NOIR CITY 16: Stage Fright?

This is the sixth in a series of posts chronicling my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). In this post, I debut on the Castro stage. You may read the first five posts here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

The first thing I recorded in my little black Moleskine notebook for Monday, January 29, 2018 was:

NO MORE MANHATTANS + CHAMPAGNE + MOZZ STICKS + CHICKEN TENDERS BEFORE BED

NO MORE READING UNTIL ALL HOURS

I had slept fitfully the night before, feeling dehydrated and waking often to urinate, so I opted for a quiet morning and afternoon before heading to the Castro Theatre to watch Conflict and Jealousy.

For variety, I ate breakfast at the Pinecrest instead of Lori’s; their once-massive plate of yogurt with granola and fruit (photograph 2014) had shrunk considerably.

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By 2:15 pm (all times PST), I was settled in the lobby of the Hotel Rex to finish The Pictures, get updates from my wife Nell about our eldest daughter’s sore arm (hard fall the day before during her rollerblading debut) and her own flu-like symptoms.

On the analogous Monday two years earlier (anticipating two Humphrey Bogart films[1] that evening—hold that thought), I spent the afternoon conferring with Nell about what turned out to be her emergency gall bladder surgery; I took a red-eye flight home to Boston that night.

Our eldest daughter, a left-handed highly active bookworm, told me she had a “buckle break,” or torus fracture, of her left forearm. The possibility of a second six-week stint in just under a year trapped in a cast (no basketball or swimming, ice skating uncertain) had her feeling blue.

Nell, meanwhile, had a nasty bacterial infection requiring antibiotics…but there was no need to cut short another sojourn in NOIR CITY.

“Oh heavens no. Not for this,” she laughed when I suggested it.

[Ed. Note: our eldest daughter, thus far, has not required a cast, though she will need to wear a brace for two more weeks. Fingers crossed.]

At 2:41 pm, I was still sitting in the lobby. Looking up, I saw Ms. NOIR CITY 2017, Greer Sinclair (resplendent in black jacket, skirt, stockings and ankle boots, carrying a yellow travel bag, black sunglasses perched on her head[2]) walk up to the front desk.

“Yo Sinclair!”

Smiling, she turned to face me. “Fancy seeing you here.”

She was rushing to an audition…or a rehearsal, or something…across the street, allowing her little time to talk. I watched her cross Sutter then sat down to finish The Pictures.

Reading must make me hungry because I next wrote:

COFFEE AND A SANDWICH. THAT’S WHAT I WANT.

After climbing up and down the six flights of stairs (a carpeted stairwell winds around the Rex elevator) to my room to exchange The Pictures for The Art of Mystery, purchased the day before at City Lights Bookstore, I walked outside.

I meandered as follows: East to Powell then north. Two blocks to Pine, then east the half-block to Dashiell Hammett Street. One block down to Bush. West, one-and-a-half blocks to Mason. South two blocks to Post, where I turned west.

Bingo—Café La Taza.

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Rejecting an almond croissant and with none of the sandwiches calling to me, I ordered a 16 ounce cup of fresh brewed coffee.

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Then I noticed the “Soup of the Day” board.

Vine-ripened tomato basil & vegetables.

Bingo again.

Seeking something for after my soup (which I recommend), the young man behind the counter—sporting a cropped near-mohawk and stubble, black-rimmed glasses and gray-patterned black sweater—gave me a tour of the plastic-wrapped pastries on display next to the register.

Is this banana bread?

Yes, and this is pound cake.

And that?

A citrus cake.

Citrus cake please.

He selected a “better” slice from the rear of the display.

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I sat at a small table, with the glass street door just in front of me to the right. Standing on the hard brown floor just outside was a large black plastic trash container. As I ate, a disheveled young man in a long dirty coat started to rummage through the container. What looked like a doorman from a neighboring hotel—elegant in a medium blue jacket—shooed him away. He then gave a pleasant wave inside the café.

“Thank you,” someone behind me said.

Soon after, our eldest daughter texted me about this lobby photograph I had sent her earlier that afternoon.

“Really! I want one.”

It was just past 3:30 pm.

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Two hours later—dapper in a navy suit jacket, blue-and-white-striped shirt, olive green chinos, light blue argyle socks and blue and green bow tie (easily tied, for once)—I was standing in front of Castro Coffee Company; a man told me “You look great. Really, you look great.”

I thanked him and walked around the corner to Orphan Andy’s for supper, where I ordered a spinach and feta omelet while a live version of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” played over the speakers: a terrific combination.

I posted a photograph of all 12 NOIR CITY 16 marquees on Twitter (@drnoir33). Oddly appealing German synthpop played through the Castro Coffee Company speakers while I posted this (“Day 4. Humphrey Bogart and one of the seven deadly sins. A match made in noir heav…well, somewhere.”).

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As I typed, a young man–dirty army blanket wrapped loosely around his naked black shoulders—approached me for some change. Handing him a dollar bill, I noticed he had breasts. He wanted more money, but I declined.

Back inside the Castro, I checked on my coat, draped over my favorite aisle seat (left-hand side, five rows down from lobby doors). Annabelle Zakaluk, Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, was practicing a song on the Castro stage.

Wandering up to the Mezzanine, I chatted for a time with a younger couple I had befriended the previous year, followed by a brief exchange with Imogen Smith, whose casual mastery of English vocabulary floors me.

And then I was talking to the woman who oversees the Name That Noir sign-up sheet (and raffle table). She grew up in Brookline, where Nell and I are raising our daughters, so we often compare elementary school notes.

Tonight, however, she urged me to sign up for that night’s game (a contestant joins Czar of Noir Eddie Muller and Ms. Zakaluk on stage and is given up to three clues to name a film noir).

I had been hesitant to sign up because I thought I would be rejected as a ringer.

Now, given the opportunity, I had a new fear: that I would walk onto that stage, the eyes of 1,000 fellow film noir aficionados fixed on me, and I would promptly forget every film noir I know.

In fact, I expected to go full Ralph Kramden:

She and Daryl Sparks, Film Noir Foundation (FNF) Promotional Director/Associate Producer, were very persuasive though, with Ms. Sparks wanting someone “reliable, with good stage presence” and both telling me to “do it for your daughters.”

I reluctantly agreed.

Before Muller introduced Conflict (relaying that Bogart, locked in a marriage with Mayo Methot dubbed “The Battling Bogarts,” did not want to make a film about a man killing his wife) Ms. Zakaluk sang “Laura” accompanied by guitarist Nick Rossi.

There was one small hiccup, though. When Muller and Ms. Zakaluk left the stage, the microphone stand, chair and amplifier remained behind. After a few moments, Executive Showrunner Richard Hildreth, a quietly-efficient gray-haired man with mutton chop whiskers, strode onto the stage. As he carried the last of the items off stage, he was greeted with resounding cheers and applause.

He paused and took a gracious bow.

Nervous during Conflict, I needed fresh air once it ended. Walking up to the Mezzanine afterward, I was met by a female volunteer who walked me back down to the auditorium, where Ms. Sparks was sitting, waiting, in the first row of seats, stage right.

We sat and chatted amiably, putting me at ease, and she told me simply to follow Muller’s lead.

Finally, out came Muller and Ms. Zakaluk…and up I went.

I reminded myself: I have given 20 professional talks in my career, and every single time I had been just as nervous—until I started talking. Then I was fine.

Sure enough, once I was actually standing on the stage—seeing nothing but black, with a few white dots (those spotlights are wicked bright)—I was myself again.

It started with Muller asking my name.

“Matt Berger.”

Where are you from?

“Boston.”

And how long have you been coming to NOIR CITY?

“Five years.”

Is your family with you?

“C’mon, this is a vacation.”

(Audience titters)

“That’s what Edmond O’Brien said in D.O.A.: ‘I’m just on vacation.”

“Yes,” I countered, “but this is not The Bigamist.”

Muller vamped on my “pulling out obscure Edmond O’Brien films,” that I was “a guy who knows his stuff.” We mused about how many questions I would need—and how much suspense to build.

Then, with Muller’s hat hiding the sheet of clues from me, Ms. Zakaluk said, “Clue number one. Chicago reporter named P. J. MacNeal.”

I grinned and started to nod my head.

“Do you know what it is?”

Rather than drag it out, I said, “Call Northside 777.”

“That’s right.”

Loud applause and cheering.

I had my own small hiccup when I was handed my prizes, a DVD copy of Conflict and a four-film Bogart collection (on Blu Ray; I never did tell them I do not have a Blu Ray player—excepting this computer, presumably). I fumbled to locate my reading glasses to read the titles on the Blu Ray set.

Exit stage right.

And…exhale.

I remember little of the entertaining Jealousy beyond some excellent point-of-view camera sequences.

Walking down to the men’s room at its conclusion, my 15 seconds of fame began.

“Man are you lucky.”

“You’re the guy that won!”

“Brains!”

“What was that movie again?

Back up on the Mezzanine, I basked in more congratulations. Having explained to a man standing with FNF Director of Communications Anne Hockens that I was a “noir geek” with “a database,” he said that I had “internalized” it.

High praise, indeed.

My favorite encounter, however, came a few moments later, when official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne looked me in the eyes and said, “Yeah, you don’t know Eddie.” (Muller would later thank me for “playing dumb.” Well, I’ve had 51 years of experience, I replied).

Following Hearne’s good-natured rib, I left the Castro.

As I waited on the Castro station platform for a K, L or M MUNI train, a young woman, dressed to the nines in vintage black (her long black satin gloves were particularly entrancing), walked up to me.

“Hey, you won the contest tonight.”

We introduced ourselves (Melissa) then chatted for a few stops, discovering a mutual love for baseball; her Oakland A’s were once the Philadelphia A’s, though I grew up in a Phillies family.

She disembarked before I did, affirming “I’ll see you around.”

NOIR CITY excels as a place to meet people and make friends. I am selective about who I “friend” on Facebook; fully 23 (9.2%) of my 250 Facebook friends I met through NOIR CITY.

Alighting at the Powell MUNI station, I went directly to Lori’s, where I ate a tasty BLT with avocado on whole wheat and a side of onion rings.

While I ate, a cab pulled up in front of Lori’s. A squat older woman dressed in a loose-fitting pink and orange jacket, white t-shirt and gray sweatpants climbed out, clutching some shopping bags. When she settled into a small table against the wall behind me, I noticed she had very few teeth.

This dental deficiency provoked a lengthy debate with her waitperson over what soft thing to order. Settling on their French toast (which she barely ate), she arrayed some pill bottles on the table, talking to herself the entire time. After a follow-up debate, she ordered a coffee milkshake.

Back in my hotel room, I was asleep within minutes of my goodnight text to Nell.

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An unknown iPhone caller from Massachusetts (no message) woke me at 10:03 am on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.  Looking at my phone, I had seven texts, including a conversation between my aunt and her two adult children.

By 11:37 am, I was back at Café La Taza, savoring their seven-grain oatmeal with bananas and berries, plus orange juice and black coffee.

After breakfast, I took Post one-and-a-half blocks to Stockton then walked north two blocks to the entrance to the Stockton Street Tunnel. I climbed the dim stone stairs on the left to Bush.

I followed Bush one block east to Dragon’s Gate (photograph 2014); just inside the gate, on the left-hand side, two women and a man were promoting Falun Dafa.

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The colors and sounds of Chinatown quickly engulf you[3]. Never mind that this unexpected juxtaposition is one of the first things you see.

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This artistic menu and accompanying mural is on Vinton Court, between Pine and California on Grant.

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This is the intersection with California (photographs 2015).

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Many antique stores—and even more tourist-oriented gift shops—line this stretch of Grant. Ever on the lookout for family souvenirs, I spun revolving plastic stands displaying small California license plates with first names embossed on them; no luck finding both daughters’ names.

Then a display of white panda dolls just inside one particularly expansive store (New Peking?) caught my eye; I entered for a closer look. The boxes of “Chinese Health Balls” fascinated me; I almost bought one. The gorgeous silk ties ($19.50, 3 for $50) also called my name. The resigned-looking woman behind the counter, short with center-parted dark hair, assured me “there were more patterns upstairs.”

In the end, I only bought one panda doll, dignified in his blue silk gown.

My photographs chart the rest of my time in Chinatown. This wall mural is at Grant and Clay, two blocks north of California.

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Looking south on Grant, at Clay.

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These window-laundry shots are one block west on Clay, at the intersection with Stockton.

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Same intersection, looking east on Clay.

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I must have followed Clay east to Waverly, then turned north, because this stunning bronze map is embedded into the concrete where Waverly ends at Washington.

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Finally, I walked one-half block east to Grant then followed it three blocks north to Broadway:

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A short walk to the east (right) took me to Columbus.

The need to urinate was growing urgent. Ultimately, despite considering “many trattorias” and the chicken restaurant Il Pollaio, I held out all the way up Columbus to Mason, then down Mason to Washington.

You may ask Nell whether I am stubborn.

Arriving just in time at the eclectic Gallery Café, I “ducked” into the rest room.

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Having recovered my equilibrium, I ordered a tuna melt on whole wheat with a bag of Lay’s potato chips and fresh squeezed orange juice. While I munched contentedly at an indoor table (a conversation table, not one intended for studious folks with books and/or laptops), I enjoyed the music playing in the background—a seamless blend of southern-fried blues, Ike and Tina Turner, and Dixieland jazz[4].

The music provided an incongruous soundtrack for the black-and-white Japanese horror movie playing on a screen behind the ordering counter.

I also watched the young Asian woman who had taken my order bustle around the nearly-empty café with what I later called “efficient friendliness.” She wore a San Francisco sweatshirt (purple, I think, our eldest daughter’s favorite color) and her dark hair was pulled back from her open face.

Speaking of our eldest daughter, I took these contextual photographs for her.

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Looking south on Mason.

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It was 2:25 pm when I bused my table and walked outside. I was meeting Ms. Sparks at the Castro at 5 pm to begin training to run the merchandise table for NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

I had just enough time to visit the gift shop of the Cable Car Museum across the street; parenthood duties still beckoned.

The Museum is cable car “ground zero.” You can see where the cars turn into the building (photograph 2017).

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And inside, you see the cables loop continuously around the wheel, pulling the cars.

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I bought a shirt for our youngest daughter; they did not have the right size in purple for our eldest daughter.

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I was at the Castro by 4:45, dashing in the outfit I wore to defend my doctorate in epidemiology (Boston University School of Public Health; December 2014):

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The auditorium was completely dark when I deposited my long grey raincoat and books on my favorite seat. The upstairs was eerily quiet; plastic covered the tables.

I filled my water bottle from the ornate green water fountain just outside the women’s rest room before chatted again with super-patron Linda Martinez. Acquiring one of my business cards, she called me her “interesting new contact” in Boston (which she may visit this summer).

Ms. Sparks and her husband (the latter dressed—in his words—in “rabbi gangster”) arrived at 5:18 pm. A key volunteer was sick, so it was some time before she was could start training me. In the meantime, I sat quietly on one of the sofas, scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook—and witnessed the conversation about how much wine to pour[5].

A short time later I was officially inducted into “Intrepid Audience Members” by the gregarious Jason (a tip of the fedora to special needs teacher and film festival connoisseur Amy Sullivan for arranging this honor).

There are no dues or officers, just a nifty lapel pin.

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I will elide my training session and jump to The Blue Dahlia and Night Editor, which was being screened for the fourth time at NOIR CITY, a new record.

Sloan de Forest’s business card describes her as “Actor/Writer/Film Historian.” She attended NOIR CITY 16 Tuesday and Wednesday nights, researching a book on women in film noir. Her book on science fiction is due out in May.

She also snagged the seat next to mine just in time to catch The Blue Dahlia, though she moved one seat to the left for Night Editor.

Your guess is as good as mine.

While it remains a classic, The Blue Dahlia is now probably best known for inspiring the nickname bestowed upon 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, whose mutilated body was found in an empty lot in Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947.

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I place flowers on this marker in her hometown of Medford, MA every January 15.

Between films, Ms. Hockens and I discussed how upset she was about Ms. Short’s portrayal on American Crime Story. As someone who strives to distinguish Beth Short from her “noir” reputation, I sympathized.

Following the second screening, I met two earlier Name That Noir winners (Saturday and Sunday).

The rest of the night was uneventful. I was craving a banana split, so I ordered one at Lori’s. While I sat there, a man in a pink sweater noticed my Phillies cap (noir-attired by evening, plain-clothes Phillies fan by…well, the rest of the time). A fellow Philadelphian (Cherry Hill, NJ), he now lives in Atlanta.

Inevitably, our conversation turned to our underdog Eagles’ chances in the upcoming Super Bowl against the dynastic New England Patriots.

He was clear about who was going to win.

“The Eagles have all the cards.”

When a Philadelphia sports fan expects one of our teams to win a game, you know something special is brewing.

To be continued…

[1] In a Lonely Place and The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

[2] I happened to have my little black Moleskine notebook with me, so I recorded everything.

[3] Meandering north on Grant, I stood out in two ways: I was a good head taller (5’10”) than nearly everybody around me, and I was a white European.

[4] I would later write JUST LIKE SF ITSELF.

[5] “There was still some free booze—including on January 30, when they poured Purple Pachyderm pinot noir from Claypool Cellars—owned and operated by legendary bassist Les Claypool.

Earlier that Tuesday evening, sitting on those sofas scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook, I overheard a conversation between Stookey’s Aaron Cole and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director/Print Production, over how much wine to pour for each patron. Cole was advocating for the alcohol equivalent of a shot of liquor, while Sparks wanted a smaller portion. They eventually settled on a mid-point: roughly one-half of a clear plastic cup.”

NOIR CITY 16: The Streets of San Francisco

This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). In this post, I spend an eventful first Sunday of the festival. You may read the first four posts here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

First, though, I updated my previous post to reflect these corrections: David Hegarty’s signature tune is “San Francisco,” Annabelle Zakaluk is Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, and patrons sometimes witness Muller’s introductions but do not have time to stay for the film itself.

Picking a favorite day of NOIR CITY is like picking a favorite child. Forced to choose a first among equals, however, I choose the first Sunday. By then, I have adjusted to the time change, recovered from jet lag and settled into the rhythm of the festival. That day also provides my first extended chance to explore the city itself, meandering north from the Hotel Rex.

That Sunday (January 28, 2018), I again woke (10:24 am; all times PST) before my alarm rang, from a very sound sleep. Having the afternoon to kill (I elected to see Flesh and Fantasy at 7:30 pm and Destiny at 9:20 pm, rather than at 2:20 pm or at 1:00/4:10 pm, respectively), I donned a short-sleeved blue button-down shirt and jeans, had breakfast at Lori’s Diner (raisin bran with strawberries and bananas, wheat toast, orange juice, black coffee) and headed north up Powell[1].

Just bear with me while I briefly discuss the challenge of packing for 11 nights in San Francisco while facing the limitations imposed by airline travel. There is a tension between having sufficient “noir” dress clothes for the evenings (and Saturday afternoons) and enough casual clothes for seven afternoons. The weather in San Francisco can be unpredictable. In 2017 it was mostly cool and rainy, while in 2018 it was mostly bright and sunny—with the sun much stronger (closer to the Equator) than in New England[2]. In-hotel dry cleaning and a nearby laundromat help—particularly with my capacity to sweat (healthy, but brutal on shirts)—but I still debate with myself which short-sleeved/T-shirts and jeans (two pairs? three?) to pack.

Now back to my climb UP Powell.

San Franciscans must have the strongest legs and lungs in the country. Even though our Brookline neighborhood is a rabbit-warren of alleyway steps and steep hills (our apartment sits atop one), my 51-year-old thighs burned after scaling the first three blocks (Bush, Pine, California).

At California, I crossed and turned left, following a high stone wall one block west to Mason. Two-thirds of the way down, I heard singing. Looking across the street and up, I saw a 20-something woman in shorts sitting in her window, enthusiastically singing into a microphone—a kind of California karaoke. Realizing I was listening, her performance got even more spirited. I stood a moment to enjoy the performance, then turned right on Mason.

The block between California and Sacramento offers a short respite of flat pavement, commanded by the magnificent Fairmont Hotel,

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Our eldest daughter had recently asked about Tony Bennett, so I texted this photograph of the Fairmont grounds to her.

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On the northeast corner of Sacramento (photograph 2015) is the apartment building in which Kim Novak’s character resides in Vertigo.

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After Sacramento, Mason plunges down through Russian Hill to North Beach and the bay.

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Two blocks down Mason, at the intersection with Washington, are two of my favorite places in San Francisco (photographs 2015 and 2018, respectively):

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More on them later.

Proceeding four blocks north to Vallejo—passing this reminder (just shy of Pacific) of life in San Francisco…

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…I turned left and ascended the half-block to the base of Ina Coolbirth Park. Later, reflecting on the verdant climb to Taylor (photograph 2015)…

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…and seeing this helpful reminder (photograph 2015)…

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…I wrote: “THIGHS ON FIRE – HOW PEOPLE DO IT?”

Still, temporary discomfort is a small price to pay for these views (photographs 2015):

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As I caught my breath at the park’s entrance, a young Japanese couple crossed Taylor (from the left above, photograph 2015), unfolding a San Francisco street map. Their stylish black suit and white dress implied they had just attended a wedding. They proceeded to take photographs using Ina Coolbirth as a backdrop—mostly he of her, before breaking out a selfie stick—though the woman seemed vaguely uncomfortable, wearing a blank expression the entire time.

No thumbs on Taylor

Seven blocks to the north, I made the acute right onto Columbus Avenue, the primary North Beach artery. Two blocks earlier, I had crossed Lombard. Had I turned left there and walked two blocks, I would have reached the world’s windiest road (video 2014, voiceover mine). However, the novelty of ascending this stretch of Lombard fades after a few years.

Walking southeast on Columbus, slicing diagonally through the otherwise orderly street grid, I passed a busy Cobb’s Comedy Club (just before the intersection with Lombard). Early on a Sunday afternoon, a line of people moved through a metal detector set up on the sidewalk—proving just how dangerous comedy can be.

North Beach (like the North End in Boston, or large swathes of South Philadelphia) is the “Little Italy” of San Francisco. Amid the tempting trattorias and coffee shops (my calzone at Il Casaro Pizzeria in 2017 was delicious), it is this sign at the intersection with Vallejo that always jumps out at this native Philadelphian (photograph 2014).

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Only past disappointments with cheese steaks made outside of Philly/South Jersey and red meat consumption the previous two nights kept me from entering; Buster’s is one of the best places to eat one in San Francisco.

The block of Columbus between Vallejo and Broadway is where North Beach begins to blend gracefully into Chinatown, as this gorgeous map embedded into the sidewalk on Washington (near Waverly) suggests.

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Approaching the intersection of Broadway and Columbus, the marching band I had been hearing (reminding me of the Salvation Army band in Guys and Dolls) grew louder. Looking down Grant Street (shown, sans marching band, in this 2017 photograph), I suddenly saw them: a small army of musicians in black suits and white shirts slowly parading towards me. I later learned they are called the Green Street Marching Band.

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Arriving at Broadway and Columbus, I spied this mural on the northwest corner…

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…beneath which sat these six gentlemen, performing under the auspices of A Better Chinatown Tomorrow.

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I stood and listened to two songs; I could have listened the entire afternoon[3]. While I was standing there, members of the Green Street Marching Band—now silent—walked between me and the six musicians.

Turn 180° and look southeast, and you see this:

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This many-layered juxtaposition—North Beach meets Chinatown meets gentleman’s clubs, marching band meets traditional Chinese music meets jazz—is just one of the many ways San Francisco seduces me.

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Have you ever taken a drive, or gone for a walk, telling yourself you were just “meandering,” when you knew exactly where you were going? Many nights I have gone for a long drive, often with the Phillies game playing on my iPhone through my Honda’s speakers, knowing my ultimate destination was the Denny’s in Salem, New Hampshire (which Google tells me has closed. Arrgghh!!!).

That Sunday, I knew my ultimate destination was here (photograph texted to our bookworm eldest daughter):

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Their film section, occupying a free-standing four-sided bookcase on the lower level, may one day bankrupt me. On three previous visits (2015-17), I was lucky to escape having bought only two books (plus one for our daughters), including my prized copy of Raymond Bourde and Etienne Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. This 2002 edition was published by…wait for it…City Lights Books (yes, the same City Lights).

This trip, though, nothing caught my eye in the film section. While I idly scanned the theatre books, just by the “film” bookcase, a young round-faced blonde in a white sweater sailed down the wooden stairs, three fashionably-dressed bored-looking young women trailing behind her. They were grumbling about being dragged to a book store during their vacation on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I overheard the enthusiastic one, over by the books on foreign policy, saying that she was already reading too many books about the Israel lobby.

Within a few minutes, they had started to walk back upstairs, the enthusiastic one now trailing, when a book over my head caught her eye. She walked down and over to a bookcase near me.

“Why are you looking at that?” one of her friends moaned.

“It’s called ‘Protest Politics!’ ”came the response.

Her friends had had enough; they disappeared upstairs.

Still perusing the theatre books, I grinned and asked, “Is there some reason you shouldn’t look at it?”

“Not unless you are a political science major. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I used to be one of those…a long time ago.” My voice trailed off as it dawned at me that I had graduated from Yale 30 years ago.

Without missing a beat, she asked, “A political science major…or not making any sense…or both?”

I laughed and answered, “I was a political science major, a long time ago.”

After a brief exchange about critiquing the United Nations (“don’t we all?”), she went upstairs.

That was when I noticed a small paperback called The Art of Mystery.

It seemed to promise guidance on writing my book (tentative title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity), even if the reference to the Freudian concept of the uncanny on its blurb made me chuckle; there is a branch of film noir criticism rooted in psychoanalytic theory that I find difficult to swallow[4]. I bought it (and a book for our eldest daughter), and left.

Followed Broadway to Powell to Pacific to Mason to the Gallery Café, where I stopped for a snack. My “blue jean sweater, military henley” is draped over a chair where I sat to consumed an enormous cherry danish, bottle of water and large café au lait; I sat in the blue chair. The black-topped metal table had “No Smoking” stenciled on it—twice—in yellow spray paint.

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Our eldest daughter answered when I called our landline; she liked the photos I had texted her. If she sounded tired, it was because she had fallen in her rollerblading debut and hurt her wrist (NOT the one she had broken the previous spring).

She also told me our youngest daughter “really wants to FaceTime with you.” While I waited (and waited—I later learned they tried calling me for 30 minutes, though my iPhone never rang) I chatted about John Denver (“Annie’s Song” had been playing on the outdoor speakers) with the couple at the next table.

Returning to the Rex a little after 3:30 pm, I walked the six flights to my room. The small elevator had been commandeered by a family with an excess of luggage. Encountering two of the women on the second floor, I held the elevator door for them, asking if they were moving in. “Yes,” one of them laughed.

I need not have rushed, as my room was still being serviced (“15…or 10…minutes”); I sat on the carpeted steps to wait and make notes in my little black Moleskin notebook.

An hour later I left the Rex, more casually dressed than usual, chatting with Nell and the girls the entire walk down Powell. Bounding down the interior carpeted stairwell encircling the elevator, I bumped into Etsuko Tamazawa, a fellow long-term Kingpin who travels all the way from Japan for NOIR CITY.

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I ate my chicken breast sandwich (whole wheat; everything except mayonnaise) on the Mezzanine before buying a rye Manhattan. In so doing, my notes tell me I had this exchange with a fellow patron (identity unrecorded):

“It’s one of those nights.”

“It’s always one of those nights here.”

For privacy, I elide many Mezzanine conversations, even the ones about “omnibus films” and Boston College professors and Korean film studies and unusual acts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Skipping the Sunday matinee screenings prevented me from reserving my favorite aisle seat (five rows from the lobby door, left hand side). This afternoon, two women occupied that seat and the one next to it[5].

Sitting a few rows behind me were two of the familiar faces of NOIR CITY: Ruby and Dave, a jazz pianist who spent time (grew up in?) Philadelphia.

Wanting something sweet and unwilling to wait in the concessions line, I draped my long gray raincoat across the sixth-row aisle seat. As I walked south on Castro, the newly-opened Castro Ice Cream caught my eye; their bakhlava proved to be overly sweet.

Another disadvantage to skipping the afternoon screenings of Destiny and Flesh and Fantasy is that I ended up seeing them in the “wrong” order.

As originally conceived by director Julien Duvivier (whose Pépé le Moko—remade the following year in English as Algiers—I enjoyed at NOIR CITY 12), Flesh and Fantasy was a single omnibus film with four loosely-connected stories.

However, Hollywood inexplicably excised the first story, making it a stand-alone film called Destiny. Appointed director Raymond LeBorg devised a clunky bank robbery plot to open the film; it is clear where LeBorg’s direction ends and Duvivier’s more imaginative direction begins. Meanwhile, a gratuitous framing device involving Robert Benchley and David Hoffman was grafted onto what remained of Flesh and Fantasy.

I love Benchley’s alcohol-soaked charm and wit (especially in the underrated Foreign Correspondent) but here it does not work.

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, speculated when introducing Flesh and Fantasy about reuniting the two films, relying (if memory serves) upon Duvivier’s surviving notes to link the stories.

**********

The Duffy’s kindly offered me a ride back to the Rex after the final screening.

I shared the back seat with these “art car” monsters:

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One block north and one block west from the Rex (corner of Bush and Taylor) we drove past this:

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Stookey’s representatives sold beer, wine and specialty cocktails on the Mezzanine throughout NOIR CITY 16.

We decided to stop in for a nightcap.

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I ordered a rye Manhattan (my third in three days), Ken an “Old Pal” and Emily a non-alcoholic drink specially prepared (“pineapple juice” is all I managed to record) by Mitchell (whose evocative round-framed glasses, I discovered, were ordered here.

Much of the ambience here comes from the “rare and obscure 78 rpm” records played on this stunning 1930 Victrola, purportedly brought into the country by Holocaust survivors.

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As we sat there, co-owner Aaron Cole called for the attention of the 10 people in the lounge.

He announced that it was the third anniversary of the lounge’s opening, and he was offering each of us a glass of champagne with which to toast the occasion. Ken and I accepted a glass, Emily demurred[6].

As we celebrated, I learned from another customer that this site (895 Bush) had (possibly) once housed a drug store. Dashiell Hammett (then living at 891 Post Street, two blocks south and three blocks west; photographs 2015) has Sam Spade (in The Maltese Falcon) call Effie Perine from there after viewing Miles Archer’s body.

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Before I walked the two blocks to the Rex for a little fresh air and exercise, Ken and I photographed the gorgeous art deco neon signs adorning the front and sides of the lounge.

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Thirty or so minutes later, I was sitting on a stool at Lori’s, enjoying a sampler plate of mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers (plus the usual beverages).

And I started to pay closer attention to the trickle of non-customers, mostly young and female, who would walk through the glass front doors, past the long counter, past the booths and tables, to the restrooms situated in the back. Five, ten minutes later, they would emerge and walk the same gauntlet out of the diner.

Spurring this observation was a beautiful young African-American woman whose strategically-torn jeans revealed a simultaneously sexy and off-putting pair of black panties.

I will write in later installments about the “networks of the night” centered at Lori’s. For now, however, I focus on the first of many pleasant chats with the primary night waitress, an impossibly upbeat woman, about our respective daughters—who seem to share the same natural empathy. “Girls with hearts” was the term she used.

Walking back to the Rex, I saw a small red San Francisco Fire Department truck (it looked like a paddy wagon) double park in front of the all-night 7-Eleven across Sutter. A man and a woman, dressed in SFFD uniforms, got out and entered the convenience store. Curiosity soon got the better of me, and I crossed Sutter to investigate.

They were only getting coffee and snacks, but I saw their heavily-tattooed arms up close.

Returning to the Rex, I could not open my room door with my magnetized key. Back in the lobby, a sleepy-looking young woman with stunning black curly hair, a long blue scarf wrapped around her, emerged from a small room just to the right of the front desk.

“I’m awake” she half-assured me.

She and I would have terrific conversations later in the week, but for now, I was beat.

My room key worked this time.

To be continued…

[1] OK, first I dashed into the Walgreen’s across Sutter from Lori’s to buy a green mini pencil sharpener for my Palomino Blackwing pencil.

[2] Bill Arney, the voice of NOIR CITY, went so far as to apologize for the sunny weather. The sun may set at dawn, but is otherwise stella non grata in film noir.

[3] A woman who started rocking out to the somber (albeit highly rhythmic) music broke the mood.

[4] Don’t get me wrong—having read and enjoyed a great deal of Freud (two courses focusing on Herr Doctor: one at Yale, one at Harvard), I think his role in the advancement of mental health treatment (from dungeon to doctor’s office) cannot be overstated. Nonetheless, I am not a fan of the application of psychoanalytic theory—much of it discredited—to the analysis of film noir.

[5] Emily Duffy later asked me, half-kidding, how I had survived folks sitting in “your seat.”

[6] I took a photograph of the toast, but I respect the privacy of those pictured.

NOIR CITY 16: Let the films begin!

This is the fourth in a series of posts chronicling my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). In this post, the festival finally begins. You may read the first three posts here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

My friend—a talented 30-something investigative journalist I will call “PH”—parked her motorcycle just down the street from the Castro Theatre around 5:50 pm (all times PST) on the evening of Friday, January 26, 2018. Despite not being a hardcore film noir fan (though her dark pin-striped suit was sartorially appropriate), this was the second consecutive year she has generously joined me for the Opening Night reception and first film.

Having already secured two seats (left aisle, five rows from the lobby doors) with my long gray raincoat and souvenir program, we walked up one of the wide carpeted stairwells to the rapidly-filling Mezzanine. They were pouring free bourbon (probably Four Roses, the unofficial “brand” of NOIR CITY). We snagged two plastic glasses and settled onto one of the two plush-covered sofas situated cater-corner in the space formed by the turning of the stairwell we had just climbed.

While we caught up, Haggai Elitzur, host and producer of the podcast NOIR TALK (about the Film Noir Foundation [FNF]), sat down to ask if I would appear on NOIR TALK to discuss my role in NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA), probably in mid-June.

Absolutely, I agreed, handing him one of my business cards (curse you, VISTAPRINT commercials). We then briefly discussed, inter alia, how little-known the term “film noir” was in the early 1980s[1] before he got up to mingle elsewhere.

Soon after, Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” himself, came by to welcome me back to the festival. He also wanted to hear my thoughts on programming the 10 films to be screened at NOIR CITY Boston. We brainstormed some quick ideas before I agreed to e-mail him my suggestions.

A second bourbon (now cut with ice) and a few plates of hors d’oeuvres and desert later, we headed down to our seats.

This close to show time, the concession line was already snaking up the stairwell, so I dashed next door to Castro Coffee Company. Returning with two cups of “medium roast #3,” I handed the one with cream (plus some sugar packets) to PH; I drink coffee black. PH took a few sips and declared it “delicious.”

“In fact—and I mean this in the best possible way—it tastes just like diner coffee.”

Given my penchant for diners, I appreciated the comment.

And with that, we settled into our seats to await the preliminaries to a film screening at the Castro, leading me to the universal question: Where do I put my stuff?

After 84 screenings at the Castro (83 unique films—I saw Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes in both 2014 and 2017) in the preceding four years, I generally plop my fedora on top of my souvenir program and other books, with my Reese’s Pieces or KitKats or whatever propped up against it, in the aisle right next to my seat. My stuff could get trampled as folks exit the auditorium, but that is a lower probability event than spillage damage; putting anything under the seat is simply begging someone to spill their soda down the slightly-slanted floor.

Trust me.

During NOIR CITY 16, the Castro doors opened about 90 minutes before the scheduled start time of the first film in each A/B pair; note the theme on the poster below. Incidentally, BOTH women standing outside the Castro ticket booth are Ms. NOIR CITY 2018: the statuesque, yet down-to-earth, Annabelle Zakaluk. An ongoing motif of the festival was Ms. Zakaluk’s chameleon-like ability to navigate both “classy” and “trashy.”

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Anyone entering the auditorium for the first hour and 15 minutes after the doors open, would see this playing on the screen;

Then, 20 or so minutes before the scheduled start of the next film, the vintage (albeit assembled in 1979) all-Wurlitzer pipe organ emerges from beneath center stage (photograph 2014; it is now brown).

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And for the next 20 minutes, David Hegarty works his magic (video 2014).

Before you know it, Hegarty segues seamlessly into his “San Francisco,” signaling the imminent start of the program.

Hegarty finishes to enthusiastic applause and departs.

The organ descends below stage level.

The house lights go down.

The raucous capacity crowd hushes in anticipation.

The curtains open, and…

…on that particular Friday night…

…they started to show the wrong Opening Night montage.

Twice.

“Is this an omen?” I thought, even though my epidemiology training disinclines me to accept them.

What began both times was the breathtaking 2014 montage, highlighting that year’s international theme.

After the second attempt, the ever-resourceful Muller came out on stage to declare that he knew just what the problem was.

“That montage is from 2014…and we all want it to be 2014.”

This drew appreciative applause from the progressive crowd of (mostly) San Franciscans.

The third time was the charm, and this aired.

I was less impressed than usual with Serena Bramble’s montage (despite laughing when Henry Travers tells Hume Cronyn, “I just want to murder you” [Shadow of a Doubt]), though it has improved considerably with repeat viewings.

Then, at long last, Muller metaphorically gavelled NOIR CITY 16 to order.

To do so, he brought on stage a special guest: Victoria Mature, the opera-singer daughter of the late Victor Mature, star of the evening’s first film, I Wake Up Screaming (aka Hot Spot).

It was difficult to tell from our darkened vantage point, but Ms. Mature appeared awfully young to be the daughter of a man born in 1913.

Reading my thoughts, she explained that her father had sired her when he was 64 years old (making her about 40 now)—leading the 59-year-old Muller to quip that there “is hope for all of us.”

(Or so PH told me later; I had missed the exchange.)

By way of introducing the film (other than warming my heart by recalling that its director, H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone had previously directed four Charlie Chan films), she observed that the Alfred-Newman-penned theme “Street Scene” (from the eponymous 1931 film) plays some of her father’s films noir besides Screaming (Cry of the City and Kiss of Death come to mind).

Ms. Mature then dazzled all of us by singing the lyrics to ‘Street Scene” (who knew it had lyrics?) before exiting stage right.

Ms. Zakaluk was introduced, banter ensued, they exited stage right, the house lights went down, the curtains parted and…

…wait for it…

The opening credits of I Wake Up Screaming flickered on the big screen.

**********

PH enjoyed Screaming despite her occasional whispered exclamations that this or that plot point was “ridiculous.”

Just bear with me while I briefly digress.

To be honest, I revel in the artificiality—a string of highly-improbable events and bad decisions dressed up as fatalism, filmed on obvious studio sets or in front of often-laughable rear screen projections[2]–of many films noir. How many characters have walked that identical “city street” with its row of enormous brownstones accessed by wide stone staircases set in a truncated geography in which everything is just around the corner, and every corner has an all-night drugstore with conveniently-walled-off phone booth (its phone book depleted by years of ripped-out pages)?

My personal favorite of these non-place places is the intersection in the oneiric Deadline at Dawn—complete with random orangeade stand—which serves as the unofficial headquarters for the characters played by Susan Hayward and Bill Williams[3].

Deadline at Dawn intersection

Of course, this is with all due respect to the powerful on-location shooting in films noir like The Naked City and The Phenix City Story.

Enough commentary; back to Friday evening.

Between NOIR CITY screenings is a break of maybe 10 or 15 minutes until Muller and Ms. NOIR CITY take the stage to introduce the next film. I have described the rest room and concession lines that instantaneously form (often guided by one of my favorite NOIR CITY volunteers, the always-friendly Eddie Sudol). Patrons also gather just outside the theatre for some fresh air (with fewer and fewer wandering a little further along Castro Street to vape or smoke a cigarette); PH and I joined the former to say good night.

While I enthusiastically participated in the NOIR CITY raffle back in 2014 ($20 for 20 tickets, still residing in a folder just to my left), I have since refrained. Raffle winners are announced during the introduction of the second film.

This year, however, Muller devised a new trivia game: Name That Noir. A contestant, selected from a sign-up sheet on the Mezzanine, would be brought on stage. Following some introductory banter, (s)he would be given up to three clues to a specific film noir. I briefly considered signing up before deciding I would be rejected as a “ringer.”

Hold that thought.

That first night, however, I took the opportunity of the game’s debut to dash down to the men’s room, missing San Francisco native Isabella Sanders Miller guessing Laura on the first clue.

Hold THAT thought.

The key point from Muller’s introduction of Among the Living, the second of two films from 1941 (widely considered the first year of the classic film noir period[4]), was that its hybrid of horror and “noir” showed that Hollywood was still figuring out this new breed of film. It was also one of 14 films (58.3%, down from a four-year average of 72.2%) I had not yet seen; while parts of it were plain goofy, it was definitely entertaining.

As I mingled with the crowd after Living, I took this photograph of the stylish Emily Duffy.

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I also ran into no fewer than three recent Ms. NOIR CITY’s (Evie Lovelle [2014, 2015] did not make the trip from Los Angeles this year, unfortunately): Audra Wolfmann (2013, 2015—boot protecting a broken foot), Aja De Coudreaux (2016) and Greer Sinclair (2017).

By 11:15 pm or so, I walked down into the Castro MUNI station to ride the four stops back to Powell Station, allowing me to decompress. On Thursday night, NOIR CITY photographer took this brooding (and only slightly staged) photograph of me.

Dennis Hearne photo Jan 2018

I use the short ride to read the souvenir program descriptions (written by Muller) of each film I have just seen. On occasion—as happened Monday night (more on that later)—I chat about the festival with fellow patrons.

Mostly, however, I pace the platform and keep to myself. The last time I took the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, I scored precisely in the midpoint between introversion and extraversion. As much as I enjoy socializing at the Castro, I need my introspective time afterward.

The most introspective part of the evening comes on the walk from the Powell MUNI station to the Hotel Rex.

Rather than turn right out of the station, which would take me up the escalator to the base of Powell Street, I prefer to turn left. This puts me on a short set of stone steps leading to a longer set of stone steps (passing a cavernous tunnel occasionally smelling of urine), taking me past a small cross-section of the nocturnal denizens (homeless or otherwise) of San Francisco.

At the top of the steps I continue straight up Cyril Magnin Street (all of three blocks long, only two now ahead of me), dressed as you see me above (though with my reading glasses in my pocket; writing a dissertation in my late 40s did not cause THAT much ocular damage). Tired as I am, the walk always invigorates me; I love hearing the sound of my hard-soled shoes clattering on the pavement.

The only interesting decision now is whether to go one block to Ellis or the full two blocks to O’Farrell before turning left to walk one block to Mason, where I turn right to walk the final three or four blocks to the Rex.

I would love to capture the neon sparkle of those six long city blocks. Here is one attempt from 2017 (southwest corner of Mason and Ellis):

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This 2018 photograph shows a defunct diner sign and one of the many youth hostels operating alongside the boutique hotels in this part of the city (which I learned is “TenderNob”—a concatenation of Tenderloin and Nob Hill).

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This 2015 photograph looks west on Post (one block south of Sutter, where the Rex is) at the intersection with Mason.

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I occasionally commit contrived artiness, as in this tableau from Saturday night, January 27 (11:45 pm):

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And this was the overflowing ear-assaulting Ruby Skye, along Mason between Geary and Post, which closed for renovations last spring.

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It used to be the case that I would stop for something to eat (my hesitance to eat right before sleeping vanishes during NOIR CITY) before retiring for the night. Along my walk, I would pass Café Mason (which I am told has an excellent eggs benedict), Pinecrest Diner (introduced in a previous installment), Pizza By the Slice (ditto) and a now-closed branch of Lori’s Diner (on Mason, just across from the Pinecrest).

Now, however, my preference is to shower and change into jeans and a T-shirt (unseasonably warm this trip) before making the short walk east on Sutter to Lori’s Diner (corner of Powell). There, over an orange juice and fresh decaf (black), I eat, schmooze and make notes in my little black Moleskin notebook.

That first Friday night, I ate cheese quesadillas with salsa, guacamole and sour cream.

And then to bed, though not before writing my “good morning four ladies I love and miss” text (wife, two daughters, three-year-old golden retriever).

**********

Saturdays are always the longest days at NOIR CITY, as they screen two movies in the afternoon and two in the evening. The schedule on January 29, 2016 was:

1 pm (and 5 pm):      This Gun For Hire

3 pm:                          Quiet Please: Murder

7:30 pm:                     Shadow of a Doubt

9:40 pm:                     Address Unknown

But let us start in the morning.

A combination of jet lag, fatigue, straight bourbon and late-night eating had resulted in a restless night’s sleep. I awoke before my alarm, and proceeded to get dressed.

A friend from Yale we will call “ES”—an ambient music authority—was joining me for supper and the latter two films, so I chose my Yale bow tie (plus my navy wedding suit jacket, white shirt and olive-green slacks.

The accursed bow tie took me 50 minutes (according to my notes) to tie, so to save time (and my sanity) I headed straight to the Castro[5].

Once I draped my coat across my regular Castro seats, I walked around the corner to Orphan Andy’s.

The little diner was packed, so I ended up buying a banana and a better-than-expected almond muffin (plus bottle of orange juice and cup of medium roast #3) at Castro Coffee Company.

Just outside the tiny coffee shop are three round black-painted metal tables with hard plastic chairs. I sat down at one and was soon joined by two men. In the course of some polite conversation, I learned that one of them had a son living in Boulder, CO whose high tech job led him to spend a great deal of time in Boston.

To a number of fellow patrons I am simply “Boston,” as good a handle as any.

And then I settled down to enjoy This Gun For Hire, the film that launched the popular on-screen (and diminutive[6]) duo of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

Ms. Lake, born Constance Frances Marie Ockleman, was only 19 years old when she made Gun. But it is the fourth-billed Ladd’s achingly-human portrayal of hired killer Philip Raven that you remember; I admit to shedding a tear or two at Gun’s end.

Quiet Please: Murder was a wicked fun oddity (roguish George Sanders as a forger of rare books?). Regrettably, Ken and Emily Duffy—great fans of Sanders (especially All About Eve)—missed this rare film after being stuck for two hours in Bay Bridge traffic.

Staying in a “Tendernob” hotel for NOIR CITY has its advantages.

The theme of the afternoon was our two daughters. Imogen Smith, a regular contributor to the FNF quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY, thanked me for her holiday card depicting our magnificent daughters. I praised a gentleman from Baltimore seated two rows behind me for running a library story hour—a mainstay for our daughters not so many years ago. And there is always the question of finding the right moment to have my “good night” call with them, given the three hour time difference.

At 5:50 pm (having successfully held the good night call), I was again seated in front of Castro Coffee, enjoying the incongruity of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” playing on their outdoor speakers, when up walked ES.

We walked south on Castro Street to Gyro Xpress. Upon entering, ES asked “May I treat you to supper?” in exchange for the use of my extra Passport. (I accepted.)

A delectable tabbouleh platter (ES) and lamb gyro later, we returned to the Castro. With 45 minutes until show time, we bought a beer (ES) and a rye Manhattan on the Mezzanine, and he met some other regulars.

After Shadow of a Doubt (complete with popcorn and KitKats) and a quick trip outside for fresh air, we watched Name That Noir. While “Marty” guessed Notorious on the first clue, the most exciting part was that he, like Ms. Zakaluk, hailed from the Bronx. Their rapid-fire reminiscences yielded a rare moment Muller was “third wheel” on stage.

Later, ES would tell me how much he loved the size and “look” of the crowd, as well as Muller’s introductions. His one concern was that, following Muller’s overtly political introduction to the anti-Nazi film Address Unknown, a number of patrons had left the theatre, presumably in protest.

I had not noticed them leave, so I cannot say for certain.

[Muller offers his thoughts below in the Comments to the post; I appreciate his candor. I tend to agree that folks did NOT walk out in protest, if they even left at all. The film itself remains a chilling lesson about the gradual acceptance of fascism.]

As we parted, ES explained that he had forsaken watching an HBO show directed by a favorite director, Steven Soderbergh, to join me—to which his wife had responded, “You must really like this guy.”

The feeling is mutual, sir.

**********

That night, I chose to walk the full two blocks of Cyril Magnin. I had vaguely noticed the well-dressed young people around me, but as I approached O’Farrell, an attractive dark-haired young Asian woman turned around, looked at me and said, “Oh, hello, how are you?”

“Sleepy,” I responded after a brief pause.

“Why? The night is still young!” she proclaimed.

I said nothing and started to cross Cyril Magnin.

Walking halfway across the street behind me, she persisted. “If you talk to me, I respond.”

A younger (unmarried) me might have played along, if only out of curiosity. But I was not kidding when I said I was sleepy: NOIR CITY is an endurance test, with Saturdays the most taxing.

So, I turned (now halfway across O’Farrell), smiled and said, “Have a good night.”

A few minutes later I photographed the trash strewn across the sidewalk on Mason. And in the notes for this walk, I wrote (I print in capital letters; my handwriting would make you weep in despair):

HOMELESS – BLANKETS IN THE DOORWAYS

REEKING OF FILTH etc.

I have never felt unsafe on those nightly walks up to my hotel, even receiving occasional compliments on my fedora. Still, I do observe the contrasts around me: the towering upscale hotels and glass-windowed restaurants sharing the same sidewalks as citizens encamped in cardboard boxes and/or blankets on too many steps and entryways.

On a lighter note, I give props to the fellow who stands outside Lori’s in the afternoon, asking everyone for change “for a Lamborghini.” He jested early in my trip that I looked like I had one. Are you kidding? I riposted; I drive a 12-year-old Honda Accord. Man, came the response behind me, I would take that right about now.

A few minutes after photographing trash, having climbed that last hill between Post and Sutter, I was back inside the lobby of the Rex.

The night desk clerk was a friendly and familiar face from late-night conversations in 2017.

However, I had reached the stage where “stand and chat” becomes “lean and yawn.” So, after exchanging quick greetings with her, I showered, threw on jeans and a t-shirt, and made my way to Lori’s.

Once there, I realized I had “forgotten” my iPhone, which I had left charging. “ALL FOR BEST,” I wrote, enjoying my nachos (a vehicle for a reasonably healthy combination of salsa, guacamole and vegetarian chili) with orange juice and fresh decaf, black.

My profound final recorded thought that night?

“I need to buy deodorant.”

To be continued…

[1] He was preparing to interview Foster Hirsch about his landmark 1981 book The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, while I had recently unearthed a fall 1984 Yale film society (one of six, no less) broadsheet that featured a two-film “film noir festival, ” (The Big Sleep, Ruthless).

[2] e.g., Vivian Sobchack’s analysis of these factors in Detour (“Detour: Driving in a Back Projection, or Forestalled by Film Noir” in Miklitsch, Robert, editor. 2014. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands: On Classic Film Noir. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 113-29).

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038458/mediaviewer/rm375726080

[4] Though one could easily start, as I do, with the expressionist gem Stranger on the Third Floor, released in the United States on August 16, 1940.

[5] Had I made the same decision on the analogous day one year earlier, I would not have been sitting at the counter when a different college friend—a successful voice actor—walked in. Warm hugs ensued, and we chattered away over his breakfast (I had basically finished). Looking into the diner, at one point, he said, “Wait, that’s Kevin Pollak.” My friend—call him Marvin—had worked with him at one point. Mr. Pollak proved to be a gracious interlocutor, despite being with his family when we walked over to say hello.

[6] I recall my late mother telling me how much of a crush she had on Alan Ladd until realizing that he was only a bit over 5’ 6” tall. Then again, my father was on the short side as well…

NOIR CITY 16: The Castro

This is the third in a series of posts describing my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). This post focuses specifically on the Castro Theatre and its environs. You may read the first two posts here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

It is difficult to describe the exhilaration I feel taking that first walk up the stone stairs from the Castro MUNI station at the start each NOIR CITY festival. Once or twice, I have shaken myself slightly to release the tension—and convince myself I am really back.

Before I cross Castro Street and walk the short distance to the Castro Theatre, I will observe that the entrance to the Castro MUNI station is known as Harvey Milk Plaza, named for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors member (one of the first openly-gay elected officials in the nation) assassinated on November 27, 1978, along with then-mayor George Moscone.

The area is enveloped in giant rainbow flags that add even more color to this vibrant neighborhood. I have yet to capture its neon-lit urban beauty in photographs—though this 2014 shot is not bad.

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I prefer not to photograph men who walk these streets completely naked except for a blue—something-or-other—covering their genitals.

Walking to the Castro, I pass:

Twin Peaks Tavern[1] (as a David Lynch[2] fan, I appreciate the name),

Hot Cookie (yes, those are dark-chocolate-coated cookies shaped liked penises and a woman’s naked torso),

Castro Smoke House,

–a shuttered storefront (I forget what used to be there),

Dapper Dog (a gourmet take-out hot dog joint—popular for rapid before- and between-films meals),

Lisa Hair Design and

Castro Coffee Company (multiple types of fresh coffee, plus baked goods, juices and a wide variety of quick protein sources—a lifesaver).

I will revisit some of these establishments later, but now I am standing in front of the Castro Theatre.

This 2016 photograph conveys what the Castro is like a few hours before the dapper raucous crowds arrive:

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There are two ways to get tickets for NOIR CITY screenings: buy them for individual shows (or double-bills) or purchase an all-festival Passport (permitting attendance at the Opening and Closing Night receptions on the Mezzanine).

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Individual tickets can be purchased from the box office on the afternoon/evening of the screening or online prior to each screening. Ticket holders enter through the doors to the left of the box office (photograph 2016)…

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…sometimes forming long lines to do so.

Passports can be purchased either on the NOIR CITY website or by making a donation of $500 or more to the Film Noir Foundation (FNF). Passports usually arrive in the mail or are collected at NOIR CITY XMAS; I always receive my Passports at the Castro on Opening Night.

Passport holders enter through the doors to the right of the box office, often lining up long before the Castro doors “officially” open (photograph 2014).

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Both entrances have NOIR CITY volunteer gatekeepers. This young woman (an actress at The Speakeasy) did an excellent “newsboy” impression, complete with “Canarsie” accent and exaggerated pushiness, on Thursday evening, February 1.

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I always store my Passports in the right-hand brim of my fedora, as reporters once did. Entering the Castro, I usually just point to my hat; many volunteers know me by sight. But another volunteer revealed that I have a “signature move”: I walk in, point to my hat, then spin around to face the street. Kind of like a Passport pirouette, I guess. I think I am simply confirming the gatekeeper saw my Passports, but who am I to argue with a little flair.

When I approached the Castro that Friday afternoon, the only other person I saw there was Linda Martinez, who is ALWAYS first in line.

The irrepressible soft-spoken 81-year-old was actually brought on stage on Thursday night, ostensibly to play “Name That Noir” (a trivia game created for this year’s festival—more on that later), but really to honor her 16 years of near-perfect (perfect?) attendance. As she told me that Friday afternoon, she always gets Passport #1, which is kept “in the vault.”

Standing there waiting and chatting, as more early-bird regulars (the sartorially-elegant Brian first among them) gathered in the Passport line, was the first of many instances of “hurry up and wait.”

The Castro doors would not actually open for Passport holders until 5:30 pm.

It was also the first “do I eat now, or do I wait until X arrives to join me?” moment. This time, at around 4:15 pm, I decided to grab a “San Francisco” at Dapper Dog: a large juicy all-beef wiener with grilled onions, red and green bell peppers, melted mozzarella cheese and brown mustard.

Yeah, it was wicked good.

No sooner had I started eating it, however, when I received a note on Messenger (the Facebook app). Another Passport holder friend—a local special education teacher and film festival veteran—was just down the street at Slurp Noodle Bar.

I quickly ate my hot dog, studiously avoiding mustard spills, so I could join her. After catching up, we walked back to the Passport holders line, which had gotten considerably longer.

At some point, I was moved into the “do not yet have a Passport” line. I waited patiently for one of the four volunteers (yes, there are a lot of NOIR CITY volunteers: 56 are listed in the souvenir program) sitting at the tables in the space between the entry doors and the main lobby, just inside the theatre itself. Show runner Rory O’Connor (“the best-dressed man at NOIR CITY”) did just that Saturday afternoon (February 3):

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I love NOIR CITY, and I plan to attend as many years as I can. Heck, when our daughters are a little older, I want to bring them and Nell with me.

But confusion often reigns over my Passports.

My name was not on this list and not on that list. What was your name again? No, that is not the correct list. Hmm…I think you need to talk to Phil.

Finally another show-runner, the energetic and amicable Manessah Wagner (graciously photographed with me on the festival’s final night), quietly materialized behind Phil’s left shoulder. Before you could say “chiaroscuro,” I was handed my two Passports with a sincere mea culpa from Ms. Wagner.

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Into the theatre I went.

**********

The first thing you see when you walk into the Castro is the old-fashioned concession stand (photograph 2014—neon effect unintentional). There may be no more seductive aroma then when they start to pop their popcorn. Plus the coffee has unlimited refills.

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Another volunteer job is to corral the many interior lines—like this concession stand line Friday night (February 2).

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I noted in a previous post that the bathroom code at the now-defunct Sliders was vital intelligence. That is because the rest room lines that form just before, during and just after screenings are jaw-dropping. The men’s room is to the right and down a flight of stairs at the very back of the above photograph. At the bottom of the stairs, you turn right into an ante room containing a wooden bench and a giant ice maker; giant framed lobby cards for films like The Blue Angel (at the very bottom of the stairs), A Night in Casablanca (in French, no less), High Noon and, of course, The Maltese Falcon adorn the walls. There are three urinals and two stalls in the men’s room. And still the line—leading to dash quickly during closing credits—will often snake out of the bathroom, through the ante room, up the stairs, across the lobby and into the auditorium itself.

The line for the ladies’ room, located on the opposite side of the lobby, similarly snakes up one of the wide carpeted stairwells to the Mezzanine (shown behind me below—albeit shorter than usual; slightly askew bow tie belonged to my late father-in-law).

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There are four wooden double-door entrances into the auditorium, two to the left of the concession stand and two to the right. I always use the ones just to the left of the concession stand because my preferred seat is five rows down on the left, right on the aisle.

Before settling into that aisle seat for the first film, I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot), a masterpiece directed by Charlie-Chan-veteran H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone and released just 13 days (October 31, 1941) after The Maltese Falcon, we will explore the Mezzanine.

As I tweeted on January 29, it is “where all the cool kids hang.”

On either side of the entrance doors are the wide stairs to the Mezzanine, with a giant gilt-framed mirror hanging on the turning (seen looming out of my fedora in the previous photograph).

The mirrors have their uses (yes, that is a TARDIS iPhone case)…

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Turn left at the top of the stairs (the ones to the left as you enter the Theatre). Just to your left, in the corner formed by the turn of the stairs, are two cushioned sofas, placed cater-corner to each other around a wooden table. On the other side of the table is a hard wooden chair with a yellow-covered plush seat and dark leather back whose bottom hits your tailbone in the most awkward way.

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The only person I have ever seen sit comfortably in that chair is Bill Arney, the “voice” of NOIR CITY, whose disembodied voice announces the start of “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller’s (or Alan Rode’s) introduction of each film.

You are not supposed to bring outside food into the Castro, but I have enjoyed multiple sandwiches and bags of chips from Rossi’s Deli, just opposite the Theatre (photograph 2016), sitting on those sofas. On a trip like this, with so many meals eaten on the fly (or way too late at night), sandwiches are an excellent way to get “vegetables” (if only lettuce, tomato [OK, it’s a fruit], onion, pickles, etc.) into your diet. The owners of this family-owned business (more than 30 years, if memory serves) are happy to chat with you while you wait for your order. On this trip, the glass window visible in the photograph below (2016) was gone; the delicatessen was literally open to the public. The week before the festival, a stray bullet had pierced the window; nobody was hurt.

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The next three photographs are from 2015. I never learned these ladies’ names, but they generously allowed me to take their picture. The car ain’t bad either—I believe it had delivered that year’s joint Ms. NOIR CITY’s (Evie Lovelle and Audra Wolfmann) to the Castro earlier in the evening.

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See the storefront with the circular blue and green sign suspended over it? That is Marcello’s. I have lost track of how slices I have savored—or wolfed down—there, though I will count some in later posts.

Concluding this tour of Castro-based eateries (for now) is Orphan Andy’s, located just down 17th Street from Twin Peaks and the third 24-hour diner I have discussed in this series (I love San Francisco). This neighborhood landmark is my go-to spot when I have time near the Castro to eat a meal leisurely.

In fact, I enjoyed supper there Friday evening (February 2), ordering a bowl of their excellent minestrone soup (a house specialty and loaded with liver-cleansing spinach) and rye toast. Seriously, I was craving rye toast and butter.

My server that night was a slender man with white hair and a gentle face, somewhat older than many of the young men in tight shorts and t-shirts who work there. As he waited for my order, he told me that I looked familiar. Did I live in the neighborhood, he asked. No, I responded, Boston.  He then explained that after living just up the street for 17 years, he was only now meeting his neighbors. He also had just started working at Orphan Andy’s.

While I did not take a picture of the disco ball that hangs near the front door, I did take this one for our purple-loving elder daughter while breakfasting there on the last day of the festival.

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I love these butterflies hanging from the ceiling.

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You often see other NOIR CITY patrons in Orphan Andy’s. Looking around on my stool, I saw the three representatives from NOIR ALLEY, the Sunday morning show hosted by Muller on Turner Classic Movies, sitting in the large window booth. They were actually the second contingent sent from Atlanta to man the NOIR ALLEY display (and raffle) on the Mezzanine.

Oh, right…the Mezzanine.

Before I resume the tour…a little more NOIR ALLEY from Sunday evening, January 28 (with thanks to the playful and talented Emily and Ken Duffy, the ultra-nice couple who “adopted” me on my first-ever night in NOIR CITY).

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This is what the Mezzanine looks like when it is sleeping—say, a little before 5 pm on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.

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In the first photograph, that set of tables adjacent to the NOIR ALLEY display is where FNF merchandise is sold—as I will be doing at NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

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Here, seasoned veterans Elana Meow and Philip Fukuda (and more of those volunteers) sell NOIR CITY t-shirts, mugs and posters; copies of the NOIR CITY Annuals; DVDs of FNF restorations like Woman on the Run; books by FNF authors (the hot item this year was Rode’s new biography of Michael Curtiz); souvenir pins; and a host of other items also available on the NOIR CITY website.

In the corner formed by the turning in the opposite stairwell is where Green Apple Books sets up shop (I apologize for the blurriness). There have been many nights where only the luggage limitations of airline travel prevented me from buying two, three, six books at a time.

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Directly opposite is the raffle table, including the sign-up sheet for Name That Noir.

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The long red-topped table next to the raffle display is where gorgeous, often rare, vintage movie posters and lobby cards are sold. You can see some of it behind the Duffy’s, who “adopted” me on Opening Night 2014 (photograph 2015).

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Finally, there is the booze table (with apologies to my new friends Isabella, Rose and Melissa).

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During my first three sojourns in NOIR CITY, “drinks on the Mezzanine” meant that a local store had donated, say, a case of Four Roses bourbon (or gin or red wine) to be poured—free of charge.

Starting in 2017, however, bartenders from Stookey’s Club Moderne (more on them in a later post) starting selling cocktails—including a tasty concoction called a corpse reviver—at their own Mezzanine station. I admit to enjoying more than one of their irresistible rye Manhattans.

There was still some free booze—including on January 30, when they poured Purple Pachyderm pinot noir from Claypool Cellars—owned and operated by legendary bassist Les Claypool.

Earlier that Tuesday evening, sitting on those sofas scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook, I overheard a conversation between Stookey’s Aaron Cole and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director/Print Production, over how much wine to pour for each patron. Cole was advocating for the alcohol equivalent of a shot of liquor, while Sparks wanted a smaller portion. They eventually settled on a mid-point: roughly one-half of a clear plastic cup.

Before I finally meet my friend in front of the Castro, so we can enjoy the Opening Night reception and I Wake Up Screaming (she could not stay for Among the Living) together, here is one final staircase shot (Closing Night 2014).

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And additional vintage automobiles, from 2015 and 2018, respectively.

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To be continued…

[1] I have heard Twin Peaks called “the glass coffin” because of its floor-to-ceiling transparent glass windows on two sides and the average age of the clientele. As my friend put it to me, they are the ones who can most easily afford the drinks there.

[2] A shout-out to Eddie Muller for concluding his NOIR ALLEY introduction of Split Second with a gravel-voice “Gotta light,” an homage to the astonishing Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.

NOIR CITY 16: Getting there is WAY less than half the fun

This is the second in a series of posts based upon my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). This post gets me to the start of the festival. You may read the first post here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

Unlike last year, the cab was on time on that crisp clear dark morning. In fact, it was 10 minutes early—standing in front of our Brookline front door at 4:36 am EST. My wife Nell and younger daughter watched from the upstairs bedroom window as I piled my stuffed-to-the-gills black rolling suitcase, black valet bag, black satchel and Bailey-of-Hollywood hat box (containing my prized snap-brim gray fedora, purchased on South Street in Philadelphia in May 2013).

The “noir” luggage motif is purely a coincidence.

The ride to Logan Airport only took about 15 minutes—and that included my driver not realizing the Virgin America had moved from Terminal B to Terminal C.

“Great,” I thought as we pulled up to the curb. “I have already checked my two bags and printed out my boarding pass. This should be easy.”

Given my penchant for staying awake until the wee hours of the morning, I had not bothered to go to sleep as Wednesday, January 24 became Thursday, January 25. Instead, I entertained myself by reading 2017 editions of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY. So I welcomed the chance to sit quietly at the gate for 90 or so minutes, eating a breakfast culled from various stands and carts (Virgin America is a minor presence at Logan) and generally zoning out before boarding.

That was not to be, however.

Schlepping all of my stuff into the terminal, I checked the Arrivals and Departures board.

On-Time.

I then hunted out the Virgin America check-in counter…and my heart sank.

A mass of people was collected in front of the one open station. This amorphous blob of humanity barely budged for 20 minutes. And while at first I thought they were speaking Russian, I later learned that it was Portuguese.

Finally, I arrived at the Virgin America counter to face a young blonde woman, who was surprisingly calm under the circumstances. She proceeded, however, to make a hash of my simple check-in, believing me to be on some sort of Priority list.

I did not help matters by querying my seat assignment, which I had neglected to make in advance.

Eventually, the second person she asked for help—John, I believe—explained that literally all she had to do was scan my pre-printed boarding pass and tag my luggage.

“Sorry,” she offered. “It’s only my second week on the job.”

Luckily, the security line moved relatively swiftly, and within 15 or so minutes I was at the gate…where the mass of humanity was now gathered. I managed to snag a seat, trusting the good folks around me to keep an eye on my satchel, hat box and long gray raincoat (part of my “noir” attire, purchased at Bobby From Boston three years earlier), while I purchased a small coffee, bottle of water, strawberry Chobani and banana. This was actually my second breakfast, following a bowl of cereal around 4 am.

After I ate, I tried to negotiate my seat with the extremely patient gentleman at the gate desk. I displayed my lack of sleep with atypical aggressive impatience; later I could not apologize to him enough. I was then assigned a seat.

Seat 9B.

A middle seat.

[Expletives deleted].

When the boarding process began, I realized that someone had snagged my bottle of water when I had used the men’s room.

In the grand scheme of things, there are far worse things to lose (we writers call that “foreshadowing”).

I arrived at seat 9B—an exit row seat, meaning that at least it had more leg room—in the midst of a negotiation between the 30-something bearded man in 9C and the stunning raven-haired 20-something woman in 9A. I quietly interjected that I would be happy to take the window seat, but neither of them paid any attention to me.

Once we were seated, and I had taken off my sneakers and removed my book—Guy Bolton’s noirish The Pictures (a 51st birthday gift)—from my satchel (now shoved, along with my battered white New Balances with the re-attached right sole, under seat 8B), I noticed that a steady stream of passengers were visiting the young woman now sitting to my right. She seemed to be translating directions and signs for them.

Desultory (we were ALL sleepy) chit-chat revealed that she was one of the few English-speaking members of a “Carnaval dance” troupe (I do not recall their name—and Google is being unhelpful) from the Azores, bound for Los Angeles by way of San Francisco. After consulting with an older male member of the troupe, she informed me that 81 men, woman and children affiliated with the troupe were on the plane.

If they had all arrived at Logan at the same time, shortly before I (and the almost-friendly older couple standing in front of me) did, that would account for the immobile mass of humanity at check-in.

The remainder of the flight (2,693 miles/4,335 kilometers according to the flight tracker on the seatback screen) was uneventful, as all flights should be. I read nearly 2/3 of my book, pausing occasionally to stare sleepily at the movies silently playing on my aisle-neighbor’s screen: Boss Baby, Gifted (whose young female protagonist evoked our younger daughter) and the first half of the appalling remake of the joyous 1979 caper film Going In Style. It eventually dawned on me that the familiar-looking father in Gifted was played by Chris Evans (aka Captain America).

Evans vaguely reminds me of British actor Jack Davenport, who played Steve Taylor on the brilliant British sitcom Coupling. Because I am writing about a film noir festival, I must observe that Davenport appeared in the neo-noir film The Talented Mr. Ripley.[1]

And the invaluable Internet Movie Database informs me that Evans’ uncle is Representative Michael Capuano (D-MA). Capuano served as mayor of Somerville, MA from 1990-1999, meaning that he was my mayor for nine of the 11-plus years I lived in that adjacent-to-Boston suburb.

Everything really does connect.

But now it is time to land this plane, collect my bags, grab a cab and make my way north into the city proper (I will not dwell on the burgeoning anticipation of that ride), so that I may check into the Hotel Rex, the “official” hotel of NOIR CITY.

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**********

Well, not so fast.

It was well before the 3:00 PST check-in time when my baggage and I arrived at the Rex (it was actually sunny when I arrived, but the photograph is otherwise accurate), so my room was not yet ready.

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No problem. I stored my noir-tinted baggage in the vacant eating area just off the lobby and walked the half-block east on Sutter Street (to the right in the above photograph) to Lori’s Diner, at the intersection with Powell Street. I will have a lot more to say about my favorite 50s-themed 24-hour diner later in the series.

For now, however: remember that older couple waiting with me in the slow-as-molasses Virgin America check-in line?

After sitting directly in front of me on the flight, then standing near me at the baggage carousel, they were sitting in a small booth near the door when I entered Lori’s and took a seat at the counter.

I am reminded of the moment in Charlie Chan at Treasure Island when the insurance inspector played by Douglass Dumbrille says to Sidney Toler’s Chan: “Strange we should meet again so soon. The odds are about 40 to one against travel mates meeting within 48 hours. I’ve made a study of it.”[2]

That’s me…defying the odds.

While I enjoy my turkey and ham club on whole wheat with French fries and complementary pickle, orange wedge and succulent pepperoncini, I will say a few words about my hotel (which I was calling “home” by Saturday).

The Rex is a literary-themed, seven-floor boutique hotel located just a block-and-a-half northwest of Union Square (photograph 2014)

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The Hotel Rex lobby features The Library Bar. Three guesses where the name originated.

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Incidentally, this kaleidoscopic view greets you when you exit the Rex (it was not there last year):

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As you walk out of the narrow elevator (papered on the inside with pages from the San Francisco Social Register of 1936, or thereabout)—or reach each landing of the carpeted interior steps that snake around the elevator shaft—and look to your left, you will see a literary quote written on the wall in calligraphy. For example, this greets you on the second floor (photograph 2016):

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And this quote, which seemed especially timely upon my return to NOIR CITY in January 2017, graces the fourth floor:

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This eye-catching segment of Man Ray’s 1932 photograph Larmes (Tears) is affixed to every hotel room door, for reasons still unclear (photograph 2016).

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This 2017 photograph gives you the flavor of the rooms I had in 2016 and 2018:

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The rooms are relatively small—utilitarian even—but I am a huge fan of the large wardrobe given the array of dress clothes (this trip: four jackets, five pairs of slacks, five shirts, three neck ties and five bow ties. Bow ties are cool, as the 11th Doctor correctly notes, even if learning how to tie one of these medieval torture devices is one of the hardest things I have ever done.).

I was able to check in a little before 2 pm PST, and was assigned a room on the sixth floor. The room was surprisingly hot and stuffy, so I opened the old-fashioned wood-framed rope-pulley window to let in some cool air. The window would not stay open, however, so I braced it with a spare roll of toilet paper. Luckily there was a large wall-unit air conditioner there to prevent the roll from hurtling into the adjacent alley.

The room soon cooled to a comfortable level, but I kept the window open my entire stay.

I unpacked and took a long hot bath.

The rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blur, though I likely had my “good night” call with Nell and our daughters sometime around 4:30 pm PST. My goal was to stay awake just late enough to put me on a reasonable sleeping schedule.

That was even harder that it sounds. At 5 pm PST, I settled in to bed to watch the MSNBC weeknight lineup (Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell). The television was hung at a very odd angle to my right, over the four-drawer wooden bureau, just across from the hallway door.

I half-dozed through the breaking news about President Trump’s attempt to fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller in June 2017.

At 8 pm PST, needing to shop for room supplies (I drink kefir as a nightcap) and get supper, I dressed and walked down the interior stairs to the lobby. Exiting the lobby door, I walked east to Powell, then walked south on Powell.

Post. Geary. O’Farrell.

Between O’Farrell and Ellis Streets is the most extravagant Walgreen’s you have ever seen; I happened upon it on my first trip to NOIR CITY in 2014, and I have been in awe of it ever seen. Forget that it never closes, which is my idea of heaven. The first floor is a mid-sized grocery store complete with prepared-to-go food and a coffee bar, along with an expansive beer, wine and liquor selection. On the second floor is everything you expect to find in a drug store–and then some.

Among my other purchases, I chose pomegranate and strawberry-banana Lifeway kefir.

I then walked back up to Geary before cutting west one block to Mason. There, across from the 24-hour Pinecrest Diner and the Geary Theatre (a key location in The Maltese Falcon—photographs 2014 and 2015, respectively), is Pizza By the Slice, serving epic slices late into the night. I ordered two slices, veggie and pepperoni, and ate them there, eyes drooping. I vaguely recall getting some appreciative glances (my haircut was pretty sweet, if I do say so)—or at least that is how I interpret the “VERY POPULAR” (with an arrow pointing to it and a box around it) I scribbled in my Moleskine notebook.

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By 10:12 pm PST I had finished my nightly ablutions, sent Nell her “good morning four ladies I love and miss” text and turned off my light.

**********

A little over 12 hours later, at 11:05 am PST, I again regained consciousness.

Not for the last time at NOIR CITY 16, I was in “hurry up and wait mode.” The Opening Night reception for Passport holders would not start until 6 PM, but I like to get to the Castro Theatre early, so I can snag my favorite left-hand aisle seat towards the rear of the orchestra level.

After breakfasting at Lori’s (raisin bran with sliced strawberries and bananas, wheat toast, black coffee and orange juice—not fresh-squeezed, I regret to say, given the succulence of California oranges), I took my annual “Dashiell Hammett” walk.

As I wrote here, I first visited these sites in November 2003, while attending the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

Walk out of Lori’s Diner and you are on Sutter Street, looking south on Powell. If you turn left and head north on Powell—or, rather, “up” Powell, as you climb it at a 45° angle—you reach Bush Street. Turn right onto Bush Street and walk ¾ of the block on the south side of Bush Street (just before the bridge over Stockton Street) to reach Burritt Alley.

San Francisco is one of the rare places that memorializes a fictional murder with an official plaque, though the “For Rent” side looming over it is unnerving, considering that The Maltese Falcon is arguably the city’s ur-text.

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In this photograph, taken at the southern end of Dashiell Hammett Street (with an upsetting call to “end” Hammett), you can see the mouth of Burritt Alley in the lower right-hand corner, just in front of the white van.

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Here is Dashiell Hammett Street itself, cloaked in shadows, where the writer lived briefly in 1926, when it was Monroe Street.

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Looking south on Stockton from Bush, this is roughly the spot where the body of Miles Archer would have landed.

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Proceed one block east on Bush Street, to the intersection with Grant Street, and you see this (photograph 2014):

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Dragon’s Gate is, the “official” entrance to San Francisco’s fabled Chinatown (about more in a later post). Just to the left of the gate is the upscale antique and bric-a-brac store Medici Gallery.

I was drawn to it that Friday afternoon by this:

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Our eldest daughter LOVES elephants and just received her first iPhone, so naturally I sent her this photograph, as well as these from inside the store itself (captioned “A tale of three elephants traveling through Chinatown”):

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 She loved them all, but she just confirmed for me that the first was her favorite.

 When I returned to the Rex to shower and dress for Opening Night, my room was being serviced. So, after plugging my iPhone into its charger (it is one of many challenges on the endurance test that is NOIR CITY to keep your phone charged), I grabbed my collection of holiday cards and envelopes, and returned to the lobby. By the time I had written the name of each recipient on each envelope, my room had been cleaned.

 At 3:20 pm PST, dressed in my navy Brooks Brothers jacket (which I wore defending my epidemiology doctorate in December 2014), pink shirt, gray slacks and purple-flecked tie, and wearing the burgundy dress shoes I had worn to my wedding in October 2007, topped by my fedora and gray coat, I bounded down the interior steps to the lobby.

East on Sutter to Powell. South on Powell: Post. Geary. O’Farrell. Ellis. Finally, Market Street, where the Powell-Hyde cable car line ends—and is manually rotated to head north again (video 2014):

Down the narrow stone steps (where I feel I am going to topple over my long dress shoes) into the cavernous entrance to the Powell Street BART station, where I always catch a MUNI subway to Market and Castro Streets.

I walk to the machine to buy the “Clipper” card I will use for the remainder of my trip, but it refuses to accept my Discover Card. Reluctantly, I use $60 of the cash I am shepherding to purchase the card.

Through the turnstiles and down another short flight of steps to the platform.

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The electronic sign displaying subway line waiting times (I need a J, K, or L train) is new this year, but I have been hearing the disembodied female voice for five years now:

“Approaching. Outbound train. One-car. L. L. In three minutes.”

One of the reasons I like to head to the Castro Theatre so early on weekdays is to avoid the press of commuters around rush hour. Some days it cannot be helped, however, and I squeeze like a sardine into a train.

Luckily it is only four stops, announced the same disembodied female voice—Civic Center, Van Ness, Church, Castro.

I shot this video in February 2017; I apologize its unsteadiness of the film and the 64 seconds I stand patiently on Castro Street, waiting for the Walk sign.

For the record, the burger joint SLIDERS (whose bathroom entry code was a vital piece of intelligence) is now a Turkish sweet shop called Castro Ice Cream & Desert.

And, at long last, this is what I saw when I walked out of the Castro MUNI station just before 4 pm PST on the afternoon of Friday, January 26, 2018, to be greeted by a handful of Girl Scouts incongruously hawking cookies:

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To be continued…

[1] LISTS and POINTS scores of 5 place it among the top 9% on both metrics among the 2,171 films in my film noir database released after 1966.

[2] My wife responded to this quote just now with “Yes, but wouldn’t it depend on how many people you traveled with?” Fair enough.

NOIR CITY 16: The Noir Strikes Back!

As I noted with great fanfare here, I attended the NOIR CITY 16 film festival, held January 26-February 4 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, CA.

I will have more to say about my raucous trip to the festival over the next two weeks or so, based upon my recollections (talk about interrogating memory!), the 102 pages of notes I scrawled (one woman called it “chicken scratch”) in my little black Moleskin notebook, and 254 photographs.

Today, however, I want to update and expand upon a post I wrote last year in which I attempted to explain why NOIR CITY 15 felt markedly more subdued than the three previous festivals.

In that post, after considering feasible alternate explanations (bad weather, the inauguration of President Donald Trump, etc.), I wrote, “But the likeliest explanation may be the simplest: NOIR CITY 15 was simply less ‘noir’ than in the past.”

I defended that conclusion in two ways. First, I discussed how each festival’s theme (international, marriage, art and artists, heists) contributed to its programming. Second, and most important, I analyzed of the relative “noir-ness” of NOIR CITY 15 using two metrics I describe below.

Since March 2015, building upon research I conducted for my 48th birthday the previous September (scouring 12 close-to-hand published film noir lists so that I could rank my 24 favorite films noir), I have been compiling a comprehensive Excel database of film noir titles. To date, I have gathered 45 publicly-available lists, both explicit (dictionaries, encyclopedias, “filmographies” in books about film noir) and implicit (films discussed as noir, however obliquely, in such overviews as Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Eddie Muller’s Dark City and The Art of Noir, and James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts).

For all 4,825 titles in the database, I have also entered all alternate titles, release details (year, format, BW/color, primary studio), director(s), cinematographer(s) and country(ies) of production. I am slowly adding the top listed (up to 10) actors and actresses (separating the genders) in each film, according to that film’s entry in the Internet Movie Database.

Given that there is no universally-accepted set of criteria for what makes a film “noir,” I am agnostic as to when or where or in what color scheme a listed film was released. If it appears on a designated list of film noir titles (even if described as “proto-noir” or “neo-noir” or “noirish” or “noir-inflected”), it will be entered into the database.

Film release years range from 1912 (D. W. Griffith’s short The Musketeers of Pig Alley) to 2015 (the astonishing single-take Victoria [Einz Zwei Funf Acht), with 40.6% released between 1940 and 1959, widely considered the “classic noir” era. These films hail from a total of 66 nations, with 57.2% of them produced at least in part in the United States. Finally, 52.6% of these films are entirely black-and-white, with an additional 1.8% partially black-and-white. Thus, only about one quarter (25.7%) of the films in the database could be considered “classic” noir: American (in part) black-and-white (generally) films released between 1940 and 1959.

What I also have for each film are two “noir-consensus” scores—these are the metrics to which I alluded earlier:

  • LISTS: number of times a film was included on one of 32 “official” lists (124-3,253[1] titles). Currently, LISTS ranges from 1-32[2]. All lists are weighted equally.
  • POINTS: LISTS plus…
    • 1 point for appearing on one of 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles). An example is the77 films cited by Paul Schrader in his seminal 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir.”[3] Because each of the three ground-breaking mid-1940s articles by Lloyd Shearer[4], Nino Frank[5] and Jean-Pierre Chartier[6] cite only a handful of titles (14 in total), I assigned 1 point to a film discussed in only one and 2 points discussed in more than one.
    • Up to 2 points for appearing on a sub-list (up to 100 titles) in one of the 32 “official” lists. For example, Ballenger and Graydon’s 2007 The Rough Guide to Film Noir includes both a Canon of 50 essential films (pp. 57-176) AND their listing of the 10 best film noirs (pg. 56). Currently, POINTS ranges from 1 to 66.5, with Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity ranked highest with 62 points.

You can see a more detailed explanation of how POINTS were assigned here:

Annotated Database Bibliography

In utilizing this methodolody, I am following the example of (inter alia) websites like FiveThirtyEight.com who aggregate data from individual polls (each with their own statistical and validity biases) to paint a more precise picture of the state of a political contest. This is also a similar analysis—but on a much larger scale—to the one Vincent Brook performs in his 2009 Driven To Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir; he counts as a film noir any film that appears in one of four oft-cited reference works[7] (pp. 9-10, 213-14, 218fn43). Another example using 10 sources can be found here.

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. That would require a consensus definition that does not yet exist.

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, however indirectly. At the same time, because a higher POINTS score results from inclusion on more-exclusive lists (often specifically intended to highlight exemplary films noir), films with a higher POINTS score can broadly be considered more “noir.”

Only four films appear on all 32 lists: the aforementioned Double Indemnity plus Kiss Me DeadlyThe Maltese Falcon, and The Postman Always Rings Twice[8], with 588 films (12.2%) appearing on as many as 10 LISTS (see Table 1); just under half (49.7%) appear on one list only. The average LISTS score is 4.0, with a median of 2. Only 34 films earned 40 or more POINTS, with 10 earning 50 or more: The Lady From Shanghai (50), The Big Sleep (50.5), Touch of Evil (51), Laura (51), The Postman Always Rings Twice (51), Murder, My Sweet (52), Kiss Me Deadly (53.5), The Maltese Falcon (57), Out of the Past (58) and Double Indemnity (62). A total of 630 films (13.1%) earned as many as 9.5 POINTS; just under half (48.2%) earned only one POINT. The average POINTS score is 4.5, with a median of 2.

These data confirm a basic cinematic truth: thousands of films show evidence of noir if you squint hard enough, though the vast majority of them (four in five) will be given that label only by a few idiosyncratic enthusiasts; a smaller number (in the high single-digits hundreds, say) are subject to legitimate debate and only a few hundred are universally (i.e., by at least one in three scholars) considered film noir.

**********

This brings me back to the two questions I posed last year:

  1. Just how “noir” has NOIR CITY been since its inception in 2003?
  2. Has NOIR CITY become less “noir” over time?

 At that time, what I had at my disposal were the souvenir programs for NOIR CITY 8 and 11-15 plus the list of all films ever screened at NOIR CITY. Since then, thanks to the indefatigable Daryl Sparks, Film Noir Foundation (FNF) Promotional Director/Associate Producer, I have acquired copies of the programs for all 16 NOIR CITY festivals (including the one I just collected in San Francisco).

Table 1: Distribution of LISTS and POINTS for all titles and for titles screened at one or more NOIR CITY festivals, 2003-18

  All Titles (n=4,825) Noir City Screenings (n=330)
  LISTS POINTS LISTS POINTS
Average (SD*) 4.0 (5.7) 4.5 (7.2) 16.3 (9.2) 18.0 (13.5)
Median† 2 2 18 19
Value
1 49.7% 48.2% 6.1% 6.1%
2-4 28.5% 29.1% 10.0% 9.7%
5-9 9.6% 9.6% 10.6% 9.1%
10-19 8.0% 7.8% 32.4% 26.7%
20+ 4.1% 5.2% 40.9% 48.4%

* 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

These data enabled me to update my list (one of the 32 “official” lists) of all films ever screened at NOIR CITY. A total of 330 films have been shown at least once (including 11 debut screenings at NOIR CITY 16), with 54 having been screened twice, three films thrice (Crack-Up, Thieves’ Highway, Woman on the Run) and one film screened four times, including at NOIR CITY 16 (Night Editor).

Overall, as Table 1 shows, NOIR CITY has screened films far more widely considered noir than the typical film in the database. The average NOIR CITY film has appeared on 16.3 LISTS and earned 18.0 POINTS; median LISTS and POINTS are 18 and 19, respectively. That is, half of the films screened at NOIR CITY fall within the top 5-6% of LISTS or POINTS. Fully three-fourths of the NOIR CITY films appear on 10 or more LISTS and/or have 9.5 or more POINTS. Only 21 films appear in the database solely due to their screening at NOIR CITY (seven screened at NOIR CITY 15 alone[9]), many of them “pre-code” proto-noirs (e.g., The Kiss Before the MirrorLaughter in Hell; both 1933), “lost” foreign films (e.g., El Vampiro Negro [The Black Vampire], Los Tallos Amargos [The Bitter Stems]) or too recent for proper noir consideration (Victoria).

Meanwhile, as I first demonstrated in my NOIR CITY 15 post, the “noirness” of NOIR CITY has clearly declined over time (as measured by average/median LISTS and POINTS). Indeed, I had heard rumors that regular attendees had complained vociferously about the relative absence of “classical” noir in NOIR CITY 15.

However, one would expect that trend to sharply reverse in NOIR CITY 16, given its theme: “Film Noir A to B—1941 to 1953 / A Dozen Double Bills! / Classy As and Trashy Bs!”. The idea was to pair a longer A-list film from each of 12 years (1952 excluded) with a shorter (sometimes more interesting) B-list film from the same year. For example, on Tuesday January 30, the two films shown were The Blue Dahlia and Night Editor, both released in 1946. The former starred the highly popular heartthrobs Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (along with noir stalwarts William Bendix and Howard Da Silva), was released by Paramount Pictures, and clocked in at 96 minutes[10]. Night Editor, by contrast, may have been released by Columbia Pictures, but featured no major stars (beyond the ultra-perky Jeff Donnell) and was only 68 minutes long.

As a result, ALL 24 FILMS screened at NOIR CITY 16 were classic-era black-and-white films produced in the United States. And more than half of them (13) earned at least 20 POINTS: The Underworld Story (21), The Accused (21.5), The Man Who Cheated Himself (the gorgeous 2017 FNF restoration; 23), Night Editor (23.5), I Walk Alone (25), Conflict (26), Roadblock (26), The Unsuspected (28), I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot; 30.5), Shadow of a Doubt (33), The Blue Dahlia (39), This Gun For Hire (41) and The Big Heat (45.5).

Only one film—the anti-Nazi curiosity Address Unknown–had fewer than four POINTS (2 POINTS), with only the quirky (but highly entertaining) Quiet Please: Murder (5 POINTS) and the omnibus Julien Duvivier film Flesh and Fantasy (5.5 POINTS) earning fewer than 10 POINTS. Overall, the average LISTS and POINTS scores of the 24 films screened at NOIR CITY 16 was 18.1 and 21.8, respectively (with medians of 19.5 and 21.3, respectively).

As Figures 1 and 2 reveal, regardless of whether you examine average or median scores, NOIR CITY 16 had the most “noir” cast to its films of any festival since NOIR CITY 9.

Figure 1:

Average LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-16

Figure 2:

Median LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-16

These values, however, still represent a drop from the first five years of the festival, when FNF Founder and President Eddie Muller was working to establish its noir bona fides. The very first NOIR CITY, held January 17-26, 2003, featured 20 San-Francisco-based films from the 1940s and 1950s, though it closed with the heart-stopping 1962 Blake Edwards film Experiment in Terror. As measured by LISTS and POINTS scores, the peak “noirness” year for NOIR CITY was 2005 (NOIR CITY 3), averaging 26.5 and 36.1, respectively. Fully eight (of 28) films screened earned more than 40 POINTS: Pickup on South Street (40.5), The Naked City (42.5), Force of Evil (43.5), Sunset Boulevard (45), In a Lonely Place (46.5), Criss Cross (48.5), Murder, My Sweet (52) and Kiss Me Deadly (53.5).

The “noirness” of NOIR CITY leveled off at a slightly lower (albeit still quite high) level in festivals 6 through 9, before Muller, not surprisingly, began to branch out in NOIR CITY 10. Eight of the 26 films screened that year earned fewer than five POINTS, including three proto-noirs with only one POINT: Afraid to Talk, Mister Dynamite and Okay America!.

The “noirness” continued to decline steadily through NOIR CITY 15, excepting a sharp spike upward in 2015 (NOIR CITY 13), driven primarily by two Robert Ryan films: Clash By Night (31 POINTS) and The Set-Up (42).

I do not know if Muller specifically heeded the backlash from NOIR CITY 15 when he decided to screen A-film/B-film pairs from 1941 to 1953 at NOIR CITY 16, or whether that was merely the next interesting way to organize a festival, allowing him to show a number of less well-known films from the classic noir era.

As I am learning myself in helping to prepare for NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA), it is a serious challenge to program a film festival every year, balancing freshness and commitment to a theme with the desires of both purists and “fair-weather” fans. You may finally settle on a set of titles to screen, only to discover, say, that 35mm prints are currently unavailable, forcing you to scramble to alter the program while still maintaining the festival’s integrity.

Muller will tell anyone who asks that he is not close to running out of classic-era American black-and-white films (my language, not Muller’s) to program. Still, the number of non-English-language films (26 in the past five years), the number of post-1959 films (21 in the last five years), and the number of color films (19 in the past five years) suggests a desire to advance a conception of film noir beyond that American, black-and-white, 1940-59 30%.

Definitions still advance. Consensus still evolves.

Until next time…

[1] John Grant’s epic 2013 A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide. See bibliography for more details.

[2] Five films (The Cheat, Moment in Time, The Mouthpiece, Novocaine, Private Detective 62) appear on one of the shorter lists but not on an “official” list, giving them a LISTS score of 0.

[3] Film Comment 8:1, pp. 8-13

[4] Shearer, Lloyd. 1945. “Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen,” New York Times Magazine, August 5, 1945. Reprinted in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions, pp 8-13

[5] Frank, Nino. 1946. “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: l’Aventure Criminelle.” L’Ecran Francais, August 1946. English translation “A New Kind of Police Drama: The Criminal Adventure” by Silver, Alain reprinted in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions, pp 14-19

[6] Chartier, Jean-Pierre. 1946. “Les americains aussi font des films ‘noirs.” La Revue de Cinema, November 1946. English translation “Americans Also Make Noir Films” by Silver, Alain reprinted in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions, pp 20-23

[7] Paul Duncan’s 2006. Film Noir: Films of Trust and Betrayal, Michael Keaney’s 2003 Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959, Spencer Selby’s 1984 Dark City: The Film Noir and the 1979 first edition of Alain Silver’s and James Ursini’s Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. See bibliography for more details.

[8] An additional six films appear on all but one list: Gun Crazy, The Lady From Shanghai, Laura, The Naked City, Out of the Past and Phantom Lady. Of these, all but Laura fall short by not being one of the 16 films noted as “classic” film noir in Douglas Keesey’s Introduction to his 2010 Neo-Noir: Contemporary Film Noir from Chinatown to The Dark Knight. Laura does get mentioned in Robert Mikltsch’s 2017 The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s. See bibliography for more details.

[9] Blue Collar, La Citta Se Defende (Four Ways Out), Kenju Zankoku Monogatari (Cruel Gun Story), The League of Gentlemen, I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Victoria.

[10] It was also the source of a very different noir moniker: “The Black Dahlia,” the posthumous nickname given to Elizabeth Short, whose mutilated body was found in an empty Los Angeles lot on the morning of January 15, 1947. Ms. Short’s penchant for wearing black and the popularity of the film supposedly led to the appellation.

NOIR CITY 16: Setting the Stage

Thank you for your patience as I cavorted on the left coast for 11 days. I am now home in Brookline organizing my thoughts, notes, photographs and, of course, data.

This is the first in a series of posts based upon my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, California. It outlines my experiences with the previous four NOIR CITY festivals.

Regular readers of this blog know that I regularly attend the annual NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco, if only from this post in which I attempt to answer the deceptively simple question, “Why do I love film noir?”

NOIR CITY 16—24 movies (32 total screenings) over 10 days—was held at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco from January 24 to February 4, 2018. As he introduced the world premiere of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) restoration of The Man Who Cheated Himself on the evening of February 3, FNF Founder and President Eddie Muller said, “Even before I woke up this morning, I knew this was going to be the most successful NOIR CITY yet.” With two days remaining, NOIR CITY 16 had already set a record for total box office receipts from a combination of single ticket purchases ($6.25 each) and all-access Passports ($120); Passport holders are invited to attend opening and closing night parties on the Castro Theatre Mezzanine. I do not know how often the 1,400 seat venue was sold out during those 10 days, but it often looked that way (or close to it) from my vantage point in the audience.

This is the view from my preferred seat at the Castro: lower level, left-hand block of seats, five rows down on the aisle (and, at times, the seat to the left—three different San-Francisco-based friends attended at least one screening with me).

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Here is the seat itself:

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While I cannot “reserve” these seats in advance, I tend to arrive at the Castro up to two hours in advance of the first screening of the day (7:30 PM PST weekdays, 1:00 PM PST weekends) so I can slip in ahead of the crowds—Passports stuck into the right-hand brim of my snap brim gray fedora like a 1930s newspaperman—to plop my gray raincoat, souvenir program, refillable plastic water bottle and other accouterments across the two seats.

Yes, I wrote “Passports.”

There are two ways to acquire a NOIR CITY Passport: purchase them here or make a “Kingpin” donation to the FNF ($500 or more). Each year’s Kingpins are listed on the last page of the souvenir program (a distinct honor, even if my middle initial has been incorrect the last two years). The NOIR CITY 16 program listed 33 Kingpins, including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and two couples listed on a single line.

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The thing is, having gotten the complementary Kingpin swag once (Passport and program recognition plus quarterly e-magazine subscription, previous year’s NOIR CITY poster and souvenir program, latest NOIR CITY Annual[1] and signed copy of Muller’s first novel [The Distance]), each time I renew my Kingpin status swag ante gets upped a bit. So, a few years ago, I started to receive a second Passport.

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But to return to what Muller said on the Castro stage that warm Saturday night, this was easily the best NOIR CITY I have attended—eclipsing my first visit in 2014 (NOIR CITY 12), the year the theme was international films, when the novelty was exhilarating and a bit overwhelming.

Incidentally, this video is an excellent introduction to the festival, and it was produced during NOIR CITY 12. If you watch carefully at about 8 minutes and 22 seconds in, you will see a shot of me sitting in my seat, using the flashlight on my cellphone to read about the movie Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach aka Riptide) in my souvenir program.

Have you ever gone somewhere for the first time and thought to yourself “I’m home”? That was precisely how I felt early on the evening of January 24, 2014, when I walked up the stairs from the Castro BART stop (half-asleep following a red-eye flight from Boston plus an adult beverage or two paired with insufficient food[2]), looked to the right across Castro Street and saw its marquee for the first time. Its large black removable plastic letters spelt out “NOIR CITY 12 / Journey Into Fear / The Third Man.” Standing in line to receive my first Passport, dressed in a black button-down shirt, black dress slacks and a brown sport coat, topped off by the fedora I had purchased in Philadelphia the previous May, I was already making friends (one couple in particular essentially “adopted” me).

I had experienced something similar on my first day as a freshman at Yale University, nearly 20 years earlier. And before that was the wicked cool group of inter-high-school friends I joined right before my sophomore year…but that is an entirely different set of posts.

To allow me to see clearly when I needed to be somewhere, and when I was free to spend time with Bay area friends, I had created a color-coded schedule in Excel (see below). It told me the festival lasted for 10 days (January 24-February 2; 27 films—20 of which I had never before seen), the Opening Night Reception for Passport holders was at 6 pm PST, the new NOIR CITY annual would be released at 6 pm PST the following night, the NOIR CITY bus tour (San Francisco film noir locations while watching the relevant scenes from such films as Vertigo, Sudden Fear, Woman on the Run, Dark Passage and The Lady From Shanghai) was Wednesday at noon PST, and there was a book signing on the second Saturday evening.

For example, here is the building used as Lauren Bacall’s apartment building in Dark Passage.

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Noir City 2014 personal schedule

And I loved every minute of it (even if I did inadvertently urinate a little on my jeans just prior to embarking on the bus tour–I don’t THINK anyone noticed), both the festival itself and the time I spent exploring San Francisco with other friends and on my own.

Following the closing night party (and the futile attempt to end the NOIR CITY raffle, memorialized in the photograph below; Muller is standing on a wooden coffee table in the Mezzanine, while Ms. NOIR CITY 12, the ethereal Evie Lovelle, holds the clear glass bowl filled with raffle tickets), I stumbled, exhausted, into the lobby of the Prescott Hotel. It used to be the tradition that this was the “official” NOIR CITY hotel: FNF officers and out-of-town attendees would stay there at least part of the festival, meeting in the lobby for drinks and friendly banter after the last screening.

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As I pushed through the lobby doors, Muller and another gentleman were standing there. Muller took one look at my bleary-eyed visage and said (something to the effect of), “Now that’s what we like to see here at NOIR CITY. Folks staggering home at the end of the night.” I then summed up my feelings about the festival by doing my best impression of David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, just before his regeneration:

“I don’t want to go!”

Suffice to say that this is NOT a Whovian crowd, despite this NOIR CITY 16 attendee:

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That excursion was supposed to be a one-time event, a treat I had given myself after Nell and I had come into a little bit of money (donation, round-trip plane fare, 11 nights at a downtown San Francisco hotel, meals, souvenirs and other expenses—it adds up quickly).

Later that year, however, I scheduled my doctoral defense (epidemiology; Boston University School of Public Health) for December, and it struck me that a brilliant way to celebrate would be to return to NOIR CITY in January 2015.

The theme for NOIR CITY 13 was marriage.

That initial excursion was so incomparably good that I tried too hard to make the sequel even better. First, I purchased a quasi-noir suit from Bobby From Boston.

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I also brought along suspenders and bowties, planning to convert my newly-minted PhD into “Doctor Noir”: an ill-conceived hybrid of The 11th Doctor and a film noir caricature…

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When I posted this photograph on Facebook (January 17, 2015), I wrote, “Still haven’t met anyone who recognizes my sonic screwdriver.”

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Even with these preparations, however, I found myself oddly unenthused about the trip. In retrospect, I think I was trying too hard to recreate a past experience rather than simply enjoying the next version of it.  Even as my cab pulled up in front of the Prescott Hotel, I was still talking myself into being excited.

Do not get me wrong: it was a solid trip. This time, I flew to San Francisco the day before the festival started, putting the “cushion” day at the beginning instead of the end. The two restorations unveiled that year—Woman on the Run and The Guiltywere revelations. Seeing Victor Sen Yung in the former film led me to chronicle on Facebook all of the actors and actresses from the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films who were showing up in the NOIR CITY 13 films. I found a great little laundromat a few short blocks from the Prescott. And I spent quality time with two great friends.

But my memory of that trip is marred by what happened when I arrived at San Francisco International Airport early on the morning of January 26, 2015.

It had started to snow in the Boston area on January 24, but Winter Storm Juno arrived with a vengeance early on the morning of the 26th, ultimately dumping 24.6 inches of snow on the Boston area in three days. Through March 15, 2015, 108.6 inches of snow fell, with 94.4 inches falling between January 24 and February 22.

Seriously, this is what our back yard looked like when I finally made it home.

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I wrote “finally” because all I could see standing in the airport, bedraggled and barely awake, desperately ready to be home, was “CANCELLED” all over the Departures board. Nothing would take off or land in the northeastern United States for the next two days. I had been snowed into places before, but never snowed out.

Despite looming visions of being stuck at SFO indefinitely, I was able to get a room for two nights at a hotel in Burlingame, a short drive from the airport. And I was also able to spend a pleasant evening with a cousin-by-marriage at his club (only a few blocks from the Prescott Hotel, where I had just been staying…ironies abound). So, as endless as those two days felt, they could have been far worse.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, I returned to NOIR CITY in January 2016. The new “official” hotel was the literary-themed Hotel Rex, which aligned neatly with NOIR CITY 14’s “art and artists” theme; this is easily my favorite opening night montage created by the uber-talented Serena Bramble, who first came to the attention of the FNF through this kick-ass video she cobbled together for her own entertainment.

That trip started brilliantly with a small gathering of NOIR CITY insiders to hear Laura Ellis sing at the Hotel Nikko. Before Ms. Ellis’ performance announced that there would be two new satellite festivals that year, one in Detroit and one in…wait for it…Boston[3].

The first three days of the actual festival were equally terrific (including the first color films I had ever seen at NOIR CITY—the outside-the-noir-box “Photographers” opening night pairing of Rear Window and the underrated The Public Eye), and I was serenely making plans to see Bay area friends over the following week.

Monday morning, however, I awoke to an ominous text message from my wife. That was not in and itself unusual, as I always send Nell a “good night” text when I am traveling, to which she responds with a “good morning” text.

This particular text, though, opened with Nell at the doctor’s office with serious abdominal pains. After a few anxious hours, Nell learned that she needed immediate surgery to have her gall bladder removed (I believe the exact phrasing was “You are not leaving this hospital with your gall bladder.”). Many frustrating hours on the phone with Delta Airlines (or was it Hotels.com?) later, I found myself on a red-eye to Boston.

That was brutal, though Nell’s surgery was a great success and our upstairs neighbors took excellent care of our young daughters. And I made it my mission to find and watch all 13 films I had still never seen when I departed the festival (it took me nearly 18 months to finally track down a copy of the loopy Corridor of Mirrors).

Still, after two less-than-stellar endings to my journeys to NOIR CITY, I was leery of returning. I was still dithering about it early in the fall, when Nell shocked me with a stunningly thoughtful 50th birthday present: she had made my annual Kingpin donation for me, and I was returning to NOIR CITY in January.

The theme for my fourth visit was “heists.”

I have already written about how…off…NOIR CITY 15 felt. This may have been nothing more than recovering from bronchial pneumonia—a 10-day course of antibiotics really takes it out of you. Still, attendance was down, and the attendee mood was palpably subdued. As a whole, and despite opening with the noir classics Criss Cross and The Asphalt Jungle, the 24 films screened (11 released after 1965, 14 in color) were demonstrably less classically “noir” than those screened in previous NOIR CITY festivals. The festival opened on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, leading Muller to declare to an unsettled crowd of progressive San Franciscans that the Castro would be a “sanctuary theatre,” only partly in jest. The Women’s Marches of January 21, 2017 severely cut into attendance on the first Saturday of the festival, which included the more “traditional” noir films Kansas City Confidential and Violent Saturday. Finally, it rained for much of the first half of the festival, literally dampening attendee spirits (and flooding a few basements).

To be fair, NOIR CITY 14 had also included a number of less “traditionally” noir films. Besides The Public Eye (a color film released in 1992, albeit set in 1940s New York City), these included the lushly-colored Love Me or Leave Me, the non-criminous Young Man with a Horn, 1965’s Mickey One (an entertaining existential oddity), and three films in color: The Red Shoes (whose centerpiece ballet sequence terrified our younger daughter, a ballet student at the time, when I showed it to her), Peeping Tom and 1966’s Blow-Up. Overall, six films were in color that year, including the opening and closing pairings.

But having missed seven days of that festival, I never got the sense that regular attendees had complained loudly about the “noir-ness” of the programming as they were rumored to have done with NOIR CITY 15.

All of which brings me to my recent attendance at NOIR CITY 16.

That I would attend was never really in doubt, especially once I had helped to arrange the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston (to be held at the Brattle Theatre; June 8-10, 2018). It was decided that I would manage the merchandise table, requiring me to be trained at NOIR CITY 16.

Consider my arm twisted.

To be continued…

[1] A lavish full-color 250-plus-page compendium of the best articles from the previous calendar year editions of the quarterly e-magazine.

[2] I can only imagine the impression I made on Eddie Muller, as I attempted to introduce myself in that foggy state, mumbling even more incoherently than usual about how much I had enjoyed his DVD commentaries on such films noir as Crime Wave and Decoy.

[3] For various reasons, the Boston festival did not materialize that year, but it did spur me to work with Eddie and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director, to make NOIR CITY Boston a reality.