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 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.
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.”
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).
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.
“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.
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–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.
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), 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.
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.
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):
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).
This 2015 photograph looks west on Post (one block south of Sutter, where the Rex is) at the intersection with Mason.
I occasionally commit contrived artiness, as in this tableau from Saturday night, January 27 (11:45 pm):
And this was the overflowing ear-assaulting Ruby Skye, along Mason between Geary and Post, which closed for renovations last spring.
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.
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) 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…
 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).
 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).
 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.