauren Bacall) and was in the process of divorcing wife Mayo Methot. He was uncomfortable with the idea that the audience might associate him with spousal murder during this rocky time in his life. He needn’t have worried–Bogart and Mayo divorced and he soon married Lauren Bacall, remaining married to her until his death in 1957.

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at their wedding.

Thanks for reading! If Noir City is coming to a town near you, be sure to check it out. Once again, here are the tour dates and cities:

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

Noir City 16: DESTINY (1944) and FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

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.

Jean and Curtis in Destiny

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.

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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!



The 14th annual Noir City festival, the spectacular tribute to film noir that has become a must-see San Francisco tradition, took place last week at the Castro Theatre. The festival is one big noir extravaganza, with the theater packed to the gills every day and every night for ten days straight. It was truly an event to experience, and one that I was thrilled to have been able to attend.

While the programming at Noir City is always top-notch, programmed by the man who has come to be known as the “czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, this year had some truly unusual and unique offerings for the noir aficionados and for the uninitiated alike. Paired with noir classics like The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Rear Window were creatively programmed films like The Red Shoes that rose above the traditional definitions of noir to give the audience an entirely new vision of the genre.


One of the films that most fascinated me in the Noir City program this year was a 1946 detective/murder mystery called The Dark Corner, starring Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens. By 1946, film noir had reached its zenith, the genre having been molded and firmly established during the years of World War II. Dark alleyways, shadowed angles, cigarettes and hard drinking characterized a noir film, as did the appearance of a savvy and smart femme fatale who often drives the plot.

Earlier in 1946, Lucille Ball had walked out on her contract at MGM. She was having problems at the studio and problems at home, her marriage to Desi Arnaz on the brink of collapse. At the studio, she was being cast almost exclusively in glamorous roles, ones that she knew didn’t fit her well and where she was being cast aside for the more established MGM stars like Judy Garland. In search of something different to propel her career forward and to take her mind off her home troubles, she left MGM and freelanced for several years. The Dark Corner, filmed at 20th Century Fox, was one of the first movies she did following the termination of her contract at MGM, and if Lucy had wanted to depart from MGM-type glamor roles in taking this role, she succeeded.

Playing a secretary in love with her boss who has a sinister past, Lucille Ball’s role is that of the smart, savvy version of the femme fatale. It suits her well, and the audience’s eyes are rarely off her when she is onscreen. As for the movie itself, as a murder mystery and detective story in one, The Dark Corner is so noir that it almost parodies itself. Audiences at the Castro Theatre are unusually well-educated in their cinema, and never was that more clear than when the audience laughed in delight at those scenes where Mark Stevens lights a match on his shoe at breakfast, or drinks several glasses of gin in one sitting. San Francisco knows its noir, and a self-aware movie like The Dark Corner was a fun choice for this audience.


The Two Mrs. Carrolls is an old favorite of mine. The only film to pair cinematic legends Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, it tells the story of a mentally unstable painter who endeavors to kill all the women he loves after painting their portraits. It, too, is a prototypical noir, even taking hints from earlier dark movies and weaving them into the plot in similar ways. A clear example of this is the idea of the painter poisoning his wives with milk, one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, from 6 years earlier.


Humphrey Bogart brings Barbara Stanwyck a glass of poisoned milk in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.


Cary Grant brings Joan Fontaine a glass of milk in Suspicion.

The treatment of Barbara Stanwyck as the naive, sweet second wife who is haunted by the first, The Two Mrs. Carrolls also echoes a second Hitchcock film, Rebecca, in which the innocent, sweet Second Mrs. De Winter is tortured by the memory of the ever-present first wife. In Rebecca, the first wife’s memory is poison in itself, leaving in its wake fear, destruction and death. In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the first wife is the saving grace of the second, with hints about her demise leading the second wife to figure out what her husband is plotting. Where in Rebecca the first wife’s memory may be characterized as the villain, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls she may be characterized as the hero.

Thank you to Noir City for another great year, and I look forward to next year’s programming!

Backlots at Noir City: THE THIN MAN (1934) and CLASH BY NIGHT (1950)

As a proud Barbara Stanwyck aficionado, I was thrilled when Noir City 13 reached its halfway point on Wednesday night with a screening of two Barbara Stanwyck dramas from the 1950s–Clash By Night (1950) and Crime of Passion (1957). As both are films that I have seen before (I’ve seen 67 Barbara Stanwyck films–yes, I’ve counted), and given that transportation home gets difficult after about 9:30, I only opted to see the former last night. Regardless, I have two films to write about today, because on Monday we were treated to a showing of one of the greatest and most charming detective stories on film, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. This is a movie I have written about several times in the past, and seen on the big screen multiple times, but viewing it at the Castro is an experience all its own.

San Francisco, in all its glory, is a town full of cinephiles. People here know their cinema, and they know how to tell the good from the bad. So when there is a packed house for a classic movie in San Francisco, you know it’s good. The theater was packed solid on Monday night.

Released right on the brink of the Production Code, The Thin Man tells the story of Nick and Nora Charles, a married detecting couple who drink their way through life and try (unsuccessfully) not to get involved in detective cases. But when a series of murders occurs and Nick knows people involved, he can’t keep himself away. Nora is just as essential to solving the murders as Nick is, and this is part of the timeless appeal of this movie.

The Thin Man is famous for its snappy dialogue and witty repartee, and for being one of the first movies to show that a husband and wife can be friends, and not just romantic partners. Nick and Nora spend the movie ribbing and joking with each other, just as good friends would do. Nora is an equal to Nick–she never once stoops below his level nor does Nick ever take the upper hand. Yet their love is never in doubt, and for its refreshing take on relationships and the position of women within marriage, The Thin Man may be considered a truly feminist movie.

On Wednesday evening, as Noir City reached its halfway point, I again ventured out to the Castro to view Clash By Night, a 1950 Barbara Stanwyck drama that again skirts the limits of the Production Code. Based on a Broadway stage play by Clifford Odets, Clash By Night tells the story of a woman who marries one man, but loves another. She is torn between love and duty, and ends up making decisions that she regrets. The two love interests are played by Paul Douglas (the man she marries) and Robert Ryan (the man she loves), and the film also stars a young Marilyn Monroe, playing Stanwyck’s brother’s girlfriend, also coming to terms with issues of love. The brilliance of the story, and also the aspect that comes into conflict with the Code, lies in the fact that there is no clear villain, and the audience struggles right along with Stanwyck in trying to determine which decision is the best. Does she leave her husband, with whom she has a child, in order to follow her heart with Robert Ryan? Or does she keep her marriage together for the sake of her husband and her child? We see her conflict, and we empathize with her.

It is interesting to note the offscreen rapport between Barbara Stanwyck, the consummate professional actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Marilyn Monroe, the up-and-coming starlet who was already showing signs of psychological problems and difficulties on the set. The director of Clash By Night, the great Fritz Lang, was not up to handling Monroe’s tardiness and personal problems, but Barbara Stanwyck stood up for the young actress and protected her. She gave Marilyn acting tips, shielded her from criticism, and seemed to take her under her wing as a sort of protege. The two had come from similar difficult childhoods–both had been foster children, abandoned by their parents and raised with little to no stability. Stanwyck seemed to understand what Marilyn had been through and was continuing to go through psychologically, and their positive chemistry shines through on the screen. Their scenes together are some of the tenderest in the movie, and Marilyn Monroe later said that Barbara Stanwyck was the only actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who ever showed her kindness.

I will be seeing the classic French thriller Les Diaboliques tomorrow evening (one of my all-time favorite films, and this will be my first time seeing it on the big screen), followed by The Honeymoon Killers on Sunday. Stay tuned for a report!

Opening Night of Noir City 13: WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950), BORN TO BE BAD (1950)

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.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945).


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!


NOIR CITY Day 2 Matinée: “Hell Drivers” and “Curse of the Demon”

Noir City X-Mas

Noir City’s tribute to Peggy Cummins continued this afternoon with showings of 2 films she made in 1957. By this time, Peggy was primarily making films in England, and though neither Hell Drivers nor Curse of the Demon is strict film noir, they both showcase Peggy’s marvelous acting and are prime examples of postwar British cinematic technique.

Hell Drivers features a highly recognizable cast, including Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, and Herbert Lom in addition to Peggy Cummins. The story of an ex-con (Stanley Baker) named Tom who takes a job as a gravel truck driver, only to have a clash with the lead driver (Patrick McGoohan) and uncover a money scam, the movie has developed a bit of a cult following among British cinephiles. Though rather minimalist and slow-moving, with most scenes taking place in or around the trucks, there is some truly skilled filmmaking, and the editing is particularly noteworthy. In one scene toward the beginning, when Tom is learning to drive the truck for the first time, his brakes fail and the truck is nearly thrust into traffic. Director Cy Endfield organized a series of very quick cuts as the truck heads into the traffic, forcing the audience to feel the panic and fear of the situation. At this moment, the entire audience audibly gasped–a clear sign of an effective conveyance of emotion.

Hell Drivers was produced by the J. Arthur Rank Organisation, one of the most prolific British film companies of the postwar era. The Rank Organisation had a major hold on British filmmaking, owning most of the major studio complexes including Pinewood and Denham (bought from Alexander Korda in the late 1940s), and 650 individual movie theatres throughout Britain. The introduction to Rank films has become almost synonymous with British cinema, and has been parodied numerous times in popular culture.

In the video below, fast-forward to the 5:00 mark to see a well-known parody of the J. Arthur Rank introduction.

While Hell Drivers represents pure British cinematic technique, Curse of the Demon is an example of how postwar Britain did B-movies. A campy horror spectacle, it employs aspects of witchcraft and ancient Druid legend to a story about an American psychologist who comes to England on business and receives a demonic hex. Aside from Peggy Cummins, the other prominent member of the cast is the legendary Hollywood actor Dana Andrews, whose career by this point had taken a turn toward the B-picture business. The director, Jacques Tourneur, was a good friend of Andrews’ , and Curse of the Demon was a great help to Andrews’ faltering career. It was received well by critics, and the audience at Noir City thoroughly enjoyed it tonight. Though the special effects are clearly low-budget and the modern methods of producing fear in an audience wouldn’t be honed until almost 30 years later with The Exorcist, there is certainly no lack of startling and terrifying moments in Curse of the Demon. The audience delighted in the camp and suspense of the story, and judging by the applause, laughter, and gasps, it was a definite hit.

Peggy Cummins was in the audience again today, and again got a standing ovation. I commented to a friend yesterday that one of the things I love about San Francisco culture is that audiences are extraordinarily cultured and well-read, and when celebrities appear at events, they are truly treated as stars. They get standing ovations, enthusiastic applause, and deep respect from San Francisco audiences, and owing to that, the city sees many celebrities coming back again and again, to be greeted with the same warm and enthusiastic greeting that met them the first time. San Francisco treasures its stars, and in turn, they treasure us.

Tomorrow’s lineup is a spectacular double feature dealing with showbiz noir. Repeat Performance is at 1:00, 5:00, and 9:10, and Billy Wilder’s unparalleled classic Sunset Boulevard at 2:50 and 7:00.

See you tomorrow!

NOIR CITY Day 1: “Gun Crazy” and Peggy Cummins Live

Noir City X-Mas

The opening night of this year’s Noir City can be described, by any standard, as a resounding and spectacular success.

Upon my entrance to the theater 15 minutes before showtime, I was greeted with a house that was packed solid. The only seats available were a select few in the upper balcony and two or three in the front row, upon which my guest and I quickly descended. It was one of the most sold out crowds I have seen at any event at the Castro Theatre, and it is a testament to how much film noir is appreciated and woven into the cultural fabric of San Francisco.

Along with its credit as a frequent backdrop for many film noir plotlines, San Francisco is also the headquarters for the nationally renowned Film Noir Foundation, of which native San Franciscan film noir scholar Eddie Muller is the founder and president. Muller often makes appearances on Turner Classic Movies and is a true celebrity among cinephiles, especially those with a specific interest in the genre of film noir.

Eddie Muller, often termed the “Czar of Noir.”

This evening, Eddie Muller delivered an opening statement to the crowd, outlining some of the reasons why he thought this film was one of the most influential to come out of the genre. Without Gun Crazy, he said, there would not have been a Bonnie and Clyde as we know it today, and the direction of Joseph H. Lewis has inspired directors of various genres to replicate his creative and innovative ways of shooting a scene. Indeed, there were many very creative innovations employed on the set of Gun Crazy, including the use of a wheeled platform to carry the camera in driving scenes.

The film is a clear predecessor to Bonnie and Clyde, but with a particular emphasis on the psychology of a man obsessed with guns. The film opens when Bart (Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame plays him as a child, John Dall is Bart as an adult) is a teenager, convicted of robbing a gun store. We learn that Bart hates the thought of killing anything, but has had a fascination with firearms since he was very young. The judge sentences him to live at a reform school until the age of 18 to try to curb this enthusiasm for guns.

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Bart comes out of the reform school with very little changed, and at a carnival with his buddies he meets and falls in love with Annie “Laurie” Starr, an English shooting prodigy who challenges him to a gun match. Bart succeeds in getting her away from her no-good boyfriend, but Laurie quickly realizes that Bart doesn’t work, and to support the lifestyle she wants, they will need to have money. Instead of looking for work, Bart and Laurie turn to a life of crime. Much of the movie centers around the elaborate schemes, fake identities, and cunning deceptions that they pull off to avoid being caught, and one particular scene, in which the pair robs a bank, is absolutely magnificent in its suspense, drama, and cinematography.

Gun Crazy was made in 1950, and this meant, of course, that wayward women ultimately had to be punished according to the production code. The way this was done was poignant, creative, and wrapped the film up very neatly. Filmmakers often struggled with this mandate, and many film endings under the code are blunt and rather unimaginative because the filmmaker was forced to punish a wayward woman somehow. Not so in Gun Crazy, it made complete sense. The work was based on a short story by MacKinley Kantor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was not, however, given any screen credit due to his blacklist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. Full credit went to Trumbo’s “front,” Millard Kaufman, and Trumbo’s name appears nowhere in Gun Crazy. He served 11 months in prison for contempt of congress the same year Gun Crazy was released, for refusing to name names to the HUAC as part of the Hollywood Ten. Click the link to learn more about this part of Hollywood’s history.

Dalton Trumbo.

Particularly intriguing in the film is Peggy Cummins, who plays what Eddie Muller described as “the most ferocious woman ever on film.” She shoots, robs banks, and is an all-out criminal by nature. It is a juicy role, and Cummins plays it with great aplomb. We were lucky enough to have Peggy Cummins with us this evening–she flew out from her home in London, where she has lived for the past 50 years. She was clearly moved by the crowd’s ovation, and expressed multiple times her gratitude for this audience that remembers and enjoys her work. Eddie Muller engaged with her about many aspects of her life and career, and she is a great talker. Charming and funny, she is a beautiful and active 87-year-old woman who walks unassisted and has a mind as sharp as a tack. She shared memories of working on the movie with John Dall and Joseph Lewis, and recalled in particular the ending scene of the movie, in which she could literally feel the emotion of the moment. She also noted that the famed bank robbery scene was filmed in one take, which wowed the audience.

Tomorrow, Noir City’s tribute to Peggy Cummins continues with Curse of the Demon at 1:00 and 5:00, and Hell Drivers at 3:00. If you’re in the area, come join, it will be a real treat.

Hope to see you there!