When is a pleasure “guilty?”

I first watched The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984) as a sophomore in college, under curious circumstances.

That year, I lived with two other men in a converted basement seminar room in Ezra Stiles College. The year before, that room had been occupied by a student we generally referred to as the “Saudi prince” (or was it “sheikh?”); I forget his actual nationality and title. He apparently purchased a great deal of electronic equipment—and by “purchased,” I mean “charged without ever paying”—which he used in secretive solitude.

All that remained when my friends and I moved into the room was the mid-1980’s version of a big screen television. Another classmate lent us her early-model VCR—which made the fact that one of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual department all the more valuable.

I do not remember how a copy of Café Flesh turned up in our room…but that was quite an education for me (the previews were a hoot), back when adult films were expected to have at least some coherent plot. The film made enough of an impression on me that I purchased the terrific Mitchell Froom soundtrack on vinyl.

The Key of Cool

But back to The Cotton Club. I recall vaguely enjoying it (it is a beautiful film), even though much of the historical “back story” eluded me[1]. I also remember hearing stories about how its production was more interesting than the movie itself.

I thought little about the film after that until I kept happening upon it on television in the mid-1990s. And when I sat and watched it from start to finish for a second time, I very much enjoyed it. So much so that I bought the excellent John Barry soundtrack, my first tentative foray into jazz (which I now love) and learned more about the historical “back story” I referenced earlier.

Yes, the plot is overly ambitious and convoluted[2]. Yes, it garbles and condenses and rewrites the compelling underworld history of late-1920s/early-1930s New York City (e.g., the film ostensibly ends in 1931 with the slaying of Dutch Schultz—which occurred on October 23, 1935). Yes, it is too long…or too short, depending how interested in the interweaving plot threads one is.

But I now rank it among my 10 or 20 favorite films, recently purchasing a DVD copy when I was unable to watch it on of our streaming services. As it happens, I also have a copy of Café Flesh (on VHS), and I have previously discussed my continuing love another critical non-favorite I recently purchased on DVD, Times Square.

The Cotton Club.JPG

One thing these three films have in common is a middling average score (on a 0-10 scale) on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB): 6.5 for Café Flesh and The Cotton Club and 6.7 for Times Square. For context, in his 2008 video guide[3], esteemed film critic Leonard Maltin gives The Cotton Club 2.5 stars (out of four) while giving Times Square a rating of “BOMB;” for obvious reasons, he does not include Café Flesh in his guide.

While not the worst-reviewed films ever (hello, Ed Wood!), neither are they among the greatest films ever made. Which begs the question (and setting aside the pornographic nature of Café Flesh) whether they could be characterized as “guilty pleasures.”

Which further begs the question: what makes a pleasure “guilty?”

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In this post, I gathered IMDB, RottenTomatoes (RT) and Maltin ratings data to “rank” the 47 Charlie Chan films released between 1926 and 1949. I decided to take the same approach with the larger universe of movies I like (loosely defined as “movies I have seen multiple times, to the best of my recollection”) to see if I could statistically distinguish “guilty pleasure” films (ones I love but to which critics/users respond with “meh”–or worse) from critically-praised films I love (e.g., L.A. Confidential, The Maltese Falcon, numerous films directed by Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen[4]—or starring The Marx Brothers), as well as from films SO bad they have become cult classics and/or been parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000).

To that end I compiled a list of 557 films I am fairly certain I have seen in their entirety twice (or, at least, I have seen all the way through once and large segments of at different times). I excluded the Charlie Chan films discussed in the previous post[5].

For each film I entered its:

  • Title
  • Year of release (according to IMDB)
  • Length in minutes (ditto)
  • IMDB score and number of raters
  • Tomatometer score (% RT-sanctioned critics deeming film “fresh”), average critic rating (0-10) and number of critics
  • Audience Score (% RT users deeming film “fresh”), average user rating (0-5) and number of user raters
  • Number of stars assigned by Maltin[6], with BOMB = 0.

I included year of release[7] and length as a way to distinguish older, shorter films from more recent, longer films. There are six slightly different ways to broadly measure a film’s perceived quality. I included three “number of raters” measures to see if there was a relationship between a film’s perceived quality and the number of viewers willing to take the time to quantify their opinions on-line[8].

I also divided the films into six broad categories[9]:

  • General  (64%)
  • Film Noir (19%)
  • Other Pre-1960 (7%)
  • Woody Allen[10] (5%)
  • Alfred Hitchcock  (3%)
  • Marx Brothers (2%)

Arguably, there is overlap between Film Noir (restricted for this analysis to films released between 1940 and 1959) and Alfred Hitchcock…and a few Other Pre-1960 films…but I am comfortable with these general categories.

I have complete data for 515 films. Eight films have no Maltin rating, either because they were released in 2008 or later (Frozen, Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Spirit, Star Trek), are relatively obscure films noir (The Guilty, Night Editor—and the excellent Spanish film Muerte de un Ciclista [Death of a Cyclist]) or…I don’t know why (the charming 1992 film Jersey Girl). The latter four films also have no Tomatometer rating or critic average rating (along with 34 other films, primarily Film Noir); I entered “0” for the number of critic raters. All analyses were performed using Intercooled Stata 9.2[11].

Some of these variables do not follow a “bell curve” (or “normal”) distribution (Table 1). For example, while the average year of release is 1974, the median year (the value at which half of all values are lower, and half are higher) is 1982. The difference results from a “skew” towards earlier films.

Table 1: Summary statistics for Film Ratings Measures

Measure N Mean

(SD*)

Median Minimum Maximum
Year of Release 556 1974.1

(20.9)

1982 1920 2013
Length (mins.) 556 103.4

(17.8)

101.0 61 220
IMDB Score 556 7.1

(0.8)

7.2 4.2 9.0
# IMDB Raters 556 79,833.4 (184,390) 19,095 140 2,015,091
Tomatometer 517 77.1

(22.4)

85 0 100
Critic Rating 517 6.9

(1.4)

7.1 2.1 9.5
# Critics 556 40.0

(42.5)

30 0 342
RottenTomatoes Audience Score 556 71.9

(17.7)

76 20 96
RottenTomatoes User Rating 556 3.5

(0.4)

3.5 2.2 4.4
# RottenTomatoes User Raters 556 216,214.5

(1,965,582)

11,867.5 39 34,296,962
Maltin Stars 548 2.8

(0.7)

3 0 4

*SD=standard deviation, a measure of how tightly values cluster around the mean: the smaller the value, the tighter the clustering. In a normal distribution, 68% of values are within 1 SD, 95% are within 2 SD and 99% are within 3 SD.

Indeed, as Figure 1 shows, the distribution of release year is bimodal, meaning there are two “peaks” in the data: one in 1946-50, reflecting the preponderance of film noir titles among my multiple-viewing films, and one between roughly 1978 and 1999, my prime movie-attendance years (ages 11-33).

Figure 1: The Distribution of Year of Release is Bimodal

Film Release Years.jpg

See here for the distribution of Length, in minutes

There is also heavy skew to the right (a long “right tail”) in the three “number of raters” measures, with the median consistently lower than the mean. In the most extreme case, while 452 films (81%) had between 29 and 99,999 RT user raters, 13 films had more than 1,000,000 raters, topping out at a staggering 30,984,432 RT user raters for Donnie Darko and 34,296,962 for Spider-Man. Not surprisingly, these three measures are strongly related to each other: the average correlation[12] between them is a moderately high 0.41; the extreme right-skew of these measures is likely lowering the correlations. There is also a modest relationship between year of release, length and number of raters: films have gotten slightly longer over time (correlation [r]=0.25), while more recent films have more raters (mean r=0.22).

Here are the distributions of these variables:

IMDB raters

Critics

RT Users

The remaining seven variables were generally normally distributed (means≈medians. Thus, films averaged 103 minutes in length (one hour, 43 minutes), with approximately two-thirds of films (66%) between 88 and 113 minutes long; eight films were more than 2½ hours long, topped by JFK (three hours, nine minutes), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (three hours, 25 minutes) and The Ten Commandments (three hours, 40 minutes). Not surprisingly, the 33 films between 61 (Dick Tracy, Detective) and 79 minutes long had a mean year of release of 1943.5[13].

There was reassuring consensus between the ratings, as the means of IMDB score (7.1), critic rating (6.9), RT user rating (3.5 out of 5 = 7.0 out of 10), and Maltin stars (2.8 out of 4 = 7.1 out of 10) all converge around a “good, but not great” 7 out of 10. Moreover, values tended to cluster relatively around the means (i.e., SD<<mean). Thus, 90% of IMDB scores were between 6.1 and 8.3, 80% of critic ratings were between 5.5 and 8.8, 93% of RT user ratings were between 5.8 and 8.4 (adjusted for a 0-10 scale), and 73% of films were assigned between 2½ and 3½ stars by Maltin (6.2-8.8 on a 1-10 scale). Fifty films I have seen more than once were assigned four stars by Maltin, whereas he rated only four of them “BOMB”[14]. The average correlation between the six pairs of ratings is a 0.75, meaning there is broad agreement between IMDB users, critics, RT users and Maltin (though mean correlation jumps to 0.85 without Maltin’s scores).

IMDB scores

Tomatometer

Critic rating

Audience Score

RT User rating

Maltin Stars

The story is similar for the Tomatometer and Audience Scores, although the former is skewed by 50 films with a Tomatometer of 100 (Audience Scores top out at 96[15]); both measures have higher medians than means. On average, 77.1% of critics, but just 71.9% of RT users, rate a given film as “fresh.” Fully two-thirds (67%) of Tomatometers are 75 or higher, while a similar percentage of Audience Scores (65%) are between 67 and 94. The correlation between the two measures is 0.72.

Across all six ratings measures (15 pairs of measures), finally, the average correlation is 0.76; without Maltin’s ratings, the average jumps to 0.83 (mean r w/Maltin=0.64).

In general, however, the vast majority of these 557 films fall in a fairly narrow range between “not bad” and “fairly good.” Bear in mind, however, that this is the universe of films I have chosen to see again; this could easily skew all of the ratings values up slightly.

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To separate the films into “quality” categories, I used a technique called factor analysis[16].

Factor analysis groups variables into underlying “dimensions” (or “factors”). We have already seen evidence of two dimensions in these 11 measures: six (IMDB score, Tomatometer, critic rating, Audience Score, RT user rating, Maltin stars) are all fairly highly correlated with each other—and thus with a single dimension we could call “perceived quality,” while the three “numbers of raters” measures (plus year of release and length) are modestly correlated with each other—and thus with a single dimension we could call “public awareness.”

And that is precisely what the factor analysis revealed[17]. Two factors alone accounted for 95% of the total variance in these data, which is remarkably high.

The first factor (71%) was dominated by IMDB Score, Tomatometer, critic rating, Audience Score and RT user rating[18] as well as Maltin stars and year of release. This is clearly “perceived quality.” For each film, I determined how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) its perceived quality (PQ)[19] is.

Here are the 17 films with PQ>1.5:

The Maltese Falcon (1941 version) 1.51
Chinatown 1.52
To Be or Not To Be (1942 version) 1.53
North by Northwest 1.53
It’s a Wonderful Life 1.56
Metropolis 1.58
Kind Hearts and Coronets 1.58
On the Waterfront 1.59
Rear Window 1.61
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1.61
Double Indemnity 1.61
Citizen Kane 1.62
The General 1.65
The Third Man 1.66
Casablanca 1.70
Sunset Boulevard 1.75
M 1.78

Just to reiterate: these are not the best films ever made, nor are these my favorite films (to be honest, I don’t love Sunset Boulevard, and I burned out on It’s a Wonderful Life). They are simply the most highly-rated films I have seen multiple times; Nonetheless, this is a very impressive list of films, of which The Maltese Falcon is easily my favorite, followed by Rear Window.

In fact, on average, these films have an IMDB score of 8.3, a Tomatometer of 98.2 (all≥93; six=100), a critic rating of 9.1, an Audience Score of 93.1 and an RT user rating of 8.4 (on a 0-10 scale); three have 3½ Maltin stars[20], with the rest having four. These could all be considered “Classic” films, including three silent masterpieces (Metropolis, Caligari, The General), given their average release year of 1944; only Chinatown was released after 1970 (1974). The average length of these films was slightly higher than average (108 minutes).

At the other end of the spectrum—and now we are getting to the heart of the matter—are the 22 films with PQ<-2.0:

Who’s Harry Crumb? -2.06
Cookie -2.06
Doctor Detroit `2.07
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -2.10
Once Upon a Crime… -2.17
Sunset -2.19
Dog Park -2.24
Mannequin -2.24
Young Doctors in Love -2.26
City Heat -2.28
The Phantom -2.32
The Marrying Man -2.33
Thank God, It’s Friday -2.35
The Meteor Man -2.42
Mixed Nuts -2.55
The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag -2.59
Wholly Moses! -2.61
Random Hearts -2.63
Wild Wild West -2.69
Hexed -2.74
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle -2.87
The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them -3.06

Poor Arye Gross, who starred in two 1993 films—Hexed, The Opposite Sex…—that are two of the three worst-rated of the 515 films with complete data (I suspect The Spirit, from 2008, would also be in this low-rent neighborhood). On average, these films have an IMDB score of 5.3, a Tomatometer of 21.3 (Once Upon a Crime… has the only Tomatometer of 0 in the group), a critic rating of 3.9, an Audience Score of 35.3 and an RT user rating of 5.0 (on a 0-10 scale); the average Maltin stars is 1.6, ranging from BOMB (n=3) to three (Cookie). These are relatively recent films, with an average release year of 1991; only Thank God, It’s Friday was released before 1980 (1978). Perhaps mercifully, these films averaged 98 minutes in length.

The three films closest to the mean of 0 are Murder by Decree, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask and Heaven Can Wait, with PQ of -0.004, -0.004 and 0.004, respectively. All were released in the 1970s, with average scores similar to the overall averages.

As for The Cotton Club and Times Square, they had PQ of -0.68 and -0.85, respectively—definitely in the bottom 25% of films I have seen multiple times.

The second factor (24%), meanwhile, was dominated by critics (factor loading=0.78), IMDB users (0.73), year of release (0.54), length (0.39) and RT users (0.33). This is clearly “public awareness.” For each film, I determined how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) its public awareness (PA) was. Topping the list, with a whopping 7.1, is The Dark Knight, followed by Batman Begins (4.9) and Spider-Man (4.4)—three blockbuster superhero films from the 2000s. At the other end of the spectrum are four films released between 1935 and 1943: Mad Love (-1.30), Journey Into Fear (-1.30), Room Service (-1.29) and the film I consider the first film noir of the classic era: Stranger on the Third Floor (-1.28).

From the perspective of guilty pleasures, however, this particular dimension is far less interesting than the first one.

Before determining what films are my “guiltiest pleasures,” here are mean PQ values by category:

Category # Films PQ
Other Pre-1960 36 1.11
Alfred Hitchcock 18 0.99
Marx Brothers 9 0.65
Film Noir 80 0.60
Woody Allen 25 0.28
General 347 -0.34

Given that 11 of the 17 top-rated films are in the Other Pre-1960 category, it is not surprising that these 36 (of 39 overall) films have the highest average PQ, followed by my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock.

As noted above, I do not necessarily love—or even much like—every one of these 557 films; some I saw multiple times when I was young (e.g., The Apple Dumpling Gang, Hot Lead and Cold Feet) but barely remember now. And there are films I quite like that are NOT on this list simply because I have yet to see them a second time (e.g., The Shawshank Redemption, Zodiac, Shutter Island, Watchmen). But those latter films are generally well-rated (e.g., mean IMDB score=8.2), so they are hardly “guilty pleasures.”

And…finally…to discover which of these multiple-viewed films are my “guiltiest pleasures,” here are the films with PQ<-1.00 I would give a 5 (or maybe 4.5, out of 5) on the “how much I like it” scale.

  1. Thank God, It’s Friday
  2. Doctor Detroit
  3. The Shadow
  4. Radioland Murders
  5. Legal Eagles
  6. Tapeheads
  7. Mystery Men
  8. Empire Records
  9. The Secret of My Success
  10. Johnny Dangerously
  11. So I Married an Axe Murderer

Each of these films are in the General category and were released during my prime movie-attendance years (1978-99), with a mean release year of 1989; I did not actually first view Thank God, It’s Friday and Empire Records until the last five or so years. They average 101 minutes in length, only slightly shorter than average. Their mean IMDB, critic and RT user ratings (on a 0-10 scale) are 6.0, 4.9 and 6.0, respectively, suggesting they are relatively more popular with the broader movie-watching public than with critics; this is echoed by having an average of only 1.8 stars from Maltin (median=2). By the same token, the average Audience Score for these 11 films (51) is higher than their average Tomatometer (43). Finally, they are far less well-known (or, at least, have fewer viewers willing to rate them online, even anonymously), averaging 19,604 IMDB raters (median=12,292), 28 critics (median=17; Mystery Men had 103) and 55,464 RT users (median=9,198).

As I hypothesized, while these films are certainly of less perceived quality compared to the other 546 films I have seen multiple times, objectively they tend to fall in the middle of the “quality” spectrum, or even a hair above it–neither truly excellent nor truly awful.

They are mostly just…meh, according to the larger universe of film critics and casual fans, with the latter being just a bit more accepting of these films than the former.

And all I will say in defense of these films is that there is a fascinating temporal intersection in Thank God, It’s Friday when the late Donna Summer (near the height of her career), a pre-fame Debra Winger and a pre-Berlin Terri Nunn are all looking into the same bathroom mirror.

Finally, to come full circle: The Cotton Club and Times Square rank as “only” my 13th and 16th guiltiest film pleasures, respectively, using this very subjective (and subject to change) method. Still, that puts them in…good?…company.

Until next time…

[1] I expect to revisit this film in more detail in a later post, but for now I will simply say the film revolves around the legendary Harlem night club—owned by powerful bootlegger and fixer “Owney” Madden—between 1928 and 1931, when “Duke” Ellington, then Cab Calloway, directed the house band. A key subplot revolves around Arthur Flegenheimer (aka Dutch Schultz) and his violent takeover of the Harlem numbers rackets.

[2] The film follows two sets of brothers in conflict with each other—one white, one black—with one of the white brothers being close friends with one of the black brothers, while each of those two friends has a love affair blocked by external forces. The parallels are fascinating and complex—but they are only part of the overall storyline.

[3] Maltin, Leonard ed. 2008. Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide: 2008 Edition. New York, NY: New American Library.

[4] Despite my ambivalence about Allen as a human being, I still love many of his films.

[5] Only Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum has a complete set of RottenTomatoes values.

[6] For nine older films, I used the rating in the 2003 edition, as Maltin stopped including many older films in later editions.

[7] As well as date of release, which I do not analyze here.

[8] Recognizing that these primarily measure a film’s overall “visibility.”

[9] I could easily have added “starring John Cusack,” “Jerry Lewis,” “David Mamet,” “Star Trek,” “The Pink Panther,” “Batman,” “Coen Brothers.”

[10] Including What’s New Pussycat.

[11] StataCorp. 2005. Stata Statistical Software: Release 9. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.

[12] A measure of linear association between two variables ranging from -1.00 (every time one increases, the other decreases) to 1.00 (every time on increases, the other decreases).

[13] That said, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis is a full 153 minutes long.

[14] Besides Times Square, they are Mannequin, The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them and Thank God It’s Friday.

[15] Pulp Fiction, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, The Usual Suspects

[16] I experimented with cluster analysis, which groups cases instead of variables, but found little of interest.

[17] Principal factors, with an orthogonal varimax rotation, forced to two factors.

[18] Each had a “factor loading” (essentially, correlation with the “underlying dimension”) ≥0.87. The factor loadings for Maltin stars and year of release were 0.72 and -0.52, respectively.

[19] Using the “Predict” command in Stata. In essence, it converts each variable to a “z-score” (mean=0, SD=1), recalculates the factor loadings, then sums each value weighted by the factor loadings.

[20] To Be or Not to Be, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Organizing by themes II: Film Noir

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

IMG_3794 (2)

My love of film noir has roots in my childhood (detective fiction, Charlie Chan films) and college (film societies, first hardboiled fiction), but it really blossomed with my discovery of the Film Noir Foundation and their annual NOIR CITY festival in San Francisco every January (into February).

Sadly, I will not be attending NOIR CITY this year (2019), but I hope to return in 2020. And NOIR CITY will be returning to the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square (Cambridge, MA) June 7-9, 2019.

My second trip to NOIR CITY (2015) inspired my first posts about film noir. During that trip, I “live-blogged” on Facebook the various connections between the films I was seeing and the Fox Charlie Chan films of 1935-42. Those connections became a three-part series in January 2017.

Charlie Chan and Film Noir I

Charlie Chan and Film Noir II

Charlie Chan and Film Noir III

One month later, I offered a statistical “critique” of the 2017 NOIR CITY.

In April, I wrote, tongue firmly embedded in cheek, about how the movie Nora Prentiss made me appreciate our eldest daughter’s birthday even more.

Less than one month later, however, I would write a life-changing post–and begin to interrogate memory.

**********

The impetus for my post of May 18, 2017 was almost certainly my “commencement” from Boston University School of Public Health with my doctorate in epidemiology. I used quotation marks in the previous sentence because I skipped the official ceremony (bad blood with my doctoral committee) in lieu of a far less formal ceremony in our Brookline apartment.

The upshot, however, was that I was now free to remove all of the epidemiology texts, folders and papers from the small wooden bookcase to the right of my desk and replace with my rapidly expanding film noir library.

IMG_3104

It has grown even larger since then.

I had also been working on my comprehensive film noir database since for more than two years—and it had grown to over 4,800 titles.

In an attempt to lay the groundwork for analyses of that database—and because I was tired of being asked why I loved film noir so much…only to respond with the verbal equivalent of a shrug—I wrote Film Noir: A Personal Journey.

This was one of my first posts to gain more than a few dozen readers—ultimately becoming the first to crack 100 views (121 and counting; cut me some slack, this is a very eclectic website).

More importantly, two months later, when my exasperated wife Nell asked (in the middle of a literal kitchen table conversation about ways I could earn income), “Why don’t you write a book?”…

…it was this post that occurred to me–and the outline of a book popped into my head, fully formed.

But that is a topic for a later organizational post.

**********

I would not write again about film noir until February 11, 2018, about a week after returning from my fifth consecutive trip to NOIR CITY.

As I was preparing to fly to San Francisco, I had a vague notion I would write a sort of travelogue of my trip when I returned. To that end, I packed a small black faux-leather notebook in which I took copious notes of my 11 days there (to go along with dozens of iPhone photographs).

But what I thought would be three, maybe four posts tops, turned into an 11-post epic…well, 10 if you exclude this quantitative analysis of the festival. Perhaps I will turn these 30,000-odd words into some sort of book one day.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Since then, I have written little about film noir, other than to note a connection with The Smithereens and to discuss some books (and, more tangentially, some other books) I love.

Until next time…

Why I chose…Naked City and More Than Night

My matriculation at Yale must have been even more formative than I realized because I have referenced my time there in four consecutive posts—five counting this one.

One reason my college years have been so front-of-mind is that my 30-year reunion was held this past weekend (May 24-27, 2018). I put off deciding whether to go until last Wednesday night (May 23), when I looked at reunion website and realized that it was feasible (if not inexpensive) to attend only one day; New Haven, CT is a relatively easy two-and-a-half hour drive southwest from our home. Our youngest daughter was over the moon at the prospect of joining me, while our older daughter was more ambivalent.

On Thursday, we decided that both girls would skip school on Friday and accompany me.

This proved an excellent decision as, despite the heat and swarms of mosquitos (youngest daughter woke up Saturday morning, looked at her legs and thought she had chicken pox), all three of us had a great time. Both girls quickly made friends with other attendees’ children, while I joyfully caught up with friends I may “talk to” on Facebook, but have not actually seen in 30 years.

Another reason my college years are on my mind is how crucial, I am realizing, they were to my long-time love of film noir, my impetus for writing this book.

One element of this influence was that when I attended Yale in the mid-1980s, there were six film societies showing a total of something like two dozen films every Thursday to Sunday. Naturally, I watched a lot of old movies (particularly ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock) during my four years there.

One film society was housed in my residential college, Ezra Stiles. I still have the wall poster from the first semester of my freshman year (Fall 1984).

IMG_3794 (2).JPG

This poster has been living in a battered filing cabinet for years. When I pulled it out for book research four or five months ago, the first thing I noticed was the black-and-white photograph of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, presumably a publicity still from The Big Sleep.

Examining the poster more closely, I saw this written under the October 4 entry for Ruthless:

“The ESFS kicks off its 1984 Film Noir Festival with this lurid saga of a total sleazeball and his ugly struggle to doublecross all of his associates and climb to the top of the dung heap we call life. Bring a date.” (italics added)

Unless I had seen them in the context of films I had previously watched on HBO (e.g., The Postman Always Rings Twice [bad 1981 remake], Body Heat), that could easily have been the first time I ever read the words “film noir.”

I did not actually see Ruthless in October 1984, so I found a copy somewhere on-line and watched it in January 2018. It was mildly entertaining, with the best scenes being part of a flashback to the three main characters as children. A nearly unrecognizable Raymond Burr portrayed the main character’s father: a well-meaning gambling ne’er-do-well alienated from the main character’s imperious mother; Burr’s character reminded me more than a little of my late father.

The two-film “festival” concluded on October 6 with The Big Sleep.

I noted another way Yale impacted my love of film noir in this post, in which I began to explain why I chose the titles I did for the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), describing two detective fiction courses I took there.

One course was a “residential college seminar” (housed in Branford, the central locus for the Class of 1988 this past weekend); the other course, which I took my senior year, was taught within the American Studies department.

Besides the terrific works of fiction, Professor Lowry had us read and discuss two decades-old volumes of black-and-white photographs. More than 30 years later, why we read these works is fuzzy, though I think it had something to do with the movement toward “realism” in the hard-boiled fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In many ways, both books are effectively Fodor’s guides to the places (be they in Paris, London, Los Angeles or any other large city) where most of the action in hard-boiled or police procedural fiction takes place.

Pulling out my copy of the first volume—Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30s—I see that it has far more text than I had remembered, making this masterful photographer’s book an illustrated memoir (mem-noir?) of night-time Paris between 1931 and 1934. A sampling of chapter titles tells the story: Lovers, A Night with the Cesspool Cleaners, Ladies of the Evening, In the Wings at the Folies-Bergere, Sodom and Gomorrah, An Opium Den.

As brilliant as Secret Paris was, though, it did not change my life the way this book did:

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Arthur (born “Usher”) Fellig, born in what is now Ukraine in June 1899, emigrated to New York City in 1910. In 1923, he landed his first job as a photographer; 12 years later he became a full-time freelance photographer, selling his dramatic shots of murders, fires…and even teenaged “BobbySoxers” screaming at a Frank Sinatra concert to that city’s tabloid newspapers.

Between 1935 and 1945, Fellig would prowl New York City at night in his sedan, which was equipped with police scanner and portable darkroom (in the capacious trunk), allowing him to take and develop his photographs faster than his competitors. His uncanny ability to anticipate a worthy photographic subject is likely what earned him the name “Weegee,” a variant on the Ouija board used to communicate with…the dead, or something.

In 1945, after years spent collating selected photographs, Naked City was published by Essential Books. Weegee suggests the reason for the title in a two-page introductory chapter called “A Book Is Born”:

“For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off…not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them. […] The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask ‘What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,’ the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”[1]

The 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci as The Great Bernzini, is an underrated, albeit highly fictionalized, account of Weegee’s career that faithfully captures his modus operandi.

Still, as compelling as the photographs’ subject matter was, it was their look that riveted me. Working at night with an infrared camera and flash powder, Weegee’s photographs are textbook examples of high-contrast, almost washed-out, chiaroscuro—intensely bright white in a sea of black.

To many film noir aficianados, including me, this look is what makes film noir; it is no coincidence that Naked City was quickly turned into this iconic 1948 film noir. In fact, I could easily define film noir as “black-and-white films whose characters are anything but.” And while valid arguments can be made for the primacy of thematic (world-weary cynicism, fatalism, moral ambiguity, obsession), character (wise-cracking detectives, femmes fatales, ordinary people buffeted by fate and/or who make poor choices) or plot (crime, pursuit) elements, there is no getting around film being a visual medium, one that did not even require sound for nearly four decades. This is why I zero in on cinematography as central to the definition.

Indeed, another (only partly facetious) definition of film noir is a “Cornell Woolrich story, directed by Robert Siodmak for RKO, and filmed by John Alton to look like a Weegee photograph.”

As to why this look—impossibly-dark blacks punctuated by improbably-light whites—so appeals to me, I say, “I have no idea.”

There is, of course, the sense that black-and-white is artistically sophisticated, with the added advantage of being “classic.” A more prosaic explanation is that it is less garish and distracting, and allows you more easily to focus on the subject matter. Finally, there is the fact that my 20-10 vision for most of my life (that accuresed doctoral thesis) conditioned me to prefer more basic color schemes, which created less visual overlaid.

Any (or none) of these explanations may be true, and it would still be beside the point—which is that after reading Naked City, I never looked at the world in the same way again.

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I have already written (and contine to write) thousands of words about my love of film noir, so I will only briefly discuss Naremore’s seminal analysis.

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There are many terrific introductions to film noir, from comprehensive almanacs (Ballinger’s and Graydon’s Rough Guide, Hogan’s Film Noir FAQ) to encyclopedic treaments (Grant, Silver et al., Mayer and McDonnell, Keaney, Selby, Spicer, Lyons) to informal, thematically-grouped overviews (Mueller’s Dark City, Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen) to quasi-academic yet highly-readable analyses (Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night, Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Osteen’s Nightmare Alley) to, finally, the Film Noir Reader series.

But Naremore, to me, does the best job of weaving these strands together while also casting a wide thematic net (international films, neo-noir, technology, censorship, inter alia). In fact, of the 373 films discussed as “noir,”more than half (53.6%) were released outside the “classic” period of 1940-59,[2] nearly half (45.8%) were made entirely in color, and 19.0% were primarily produced outside the United States. Overall, Naremore combines the rigor of an academic with the passion of a fan, producing an introduction to film noir that is both erudite and readable.

Honorable mentions:

New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive by William Hannigan

Weegee was not the only tabloid photographer working her/his magic in nocturnal New York, as this well-annotated and gritty collection reveals, though, I actually sought out this book (i.e., asked for it as a birthday gift) a few years back because it included one particular photograph. On January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder was electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison (along with her lover Judd Grey) for the murder of her husband Albert, making her the first woman to be electrocuted there since 1899; James M. Cain would fictionalize the story in his 1935 novella Double Indemnity. An enterprising Chicago Tribune reporter named Tom Howard, covering the execution in cooperation with the New York Daily News, strapped a small camera to his left ankle, with a hand-held toggle attached to a wire running down his pant leg. As the switch was thrown on Snyder, Howard was able to snap a photograph, the first ever of an electrocution; this, along with its infamous one word banner headline (“DEAD!”), was what I sought.

A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton

The term “film noir” most likely orginated with French film critics in the late 1930s, in the context of reviewing “poetic realist” films like La Jour Se Leve (Daybreak) and Pepe Le Moko. However, it was first used in its more familiar context in July 1946, when Parisian film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Paul Chartier (who, thanks to World War II, had not seen any American films since 1941) each wrote an article discussing a new wave of dark American crime films; they were actually piggybacking on  a 1945 New York Times analysis by Lloyd Shearer[3]. But the first truly comprehesive discussion of these films came in 1955, when two French film critics wrote Panorama du Film Noir Americain, 1941-1953. They depicted interlinking cycles of films with a common style, though in their “Chronological index of the main series” they only list 21 as “Film noirs,”with another 58 titles listed as either “Criminal psychology,” “Crime films in period costume,” “Gangsters,” “Police Documentaries” and “Social tendencies.[4]” But while their nomenclature is remarkably confusing, their analysis is incisive and, for many critics, conclusive. As Naremore, who wrote the Introduction to the 2002 City Lights Books edition of Paul Hammond’s English translation, noted in Contexts, “The best way to define film noir, Peter Wollen once remarked to me, is to say that it’s any film listed in…Panorama.”[5] I do not agree with that definition, but Panorama is still the place to start.

To be continued…

[1] Weegee. 1945. Naked City (unabridged republication of original Essential Books edition). New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., pp. 11-12.

[2] Overall, 2.9% were released between 1931 and 1939, 46.4% between 1940 and 1959, 5.1% between 1960 and 1966, and 45.6% between 1967 and 2006.

[3] All three seminal articles may be found in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

[4] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. 2002. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond. pp. 161-63. Overall, Borde and Chaumeton discuss 255 films as “noir.”

[5] Naremore, James. 2008. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition]. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. pg. 283.

The Smithereens: Film Noir where you least expect it

I have previously described how I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year, musical “genre,” etc.

Being a meticulous (obsessive, even) organizer of data, no sooner had I started using my current version of iTunes in January 2013 (when my track play counts start) then I embarked on a massive data cleaning project: guaranteeing every track (n=9,552 as of March 6, 2018) had the correct title and artist name; release mode[1], track number, year and cover art; and musical classification (first-listed “Genre” on its Wikipedia page or “Style” on its AllMusic page).

I completed this project (New Order’s 24 tracks were last to be scrubbed) within a year. Since then, every newly-acquired track has undergone the same treatment.

Periodically, however, iTunes reverts all of an artist’s tracks (e.g., Blondie, n=31) to their original information, requiring me to re-clean them.

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A short drive from our Brookline home is the terrific independent bookstore Newtonville Books.

A small windowless room in the rear of the store houses books (“chapter books” our daughters call them) for tweens and young adults. Hanging on the wall of this room are two wall charts depicting a statistical overview of the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox seasons (they won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004, repeating the feat just three years later). Each chart’s X-axis is day of the season, while its Y-axis features a range of values (player batting averages, pitcher earned run averages, win total, inter alia). The visual effect is stunning.

Inspired by these innovative visuals, I decided to attempt something similar with my iTunes data.

Specifically, I wanted to create a chart using Excel that has year on the X-axis, with artist (≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays [76 of 1,311 artists[2]], ≥10 tracks if first release before 1950) and genre (all other tracks) on the Y-axis. Cells would contain the number of tracks released by that artist/in that genre in a given year, with a black border around each value ≥10; the font-size would increase from Palatino Linotype 12 in increments of 10. Artists/genres would be sorted, in ascending order, by year of first release. Color-coded cells on the far left-hand side would contain artist/genre name (e.g., “Progressive Rock” shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” writing “White, Background 1, Darker 25%); font size would also increase with track total.

I began this project in May 2014, abandoning it the next month. Recently, though, I worked out a faster way to generate the necessary cell entries using the statistical software program SPSS.

Once I finish the chart (watch this space!) I originally envisioned, I will construct a second chart using total plays, a strongly-related (correlation = +0.81), more valid representation of artist/genre fondness.

Building this SPSS dataset six days ago, I observed two questionable data points.

First, the incorrect year was assigned to Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.”[3]

Two, I questioned the genre assignment “Rock/Metal” for The Smithereens’ song “Miles From Nowhere.”

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While I first heard The Smithereens listening incessantly to the now-defunct Boston alternative rock station WFNX (101.7 FM) between 1991 and 1996, they did not truly register in my musical consciousness until I bought Sedated in the 80s, No. 3 in the late spring of 1997.

Track 3, the hypnotic “Blood and Roses,” so caught my ear that in July 1997 it became the first Smithereens track to appear on one of my artfully-constructed mixes. By September, I had succumbed[4] by purchasing the 16-trackbest-of CD Blown to Smithereens: Best of the Smithereens—which deserves its status as an AllMusic “Album Pick.” Three more Smithereens tracks debuted on a mix that same month.

But that was that…until 2004, when I began to watch The Alternative.

One Sunday night, members of the Smithereens—likely lead singer Pat DiNizio, drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak—were the in-studio guests of host Eddie Trunk to promote their just-released box set From Jersey It Came! The Smithereens Anthology.

Trunk and his guests kibitzed between videos, including five or six for Smithereens songs. After watching this episode, I dusted off my Blown to Smithereens CD, and I have not really put it back since.

In the spring of 2009, I acquired a free vinyl copy[5] of their excellent 1988 Green Thoughts. The soul-searing “Especially For You,” the last track on side one, is one of only 27 tracks to have 50 or more plays.

All told, 16 Smithereens songs would earn a spot on a mix between 1997 and 2013.

Color me a fan, even if I did miss an opportunity to see them live in 2013 or 2014, a choice I now regret.

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The Wikipedia page for 1994’s A Date With the Smithereens—the album on which “Miles From Nowhere” first appeared—does, in fact, list “Rock/Metal” as its genre. However, on the page for the song itself, the listed genres are “Power Pop” and “Alternative Rock.”

I opted for “Power Pop” and immediately updated my iTunes data.

The story would have ended there, except—as will happen with Wikipedia—I started clicking around other pages.

One page was for the band itself. Toward the end of the too-brief history of the band was this sentence:

“Lead singer Pat DiNizio died on December 12, 2017.”

The footnote for this sentence linked to this poignant New York Times obituary.

What the bleepity-frick?!? How had I missed this?

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In five trips to NOIR CITY, only in 2016 did I need to leave early.

The very next film I would have seen that late-January Monday was the 1950 Nicholas-Ray-directed masterpiece In a Lonely Place (followed by The Two Mrs. Carrolls—it was “Humphrey Bogart: Artist” night).

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In a key moment, Bogart’s Dixon Steele recites to Gloria Grahame’s apprehensive Laurel Gray some doggerel he wants to include in the screenplay he is writing:

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

One of the first Smithereens tracks I played after learning that the charismatic DiNizio had died was a haunting number (featuring back-up vocals from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Suzanne Vega) from their masterful 1986 full-length debut Especially For You.

The song’s name?

In a Lonely Place.”

I had known the song since 1997, so it was a definite “ohhh—that’s where that came from” moment when I first saw the film—and that scene, specifically—about five years later.

Did I mention the song’s refrain is:

I was born the day I met you/

Lived awhile when you loved me/

Died a little when we broke apart.

Twice in the song, the next lyrics are:

Yesterday, it would have mattered/

Now today it doesn’t mean a thing/

All my hopes and dreams are shattered now.

These lines strongly echo dialogue from the film’s climactic scene.

As if to hammer home the point, the video for “Lonely Place”—featuring a beatnik DiNizio and a pixie-like Vega—is photographed in moody black and white, making it, visually at least, a kind of contemporary Greenwich village noir (photograph from here).

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Other, more oblique film noir allusions may be found in the Smithereens’ catalog.

The high-intensity rocker “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” also from Especially For You, includes this pithy encapsulation of the lures of a femme fatale:

She was tall and cool and pretty/

And she dressed as black as coal/

If she asked me to, I’d murder/

I would gladly lose my soul.

Two years later, Green Thoughts would feature the melancholy “Deep Black” (could there be a more noir title?) and the shimmering “Spellbound,” which could easily be a reference to the 1945 film noir directed by Alfred-Hitchcock.

Finally, there is “Top of the Pops” from 1991’s Blow Up which includes the lyrics:

Two-time, two ton hangover king/

The bride wore black/

We were ready to swing.

I cannot hear that lyric without thinking of The Bride Wore Black, the 1946 noir novel written by psychological suspense maven Cornell Woolrich and filmed by Francois Truffaut as La Marieé Etait en Noir in 1968.

The video for “Top of the Pops,” in which the band appears in various Atlantic City locales, has some distinctly noir flourishes, particularly the black-and-white 1940s sequence in which a bathing beauty poses for members of the press nattily attired in trench coats and fedoras.

I freely admit that, beyond the pointed homage to In a Lonely Place, I may simply be imposing my own noir sensibilities onto The Smithereens.

Or there may be even more noir allusions I have missed—yet one more reason to keep playing their music.

Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.

Until next time…

[1] Almost always a full-length album or extended play (33 rpm), though it could also be a single (45 rpm) or even simply when the song was written or recorded (as with older classical pieces, or jazz and blues sides).

[2] This is using the exact artist credited to a track. Eventually, I will collapse these artists into meta-artists. For example, “Bob Seger” (8 tracks. 14 plays), “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band” (23, 106) and “Bob Seger System” (1,5) will all be considered “Bob Seger+”

[3] The movie may be a hot mess, but the soundtrack is worth a listen.

[4] I have a memory of seeing videos for tracks like “A Girl Like You” and “House We Used To Live In”, but I cannot imagine where that would have been.

[5] A DJ friend of a friend gave her a load of 1980’s vintage vinyl, and she passed it on to me.

NOIR CITY: A photographic epilogue

In this follow-up to the chronicling of my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, I take considerable artistic license with photographs of San Francisco. To read the entire series, please start here (or with this related, more analytic post).

It is an open question whether I would have grown so inordinately fond of this film festival if it were held anywhere but San Francisco, a city I loved long before I attended NOIR CITY 12 in 2014.

In my recent nine-part travelogue I focused primarily on my sojourn in NOIR CITY 16 (January 26 – February 4, 2018). As a result I elided San Francisco locales I visited during prior festivals but not this year.

I will redress that oversight in two parts. First, I will describe specific places not mentioned in the NOIR CITY 16 posts. Second, I will present quasi-artistic photographs of streets and buildings, with a brief digression on the street-facing fire escapes endemic to San Francisco. I then conclude with a haunting question.

Part I: Specific Sites

Following an early-morning flight from Boston that deposited me in San Francisco at 12:30 pm (all times PST) on Friday, January 24, 2014—leaving me so sleepy I watched my brand new, monogrammed suitcase and valet bag ride around the luggage carousel many times before a helpful airport worker pointed them out to me–I met my friend PH at the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was the “official” hotel of NOIR CITY (that honor has gone to the Hotel Rex since 2016), and they greeted me in style:

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I quickly made myself comfortable…

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…in this small…

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…albeit unusually decorated room (this painting in the bathroom enthralled me).

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Sir Francis Drake Hotel. PH and I walked the one-and-a-half blocks east on Post to this storied boutique hotel (one block north on Powell from Union Square), where PH’s friend worked in its diverse bars and restaurants.

We found her tending the quiet main lobby bar.

As we sat, drank (unwise given my exhaustion level) and ate surprisingly-unappetizing flatbread pizza, this imposing model of Drake watched over us.

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The hotel did achieve culinary redemption when PH and I ate at the superb Scala’s Bistro my last night there (Monday, February 3, 2014); PH’s friend waited on us with amiable grace.

Aquatic Park/Ghirardelli Square. On Sunday, January 26, 2014, I took my first meandering walk through Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Here, I look south on Kearny at Vallejo…

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…before looking west on Vallejo.

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Here I look north on Mason at Grant…

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…then climbed Lombard Street before arriving in Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square.

Sometime before 3 pm, I wandered into the Winery Collective, located in the nautical-themed Argonaut Hotel, in response to a very full bladder.

The rest rooms were located in the connecting lobby of the Argonaut. Returning to the winery, where I had deposited by stuff, I started a long conversation with the charismatic African-American oenophile working behind the counter.

She did require much persuasion for me to sample these wines:

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My view as I sipped:

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You cannot go to San Francisco and not order a sourdough soup bowl. I took this photograph some 20 minutes later, in the Blue Mermaid Restaurant, located in the lobby of the Argonaut.

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It was a chilly, foggy day—which made the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Aquatic Park even more dramatic

 I actually explored the park—and Ghirardelli Square—when I returned in 2015.

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This park serves as one end of the Powell & Hyde cable car route. After my wine and soup, I waited a long time to board a cable car to return to the Prescott. In fact, I ended up running so late that I needed to take a taxi to the Castro Theatre, arriving just in time to enjoy two films noir from Japan—Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel) and Nora Inu (Stray Dog)—both directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

Unique Sweets. My wife Nell and I started regularly watching Food Network and Cooking Channel in the early 2010s. An early Cooking Channel favorite was Unique Sweets.

The third episode from Season 4 (“San Fran Sweet Treats”) highlighted three desert-themed restaurants: Craftsman and Wolves, Dandelion Chocolate and The Ice Cream Bar. Originally airing December 1, 2013, I re-watched it OnDemand before leaving for San Francisco.

On the morning of Monday, January 27, 2014, I set off in search of the first two, conveniently located next to each other on Valencia Street.

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Yes, that is sipping caramel.

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The aromas in Dandelion Chocolate are so enticing they blur your vision.

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I still have that gray fleece.

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As for the Ice Cream Bar, just bear with me.

PH lives near Haight-Ashbury, so on the afternoon of Friday, January 31, 2014, we toured this iconic  neighborhood.

I had been hearing (and seeing) a great deal of Bettie Page vintage clothiers, so we stopped in.

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After lunch at Crepes on Cole, where I took this photograph for our vegetable-chomping younger daughter…

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…we traveled back in time to this vintage ice cream/soda fountain.

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John’s Grill. Towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett writes:

Spade went to the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company’s station in Powell Street and called Davenport 2020. “Emergency Hospital, please….Hello, there’s a girl in suite twelve C at the Alexandria Hotel who has been drugged….Yes, you’d better send somebody to take a look at her….This is Mr. Hooper of the Alexandria.”

He put the receiver on its prong and laughed. He called another number and said: “Hello, Frank. This is Sam Spade….Can you let me have a car with a driver who’ll keep his mouth shut?….To go down the peninsula right away….Just a couple of hours….Right. Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street, as soon as he can make it.”

He called another number—his office’s—held the receiver to his ear for a little while without saying anything, and replaced it on its hook.

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to this table.

“All set, Mr. Spade. She’s full of gas and rearing to go.”

“Swell.” Spade emptied his cup and went out with the thick-set man.

I first visited John’s Grill in November 2003, while in San Francisco for a scientific conference—and of course I ordered “Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops.”

On the evening of Monday, January 27, 2014, I returned.

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This is the actual prop used in the iconic 1941 film noir.

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Almost one year later (Thursday, January 15, 2015), I returned; the novelty had worn off, though.

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The Ferry Building (on The Embarcadero). PH and I caught a ferry to Sausalito from here on the morning of Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

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Sears Fine Food. Lured by the neon sign and its apparent historic importance, I stopped in here for a snack on the late afternoon of Monday, February 3, 2014 (my last day in NOIR CITY 12).

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The place was not exactly hopping.

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As someone who has watched many episodes of Restaurant: Impossible, that made me nervous. I do not recall what I ordered, but it was nothing special.

Part 2: No Particular Place To Go.

Arresting buildings and interesting views. From 2014, in no particular order, we begin with this vista in Haight-Ashbury…

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…before moving to these gorgeous “noir” buildings on Powell between O’Farrell and Ellis.

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Here the street-facing fire escapes are plainly visible.

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Fire escapes are often a visual focal point in films noir. Like Venetian blinds, prison bars and slatted stairwells, they allow light to be broken into jagged shards, mimicking German expressionists.

But these fire escapes were often in the rear of apartment buildings, allowing private ingress and egress (did nobody lock their windows between 1941 and 1959?), perhaps to frame a detective for murder (e.g.¸ The Dark Corner) or simply as part of daily life (e.g., Rear Window). Or a young boy could sleep on them, inadvertently witnessing a murder, as in The Window.

Our Brookline neighborhood’s rabbit warren of alleys, paths and stairways is littered with rear fire escapes—and I love their metallic glint in the muted glow of street lamps and safety lights at night.

But having them front and center the way they are in San Francisco is such a visual contrast to how they are typically seen (or, to be precise, not seen) that they fascinate me.

Here is my 2018 photograph of the Rex, cropped to emphasize its street-facing fire escape:

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One final shot from 2014, looking up from Powell and Ellis.

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From 2015, again in no particular order, we have this building looming over Chinatown at the intersection of Grant and California.

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This is the Transamerica Pyramid as seen from Kearny, just south of Pacific.

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It is a long descent to Alcatraz from the corner of Green and Taylor.

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Looking toward the Bay Bridge from Broadway and Taylor.

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Looking up on Taylor from Ina Coolbirth Park, between Vallejo and Green.

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I was smitten with this vintage trolley on 17th Street, just around the corner from the Castro.

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Here are additional vistas from 2018.

The Bay Bridge seen from Vallejo, between Mason and Taylor.

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Looking northeast from Vallejo and Taylor:

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Looking south on Mason from Washington.

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This alley off Stockton, between Post and Bush, caught my eye…

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…as did this view looking east on Geary from Powell, at the southern edge of Union Square.

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Daughter-inspired. I took these first two photographs by Dragon’s Gate, at Grant and Bush.

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This now-defunct store on Powell seemed intended for our highly-imaginative younger daughter.

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From 2015, we have this storefront on Grant, between Bush and Sutter.

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 I took this photograph in 2017 for our athletic bookworm eldest daughter.

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Noir-tistry. I achieved these John-Alton-inspired effects by setting “Light” and “Color” to -100 and “Clarity” to 100.

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Look—another street-facing fire escape.

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Oddities. I took this photograph at 535 Valencia, just north of Craftsman and Wolves/ Dandelion Chocolate, in 2014. As far as I know, my mother never made sushi…or mixed particularly interesting drinks.

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One final question (unanswered since 2015): What did John do to deserve this fate—and in what “one way” will it happen?

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Until next time…

NOIR CITY 16: An unexpectedly Super ending!

This is the ninth—and last—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 ends in a Super way, and I fly (like an Eagle) home. You may read the first eight posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

The first thing I recorded in my faithful companion (unfortunately, I had left my small green pencil sharpener in Lori’s Diner the night before) for Sunday, February 4, 2018 was:

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HOT NIGHT IN THE OLD BURG

After 10 days and 22 films, I was getting loopy…and fighting something:

IGNORING NOT FEELING WELL.

But mostly what I was contemplating that final day of NOIR CITY 16 was not Wicked Woman and The Big Heat, it was whether my Philadelphia Eagles could upset Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

[You can take the boy out of Philadelphia…]

I had intended to wear my faded Eagles t-shirt (gifted some years back from a friend’s late father) under my black-and-white-checked shirt, black suit jacket, gray slacks and dark red argyles, but it was too warm.

While enjoying hot cakes, bacon, black coffee and orange juice at Orphan Andy’s, I listened to the man sitting to my right at the counter discourse on the history of NOIR CITY. He noted that it began 16 years ago with a collection of films set in San Francisco, and commented on the debut of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd as a popular on-screen duo in This Gun For Hire (screened eight days earlier), noting Robert Preston had been intended to be the film’s star.

With The Game scheduled to begin around 3:30 pm (all times PST, unless noted), I opted to watch the 1 pm screening of Wicked Woman and the 7 pm screening of The Big Heat.

At 12:18 pm, I was on the Mezzanine of the Castro Theatre schmoozing with Czar of Noir Eddie Muller about the toll these festivals take (“an accumulation,” I recorded). I also discussed the “challenge of packing” with NOIR CITY veteran Amy Sullivan.

After the slouching grime of Wicked Woman—a textbook example of “fate deals you a bad hand, so you shrug your shoulders and keep moving” film noir—I worked at the merchandise table, preparing to oversee the analogous table at NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

[One customer was yours truly; I purchased a copy of Alan K. Rode’s biography of “film noir tough guy” Charles McGraw. Later in the evening, co-Merchandise Manager Elana Meow would say “you are that guy, right” and grant me the staff two-for-one discount on matching NOIR CITY t-shirts for our daughters.]

The next four hours are a blur of television, iPhone screens and updates from home on the 2018 Puppy Bowl.

It was 0-0 in the first quarter when I started watching in Twin Peaks; I did not order anything, I just stood and watched a suspended television. I did let out a muffled cheer when an early Eagles field goal put them ahead 3-0.

Next: Marcello’s, where I had one pepperoni/black olive slice and one Hawaiian slice. They have televisions as well.

There is a television you can watch through the glass window of Slurp Noodle Bar to which I would periodically return.

Clearly I was restless—though these words could also describe a typical night at the Castro:

IN—OUT—UP—DOWN—ON STREET—OFF STREET

Wicked Woman was rescreened at 4:20 pm, so I was able to slip into the upper level of the auditorium to watch a key late scene I had missed earlier (my bladder was VERY insistent): Beverly Michaels grapples with Percy Helton in her squalid rented room, before Richard Egan bursts in and draws all manner of wrong conclusions.

This is how I recorded the rest of The Game (exchanging updates with other folks hawking wares on the Mezzanine) in my little black Moleskine notebook:

15-12 JUST BEFORE HALFTIME. OY. à 22-12.

22-19

29-19

29-26

32-26

Crud—Patriots take a one-point lead, 33-32!

At this point the sports app on my iPhone, which I had kept charged behind the merchandise table, told me it was “End of Regulation.”

Weren’t there just four-plus minutes left?

The evening crowd had started to arrive. I recall standing with Ken and Emily Duffy, trying to absorb what I thought was a painful one-point loss.

But, wait!

The game was NOT over. The Eagles scored a touchdown (no extra point) to take a 38-33 lead with only two-plus minutes left—still time for one more miracle Patriots comeback.

In the meantime, we were gathering in the auditorium to watch the 7:00 pm screening of The Big Heat—my last stint in my favorite aisle seat (left side, five rows from lobby doors), at least for this trip. I discreetly tracked the score on my iPhone (though one patron chastised me for the light)…and read text messages from FF announcing her impending arrival.

A sack of Brady kept the Patriots from scoring…and a final Eagles field goal made the score:

Eagles 41, Patriots 33

My eyes could not comprehend the 00:00 left on the clock—that the Eagles had finally won a Super Bowl (in only their third appearance).

The Big Heat had just begun (I had seen it twice before), so I ducked out into the lobby to cheer[1]…then continued out to Castro Street to meet FF (who had watched the game in a bar down the street).

This Fritz-Lang-directed masterpiece is an essential film noir. According to my “noir-consensus scores,”[2] it ranks 11th (12-way-tie) with 30 LISTS and 20th with 45.5 POINTS. These were the highest scores of all 24 films screened at NOIR CITY 16, topping (by POINTS) This Gun For Hire [tie-#30], The Blue Dahlia [tie-#38], Shadow of a Doubt [tie-#70] and I Wake Up Screaming [tie-#89].

Watching that final NOIR CITY film (The Shanghai Gesture in 2014, The Honeymoon Killers in 2015, Victoria [Einz Zwei Funf Acht] in 2017[3]) is bittersweet, as I imply here:

THEN THE BIG HEAT ENDED…AND THAT WAS THAT.

There was still the final showing of Wicked Woman at 8:45 pm, but for me the films had ended.

And I abandoned my seat to the cleaning crew.

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FF needed to return home, but before she left we sat on one of the plush benches in the lobby and had a fascinating conversation about, inter alia, our respective lives, and both the story and preparation of the book I am writing.

Then I returned—where else?—to the Mezzanine to await the start of the Passport-holders-only “Farewell Bash,” arriving in time to witness co-Show-Runner Manessah Wagner and another woman bring out this cake:

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Mingling while enjoying my last cocktail (Corpse Reviver) from the representative of Stookey’s Club Moderne, I drifted between a few different groups, including Ken Duffy and Imogen Smith (due credit to official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne)…

Ken, Imogen, me Farewell Bash

…and these three women (L to R: Isabella, Rose, Melissa):

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In a prior post, I noted that Melissa had mistakenly pegged me as “Ben” after meeting me on the Castro MUNI station platform Monday night. This “misnomer” sparked a hysterical round of ever-funnier first names for me, in what was the single funniest conversation I had at NOIR CITY.

The concluding raffle was held.

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The cake was sliced and distributed, prompting me to record: FORCING WAY TO CAKE.

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A complimentary glass of champagne was also offered to each of us to toast the end of a monumentally successful festival.

Finally, it was time for last-minute photographs, like this one of Wagner and me…

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…and this one of Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, Annabelle Zakaluk, and me (credit to Hearne again)…

Annabelle and I Farewell Bash

…and the farewells.

NOIR CITY patrons are one large cinephilic family, and the Castro is where we hold our family reunion every mid-winter. The party lasts for 10 days, and once it concludes, it can be difficult saying goodbye. This is why I made particular note of the warm hugs I shared with Smith, among other, as we parted (until next year).

When Ken and Emily Duffy left, I walked outside with them. A vaping patron named Jeff took this appropriately blurry (I am emotional writing this) photograph of us.

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Not long after, co-Show-Runner Rory O’Connor addressed the remaining hearty few.

“It is now 11:30. All you [something on the order of “gunsels, femme fatales, crooks and cheats”], go home!”

This was my cue to make a farewell tour of the Castro while snagging a fountain Coke from the concessions stand even though they had closed (I put a two dollar bills in the tip jar as payment).

Saying my final farewells, I walked out of the theatre with Isabella and Melissa. The previous night, we had received tickets for a half-priced cocktail at Stookey’s and made a loose plan to go before I left. Isabella opted not to join us after all (something about her car), but Melissa and I took one last MUNI ride to Powell then climbed Mason to Stookey’s.

A Bessie Smith recording was playing quietly on the Victrola when we entered. Melissa ordered a glass of champagne; I ordered a rye Manhattan. Our conversation was stilted until we started talking about various relationships; then the words flowed like water.

Her Lyft home drove me the two blocks to the Hotel Rex.

Over the course of my stay, I had held entertaining late-night conversations with the primary overnight desk clerk at the Rex. She had told me how much she loved the apple pie a la mode at Lori’s; we had agreed to share a piece one night.

This was the night. I dropped off my long gray raincoat and walked the half-block east on Sutter one last time. I bought the pie a la mode for her and a BLT with avocado (on white toast, unfortunately) for me.

We stood at the front desk and ate and chatted for maybe an hour. She tried to reserve a car to the airport for me, but could not reach the service; I crossed my fingers.

Finally, I took the elevator to my sixth floor room to shower, pack and “check in” my Virgin America flight (scheduled to leave at 9:25 am, Monday, February 5, 2018), including reserving a seat (6B—curses, middle again!) in the process.

Following a long “good morning four ladies I love and miss” text to my wife Nell, I turned out the light then tossed and turned for three hours.

**********

I awoke at 6:09 am.

Not only was there no car (I ultimately had to download—and use—the Uber app to my iPhone), but they were unable to print out my final receipt.

Unlike 11 days earlier, I sailed through check-in and security. While eating my “Big Ole Breakfast” (which took a long time to prepare) at Lark Creek Grill, I talked to an older couple from Philadelphia who were also still in shock over the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory.

The flight was relaxingly uneventful, though I needed to use the bathroom enough that I recorded this “explanation”:

NOT ENOUGH SLEEP, TOO MUCH COFFEE, TOO MUCH BAD [i.e, not always healthy] FOOD AND ALCOHOL ON RUN. ERP.

History repeated itself: the women sitting in the aisle seat watched Gifted. I was more excited to stare at a screen one row in front—even without sound, Caddyshack makes me laugh out loud.

Otherwise, I dozed and read through my notes, which conclude:

THIS IS PAGE #102 OF NOTES.

Landing safely in Boston at 6:13 pm EST, I used the rest room one final time before collecting my two checked bags and hailing a taxi.

Exceptional as my sojourn in NOIR CITY had been, a tremor of relief and excitement passed through me as we drove out of Logan Airport and under the green metallic sign reading “I-90 / I-93 / Williams Tunnel.”

Maybe 20 minutes later, we pulled up in front of our Brookline home, the final event checked off of my schedule.

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Until next time…

[1] Much as I had to dash into the alley behind our Brookline home on the evening of October 28, 2008, to jump up and down, fists pumping, when my beloved Philadelphia Phillies won their second-ever World Series. Our eldest was just an infant, and I did not want to wake her.

[2] “Since March 2015, […] I have been compiling a comprehensive Excel database of film noir titles. To date, I have gathered 45 publicly-available lists, both explicit […] and implicit […]. For all 4,825 titles in the database […] I also have […] two “noir-consensus” scores […]:

LISTS: number of times a film was included on one of 32 “official” lists (124-3,253[1] titles). […]  All lists are weighted equally.

POINTS: LISTS plus…1 point for appearing on one of 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles). […] 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.”

[3] I left NOIR CITY 14 early due to a family medical emergency.

NOIR CITY 16: Listen…to…the…sounds…

This is the eighth 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 listen. A lot. You may read the first seven posts here, here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

I passed another “wakeful restless” night before waking (again prior to my alarm) on the morning of Friday, February 2, 2018. In my notes I blame “too much caffeine and late night eating.”

Before rising, however, here are two details I neglected in previous posts.

First, while waiting for a J, K or L car on the Castro MUNI station platform Tuesday night, official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne took this brilliant photograph of me. It is the “inset” photograph on my Twitter home page (@drnoir33).

Dennis Hearne photo Jan 2018

Second, our eldest daughter had baked cupcakes of which she was very proud, texting this photograph at 2:33 pm (all times PST) on Wednesday:

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That Friday, I was meeting ES for lunch (12:30 pm, Super Duper Burger, 721 Market), so I opted against a sit-down breakfast. Clad in bright blue, I ambled east on Sutter.

I stopped for coffee at Posh Bagel. With time to spare, I sat on the small white stone wall in front of the e*Trade building, where Sutter ends at Market, to drink it and call my wife Nell.

Everyone felt better at home. Despite frigid temperatures, our youngest daughter had sailed off the previous evening with a family friend to “skate under the stars.” This same daughter had recently started Girl Scouts, so we discussed the incongruity—and persistence—of Girl Scouts selling cookies just beyond the concrete steps leading down to the Castro station.

A night or two earlier, a young man I befriended last year described one girl’s pitch:

“Only 11 boxes of Thin Mints left! Come and get ‘em! Only 11 boxes!”

Someone must have bought two boxes, because suddenly it was:

“Nine boxes! Come and get ‘em! Only nine boxes of Thin Mints left!”

Nell had her own tale. A short walk from our apartment is a park where she runs our three-year-old golden retriever—this sweet pathetic lump—most mornings.

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That morning, she had seen a fox running up and down the steps at the park. Given the wild turkeys that roam our residential streets and alleys, we speculated if they and the foxes would form rival gangs.

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ES appeared in front of Super Duper Burger shortly after me, at 12:25 pm. While waiting I had been spellbound by a large 40-something white man standing on the sidewalk playing Michael Jackson songs (“Beat It” among them) on his electric guitar to pre-recorded instrumental backing.

My single patty burger, medium, with “everything” plus cheddar, washed down with a strawberry shake, was immensely satisfying. As we ate, I observed that many San Franciscans—at least near the Hotel Rex—wore black (not inappropriate for a film noir festival)[1]. ES (who himself sported a light black coat) ascribed it to a “too cool for school” attitude among San Franciscans. I accepted that, but noted that I had worn bright blue for the contrast.

After lunch, we meandered toward his downtown meeting. Heading southeast on 3rd, we turned left onto Minna, passing The Pink Elephant Alibi. I sent our eldest daughter—who loves elephants—this photograph (alas, it was not purple, her favorite color).

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Two more blocks northwest on Minna, we stopped to marvel at the outer shell of the Transbay Transit Center.

Bus station

Passing the Millennium Tower, ES noted that it was what “what innovation looked like in the 90s,” but now seems passé—and troubled.

“Everything has a half-life,” I mused.

As I walked back to the Rex after parting from ES, the San Francisco Chronicle building caught my eye.

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An hour later (2:37 pm), I pulled out my Discover Card in Chinatown’s Sophia’s Choice Gift Shop to purchase this elephant figurine for our eldest daughter—and realized that I had left my debit card in an ATM near the Castro Theatre the night before.

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Seriously?

My bank representative was friendly and efficient, however, and the lost card proved only a minor inconvenience.

For the record, this is the stuffed panda I had purchased on Tuesday for our youngest daughter.

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**********

Before dressing for the evening showings of The Accused and The Threat, I will reflect (inspired by ES—“I love to study sound; music is just a subset”) upon the “many sounds of San Francisco”

Walking to the Powell MUNI station each day, I hear:

  • metallic clattering of giant cable-car cables gliding under Powell
  • music in the open space before I walk down to the station (g., vigorous rhythms beaten on real AND plastic drums, electronic music booming from stereo speakers as people dance)
  • buskers playing just inside the station (saxophone usually, though I had a long conversation with a young female violinist one night in 2015)

Besides the gentleman reimagining Thriller on Market, there was the guitar and bass combo playing in front of Twin Peaks one night. And that time the Green Street Marching Band passed in front of the six men playing traditional Chinese music at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus.

Every night in Lori’s Diner, I was regaled by a selection of late 50s, 60s and early 70s pop songs (I now appreciate the vocal harmonies of Spanky & Our Gang), while anything could pour from the speakers outside Castro Coffee Company (Nirvana? hypnotic German synthpop?). I delighted in hearing Talking Heads playing in Orphan Andy’s. However, none of these can top the young woman singing outher apartment window on California.

David Hegarty’s majestic organ is the ambient backdrop to patrons gathering in the Castro auditorium, a joyful counterpoint to the rumbling din of conversations on the Mezzanine. You can feel the swell of excitement as Hegarty launches into “San Francisco.

Finally, there is the disembodied female MUNI announcer: “Approaching. Outbound. One car. J. J. Approaching in two minutes.”

This is the soundscape of NOIR CITY.

**********

That night was the last I wore a tie:

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My slightly-askew bow tie was no match for Ken Duffy’s, who bowed out of a second attempt to play Name That Noir due to laryngitis (NOIR CITY unfortunately overlaps with “the crud” season).

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Clearly our daughters were accustomed to my being away: during out “good night” call (around 5:30 pm), they were far more interested in Hunter Street than their Daddy.

This was a rare evening no friend joined me, so I had time to enjoy a delicious bowl of minestrone (with buttery rye toast) at Orphan Andy’s. (Later that evening, an older patron named Ruby—husband of jazz pianist Dave—would ask me, “Where is your girl of the day?”)

Mingling on the Mezzanine, I heard Annabelle Zakaluk, Ms. NOIR CITY 2018,  reveal it took two hours just to “tease the under layer” of her beautifully-sculpted red hair—which needed to last two days.

A short time later, in front of the Castro, I heard the story behind Showrunner Manessah Wagner’s exotic first name; suffice to say it involves 1984 and the Biblical story of Joseph.

As for the films…I am not a Loretta Young fan (her saccharine portrayals put me off), so The Accused did little for me, despite a solid plot (woman kills a rapist—one of her psychology students—in self-defense then struggles to conceal the act). Perhaps tellingly, it was better received by the women I spoke to than the men.

The Threat, with gravel-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw, was more interesting, but still not one of my favorite NOIR CITY 16 films.

Afterward, I joined Melissa (impeccably-dressed young woman I met on the Castro station platform Monday night) and another woman—a local actress—for drinks at Twin Peaks.

At first there were no free tables, so we joined three older men—one of whom engaged me in an intense discussion about the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances in the upcoming Super Bowl.

When a table opened, we took it, and proceeded to have one of those awkward conversations between friendly strangers in a noisy place.

I sought out a rest room at one point. The one downstairs had no lock. As I gently pushed the door open, I saw two young women helping a young man with his head perched in readiness over the porcelain toilet bowl.

“Oh. Excuse me.”

Walking up the short flight of stairs to the narrow overhanging interior balcony, I appreciated the large plastic bowl of condoms on its ledge, having worked as a data analyst for a Philadelphia-based family-planning non-profit for four years.

After our drinks, we were hungry, so we walked across Castro for slices at Marcello’s. Our new friend then needed to find some other friend, somewhere or other, so she departed.

Melissa kindly gave me a lift to the Rex. However, not knowing that area of San Francisco well, we could not discern where to turn left from Market (in retrospect: Van Ness).  Thinking we would have better luck on Mission, we turned right on 3rd.  No dice. Eventually, we made an illegal left turn into an alley behind a hotel; turning around, we were able to make the two rights to return to Market. However, we had gone too far, and we needed to double back then head towards Chinatown to finally reach Sutter.

Having just had pizza, I only had a mug of black decaf at a quiet Lori’s.

**********

I woke at 9:42 am on Saturday, February 3, 2018. By 10:27, dressed in a brown sport coat, red-and-green plaid shirt, light beige khakis and dark red argyles, I was walking down Powell.

I repeated the previous Saturday’s breakfast (almond muffin, banana, 16 oz medium roast coffee, orange juice).

After that I chatted with Executive Showrunner Richard Hildreth (who had twice received cheers and applause for his graceful removal of a microphone stand, amplifier and stool from the stage) about his journey from Connecticut to the Castro. I learned how the Castro let go Anita Monga, “one of the best film programmers in the country,” and tried to program on its own; that did not end well.

The afternoon program of Southside 1-1000 and The Underworld Story was a knockout. As with The Unsuspected and I Walk Alone, I had recently seen Underworld (the “A” film of the pair; I forget why Eddie Muller reversed them) on Amazon streaming at home, but it was even better at the Castro.

And Southside, a taut B-movie thriller starring the underrated Don DeFore, instantly became my favorite of the 14 films I saw for the first time—though that could simply be watching it with my first bag of hot-buttered popcorn of the festival.

Following Southside, I helped a woman from Boston who had sat behind me find her sunglasses. As I crawled around on the floor, someone said to me,

“You’ve done this before.”

“Many times.”

[That someone may have worn a “yellow fleece/ brown horn rimmed glasses”—or this refers to a patron who calls me “Boston” who passed by at that point.]

Following a tuna salad with provolone on whole wheat with everything but mustard from Rossi’s Deli, I walked down Castro to Dog-Eared Books for last-minute souvenir shopping; I bought a beautifully-illustrated book of “in their own words” stories of San Francisco for Nell. Walking back, I photographed this tribute to a literary hero, one of many on the Castro “walk of fame.”

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Returning to the Mezzanine, photographer Fred Lyon graciously autographed a copy of his stunning new book, San Francisco Noir, to our daughters. The spry 93-year-old then told me he was jealous of my snap-brim gray fedora.

“I bought it in a store on South Street in Philadelphia,” I said, as though that explained everything.

At 6:15 pm, I joined Ken and Emily Duffy at Osaka Sushi, where I renewed my love affair with sake (plus crispy tempura calamari, a satisfying miso soup and delectable crab roll). Despite how overwhelmed our young waiter was, we made decent time. FF arrived toward the end, provocatively attired in black, opting for a slice of cheese pizza from Marcello’s to save time.

As we sat in the pizza joint, FF looked at me and said, “You look tired. You look really tired.”

Sure I was tired—but I was still psyched for the evening program of The Man Who Cheated Himself and Roadblock.

I was not the only one who was excited: the Castro was packed.

Still, there was a delay before Muller appeared on stage to introduce Cheated.  (My notes: STARTING REALLY LATE). “Where’s Eddie?” somebody asked.

Appearing at last, he proudly announced that he knew even before he woke up that morning this would be the most successful NOIR CITY ever.

Cue thunderous cheers and applause.

Seguing into the film introduction, Muller talked at length about supporting actress Lisa Howard. Married for a time to Cheated director Felix Feist (20 years her senior), she became a highly influential journalist in the early 1960s before overdosing on barbiturates in 1965, at the age of 35, following a miscarriage.

THAT is a noir story.

**********

Quoting from the home page of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF):

It is our mission to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations.

Three films screened that Saturday (Southside, Underworld, Roadblock) were among the 15 for which the FNF has funded a new 35mm print.

The fourth film—The Man Who Cheated Himself—was the 10th restoration performed by the FNF since 2005. In earlier NOIR CITY festivals, I had seen the gorgeous restorations of Too Late For Tears (2014), Woman on the Run and The Guilty (2015), and Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems; 2016).

The restored Cheated did not disappoint. As with other films, I had previously enjoyed it on Amazon streaming, but this print was a revelation, with a better story than I had remembered (cop’s married mistress kills her husband, leading said cop to investigate the murder alongside his eager-beaver younger brother—who marries Lisa Howard’s character). Seriously, who casts squeaky-clean Jane Wyatt as a femme fatale?

The final eight-plus-minute, dialogue-free sequence at Fort Point is even more breathtaking on the big screen.

Between screenings, after bidding FF good night, I chatted with Melissa on the Mezzanine. She apparently had thought my name was “Ben,” going so far as to ascribe me that name on her Instagram page.

Having sorted that out, I met another strikingly-dressed young film enthusiast (and former Capitol Hill intern—intriguing this former political science doctoral student) named Isabella.

[Ed. Note: Isabella had won the first Name That Noir eight evenings earlier, correctly naming Laura.]

My notes indicate that we joked heartily (something about setting fires—“that’s why I have my water bottle” and “sneezing money”), but my memories fade, and my notes stare blankly back at me. While schmoozing, we each received a card for a half-priced drink at Stookey’s Club Moderne.

“We should go!” one of us announced. I then observed it would have to be that night or the following night, as I was flying out Monday morning.

Hold that thought.

As I noted above, I thoroughly enjoyed the Charles McGraw vehicle Roadblock.

Film noir lacks a clear universal definition[2]. One element I would propose is the conscious decision that sends an otherwise-“innocent” person down an inexorable path of destruction. The foolish choices made by McGraw’s character in Roadblock are archetypal.

After the film (22 down, 2 to go!), I started to exit with Ken and Emily Duffy, planning to ride MUNI for exercise (sleepiness over socializing). Near a street door, though, I joined a conversation with NOIR CITY volunteer Rachel Barnett. Something about Ida Lupino was the lure.

During this conversation—Barnett knew me as the “guy from Boston” who had won Monday’s Name That Noir—I learned that I had rolled my eyes on stage. I thought I had simply nodded my head upon realizing the film being queried.

Oops.

I also learned I had a “signature move” upon entering the Passport-holders door[3].

There was more, but I need to keep some things private (plus, my notes are not ringing the correct bells).

Walking up from Powell station, I was clearly feeling “artistic” with my iPhone camera:

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I veered slightly out of my way to pass Stookey’s.  As I did so, I heard a voice calling after me. It was Hearne, a real photographer. We chatted briefly on the sidewalk before I walked the final two blocks to the Rex.

Once there, I took a cold shower—those are long sweaty days in dress clothes—then walked the half-block east on Sutter to Lori’s.

Ordering nachos with vegetarian chili, I made notes in my little black Moleskine notebook and watched the goings-on around me.

A “very disoriented” bearded young white man entered. After shuffling around a bit, he asked my favorite waitress how much one of the muffins on display near the register was. Rather than haggle with him, she simply gave him one.

SIMPLE ACT OF HUMANITY, I wrote.

I wrote in previous posts about the parade of humanity—mostly women—who make the long walk from the door to the restrooms and out again without pause or permission.

What I especially noticed that visit was how young they were. There was the thin white girl in a green skirt (“not look like Sat nite reveler”) and too-shiny rouge. There was the woman in yellow shirt and gray pants. There were others—not many, but enough.

I even wrote, “Begin to think every young woman alone using rest room is sex worker.” Or, at least, those who do not stop to ask, as women simply out for the evening might. Rather, the sex workers have an unspoken agreement with places like Lori’s: do what you need to do, no questions asked.

This is the urban nocturnal ecosystem. The women walk the streets, hiding when the police arrive—but they know that Lori’s is a haven. The panhandlers sometimes come inside, but they are moved out with firm politeness and the occasional muffin or slice of bacon from an abandoned plate. Night owls like me pass the time in quiet conversation—participant observers, to use an old political science term.

To be continued…

[1] This was not unusual in and of itself; the unofficial “uniform” of Philadelphia (especially the Main Line suburbs where I was raised) used to be black over blue jeans, a variation on New York City’s black-on-black.

[2] Which accounts for why only 323 (6.7%) of the 4,825 titles in my film noir database appear on even half of the 32 “official” published lists I have compiled.

[3] “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.”