NOIR CITY 15: How Noir is “NOIR?”

My affiliation with the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) began with a “Henchman”-level donation in March 2010.

I had learned about the FNF through Eddie Muller’s film noir DVD commentaries (Muller, the “Czar of Noir,” is President and Founder of the FNF), but it was not until I received my free t-shirt and NOIR CITY 8 program and poster that I became aware of the FNF’s flagship film festival. NOIR CITY, a 10-day screening of 24-27 “noir” films, is held late every January at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Donations and festival ticket sales (individual films or all-film Passport) are the primary funding sources for the FNF, dedicated in large part to the rescue and restoration of 35 mm prints of noir films at risk of being “lost or irreparably damaged.” At a time when the arts feel under siege, and our own history is in danger of being rewritten, this cause seems even more vital.

In the fall of 2013, I was fortunate enough to be able to make a Kingpin donation, which provided me with a Passport to NOIR CITY 12. Still, I wavered on actually flying from Boston to San Francisco for 11 days until I watched the NOIR CITY 12 preview.

I was hooked.

I was even more hooked by the festival itself. Beyond the 27 films themselves (noir-city-12-film-list; 20 I had never seen before), I was seduced by the 1940s-era outfits, the restored glory of the Castro Theatre (down to the old-fashioned snack bar, wide carpeted staircases and live organist), the nightly drinks on the mezzanine and, especially, my fellow attendees—welcoming, passionate fellow-enthusiasts.

Intended to be a one-off lark, I have now attended four consecutive NOIR CITY festivals as a Kingpin contributor, although I had to leave NOIR CITY 14 early due to a family medical emergency, and was trapped for two additional days in San Francisco after NOIR CITY 13 by snowmageddon.

Still, while I enjoyed NOIR CITY 15, something felt very different about this year’s festival. The energy level was lower, the mood was less celebratory, and my impression was that attendance was down from the previous three years I had attended. There was no featured “restoration” as in 2014 (Too Late for Tears [1949]), 2015 (Woman on the Run [1950], The Guilty [1947]) and 2016 (Los Tallos Amargos [The Bitter Stems; 1956]), and each day did not have a “sub-theme” in the program (e.g., “Humphrey Bogart: Artist” from NOIR CITY 14). The official author-signing event for the NOIR CITY ANNUAL 2016 (a collection of the best stories and essays from the year’s FNF quarterly e-magazines) was not as widely-advertised as in the past. And so on…

There are feasible explanations: the festival opened on the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, sparking massive protests in San Francisco; politics may have trumped art for many potential festival attendees (pun intended); and rain soaked the city for the first four days of the festival.

But the likeliest explanation may be the simplest: NOIR CITY 15 was simply less “noir” than in the past.

Each NOIR CITY has a theme, an organizing principle for the selection of that year’s films. For the first three NOIR CITY’s I attended, the themes were international (films from Argentina, England, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Norway and Spain, as well as from the United States), marriage and the arts.

The theme for NOIR CITY 15 was “The Big Knockover: 24 Criminal Capers From Around the Globe.” Muller’s stated intent was to screen a chronologically-, geographically- and tonally-diverse range of “caper” films. Patrons expecting 10 days of (primarily) black-and-white films from the 1940s and 1950s may have been disappointed by the 13 films from 1964 (Kenju Zankoku Monogatari [Cruel Gun Story]) through 2015 (Victoria), all but two of which (Cruel Gun Story, Once a Thief [1965]) were in color. Two of the 11 “classic-era” films (Violent Saturday and The Ladykillers, both 1955) were also in color; I will stretch a point and include the black-and-white Classe Tous Risques (The Big Risk) and The League of Gentlemen (both 1960) as “classic-era.” Thus, only nine of the 24 films (38%) screened at NOIR CITY 15 were classic-era black-and-white films (and only four of them were American: Criss Cross [1949], The Asphalt Jungle [1950], Kansas City Confidential [1951] and The Killing [1956]).

This raises two questions:

1.      Just how “noir” has NOIR CITY been since its inception in 2003?

2.      Has NOIR CITY become less “noir” over time?

The lack of a universally-accepted list of film noir titles makes answering these questions difficult; examine 40 different published film noir “lists,” and you will get 40 different, albeit more-or-less overlapping, sets of titles.

One solution would be to aggregate the lists, not unlike the way political analysts and news organizations aggregate polling data, to see which films are most (and least) often cited as examples of film noir.

I will offer further details in a series of articles, but this is precisely what I have done: collect a wide array of published film noir lists (film-noir-database-sources), both explicit (e.g., encyclopedias, websites) and implicit (books containing a minimum 125 film noir titles within their text, often supplemented by a “filmography”), and entering these films[1] into an Excel workbook. Call it a “film noir database,” if you like. As of this writing, this “database” contains 4,316 titles, although only 4,065 have complete information entered.

Every film in the database has two “noir-consensus” scores:

1.   LISTS: a simple count of how many official lists include the film. As of this writing,  LISTS ranges from 1 to 27. All lists are weighted equally.

2.    POINTS: LISTS plus 0-2 for sub-listing (e.g., the Chronology in Bourde and Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953[2]) plus 0-2 for appearing in a published text discussing 25-124 titles (e.g., 77 films noted in Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir”[3]). As of this writing, POINTS ranges from 1 to 52.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that films with higher LISTS/POINTS scores are intrinsically more “noir” than films with lower LISTS/POINTS scores.

What I am instead saying is that the higher the LISTS/POINTS score, the higher the level of consensus that a particular title is film noir, because more writers who have studied these films have denoted it as such. At the same time, because a higher POINTS score partly results from inclusion on more-exclusive lists, films with a higher POINTS score can be considered more exemplary of film noir.

I am agnostic as to when or where or in what colors a listed film was released. If it appears on an official list of film noir titles (even if designated “proto-” or “neo-”), it will be entered into the database. Film release years range from 1912 (The Musketeers of Pig Alley) to 2015 (Victoria), with 43% between 1940 and 1959. These films come from a total of 65 nations, with 62% of them produced at least in part in the United States. Finally, 55% of these films are entirely black-and-white, with an additional 2% partially black-and-white. Thus, only 30% of the films in this film noir database are American (in part) black-and-white films released between 1940 and 1959.

Table 1: Distribution of LISTS and POINTS for all titles and for titles screened at one or more NOIR CITY festivals, 2003-17

 

All Titles (n=4,316)

Noir City Screenings (n=294)

 

LISTS

POINTS

LISTS

POINTS

Average (SD*)

3.6 (4.9)

4.0 (6.1)

13.4 (7.9)

16.2 (11.3)

Median

1

1

14

15

Value

 

 

 

 

1

56%

55%

7%

7%

2-4

23%

23%

14%

12%

5-9

10%

10%

11%

13%

10-19

9%

9%

41%

33%

20+

2%

4%

26%

35%

* Standard deviation (square root of variance), a measure of how values are clustered spread around the mean: the higher the SD, the wider the spread

The midpoint if values are sorted from largest to smallest; half of values are above the median, half are below

Five films appear on all 27 lists: Double Indemnity (1944), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Laura (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), with 493 films (11%) appearing on 10 or more lists (see Table 1); more than half (56%) of these films appear on one list only. The average LISTS is 3.6, with a median of 1. Eleven films earned 40 or more POINTS, topped by Out of the Past (1947; 46 POINTS), The Maltese Falcon (47) and Double Indemnity (49), with 531 (12%) films having 10 or more POINTS; more than half (55%) of these films earned one POINT only. The average POINTS is 4.0, with a median of 1.

In other words, while well over four thousand films have been denoted (explicitly or implicitly) by at least one writer as “film noir,” only some 550 titles are cited by even one in three of these writers, and only some 150 by as many as two in three. Many films can be argued, however idiosyncratically, to be noir, but relatively few are widely considered to be so.

Did I mention that one of these 27 lists is the list of unique films screened at the first 15 NOIR CITY festivals? To generate this list, I first counted any film listed in the programs for NOIR CITY’s 8 and 11-15 (the programs currently in my possession). I then supplemented that list using the master NOIR CITY list. This method yielded 294 films screened at one or more NOIR CITY festivals between 2003 and 2017. This list is likely incomplete (26 films listed in the programs for NOIR CITY’s 8 and 11 were not on the master list), but it serves the purposes of this post.

As Table 1 reveals, films screened at NOIR CITY are, on average, far more widely considered noir than is true of the typical film in the database. The average NOIR CITY film appears on 13.4 LISTS, with 16.2 POINTS; median LISTS and POINTS are 14 and 15, respectively. That is, half of the films screened at NOIR CITY fall within the top 6% of LISTS or POINTS in the database. Fully two-thirds of the NOIR CITY films appear on 10 or more LISTS and/or have 10 or more POINTS. Only 21 films appear in the database solely due to their screening at NOIR CITY, and many of them are “pre-code” proto-noirs (e.g., A Kiss Before the Mirror, Laughter in Hell; both 1933), “lost” foreign films (e.g., La Citta Si Defende [Four Ways Out; 1951], El Vampiro Negro [The Black Vampire; 1953], Los Tallos Amargos) or still too recent for fuller noir consideration (Victoria).

Figure 1: NOIR CITY LISTS and POINTS over time

noir-city-lists-and-points-over-time

However, there is evidence that the “noir-ness” of NOIR CITY is slowly decreasing. Figure 1 shows that as recently as 2010 (NOIR CITY 8: “Lust and Larceny”), NOIR CITY films were widely considered noir, based upon the noir-consensus measures of LISTS (average=15.2, median=16) and POINTS (18.5, 17.5), anchored by 20+ POINTS films The Asphalt Jungle, Human Desire (1954), Niagara (1953), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Pickup On South Street (1953), Pitfall (1948) and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Average LISTS and POINTS declined sharply just three years later, albeit remaining much higher than the typical film in the database. These values spiked upward in 2015, perhaps because the 20+ POINTS films Caught (1949), Clash by Night (1952), No Man of Her Own (1950), The Set-Up (1949) and Woman on the Run were screened, as well as The Suspect (1944; 19 POINTS). However, they declined in NOIR CITY 14 and even more sharply in NOIR CITY 15.

In fact, average LISTS and POINTS were 56% and 52% lower, respectively, in 2017 than they had been seven years earlier. This decline occurred despite the screening of four “classic era” American films (Criss Cross, The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, The Killing), plus the 1955 French film Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes (Rififi; 16 LISTS, 20 POINTS), with average LISTS and POINTS of 24.0 and 32.8, respectively.

It is the other 19 films that bring down NOIR CITY 15’s average LISTS and POINTS: their LISTS and POINTS averages are 2.7 and 2.8, respectively. Of the 21 films whose appearance in the film noir database is due solely to their screening at one or more NOIR CITY festivals, seven were first screened last month (Blue Collar [1978], Four Ways Out, Cruel Gun Story, The League of Gentlemen, I Soliti Ignoti [Big Deal on Madonna Street; 1958], Thunderbolt and Lightfoot [1974], Victoria). Put another way, 29% of the films screened at NOIR CITY 15 are not cited as film noir anywhere else (in my 36 other current sources, at any rate) as noir.

So here is my synopsis of NOIR CITY 15 which, while far less “noir” (using these noir-consensus measures) than previous NOIR CITY festivals, was still more noir than the typical database film. The first four days of the festival—Friday January 20 through Tuesday January 23—were rain-soaked and overshadowed by the nascent Trump Administration. The 10 films screened over those four days had LISTS and POINTS averages of 13.0 and 17.5, respectively, and were released between 1949 and 1958. This was, arguably, the “classic noir” segment of the festival—and who knows how many potential attendees stayed away because of the rain, the protests or the politics. Once the skies and roads cleared (if not the politics), the program quickly veered into the colorful 1970s and beyond, with a very low noir-consensus series of films. Potential attendees who had missed the first 10 films may then have been more inclined to stay away from the festival.

None of this is meant in any way as a critique of NOIR CITY 15, or of any film screened as part of that festival. I am not a film critic, nor do I have a particular set of a priori criteria to apply to films to say “this one is noir” and “that one is not.” Not yet, anyway.

Speaking solely as a fan, I loved the first 10 films screened[4]…but I also enjoyed the later 14 films, including three (The Ladykillers, Charley Varrick [1973], The Brink’s Job [1978]), I was looking forward to seeing again. Granted, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Straight Time (1978) and Sexy Beast (2000) did not thrill me as much as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Blue Collar (1978), El Aura (The Aura; 2005) and Victoria.

Too often underappreciated is the difficulty of programming a festival like this year after year, while still keeping it fresh, and the commitment to an annual theme which results in selections that may irk the purists and the “fair-weather” fans (pun also intended). Muller will tell anyone who asks that he is not close to running out of classic-era black-and-white films (my language, not Muller’s) to screen. Still, the number of non-English-language films (26 in the past four years), the number of post-1959 films (21 in the last four years), and the number of color films (19 in the past four years) suggests a desire to advance a conception of film noir beyond that American, black-and-white, 1940-59 30%.

And thus Muller will continue to screen films that challenge the conventional definition of film noir (amorphous as it is), and I will put any film into my database that a published list includes as noir, regardless of era or nationality or color scheme.

Definitions advance. Consensus evolves.

Only, what, a little over 49 weeks until NOIR CITY 16?

Until next time…


 

[1] Plus alternate titles, year, BW/color, director[s], cinematographer[s], country/ies of production, primary studio, etc.

[2] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. 2002. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond

[3] Schrader, Paul. 1972. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment 8:1, pp. 8-13

[4] Well, OK, I didn’t love The Big Risk nearly as much.

 

2 thoughts on “NOIR CITY 15: How Noir is “NOIR?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s