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.

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