NOIR CITY 17: New heights of noir!

The streak ended at five.

For a number of reasons (including having already seen 20 of the 24 films to be screened[1]), I did not attend the NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco this year[2]. I had attended—and enjoyed immensely—each of the previous five years after attending the 2014 festival (NOIR CITY 12) on a lark.

After returning home to Brookline from the 2018 festival (NOIR CITY 16), I wrote a 10-part series detailing my extraordinary 11-day trip. You may find all 10 parts towards the end of this recent post.

I also wrote a post in which I observed that the “noir” level of the festival had increased dramatically since the relatively low-level heist-themed NOIR CITY 15 in 2017. By “noir level,” I simply mean the degree to which the films screened at the festival are considered noir by a range of published experts in the field (including being screened at NOIR CITY).

Briefly, since March 2015 I have been constructing an Excel database, which currently consists of 4,825 films discussed, explicitly[3] or implicitly[4], as “film noir” in at least one of 32 publicly-available sources (minimum 120 titles). For each film, I entered all alternate titles, release details (year, format, BW/color, primary production studio), director(s), cinematographer(s) and country(ies) of production. I have also recorded the top-billed (up to 10) actors and actresses (separately by gender) in the 300 films most often considered noir, according to that film’s entry in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). I supplemented these “master” lists with a) sub-lists in the 32 primary sources (e.g., the 50-film canon in Ballinger’s and Graydon’s The Rough Guide to Film Noir) and b) 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles), including the 77 films discussed as noir in Paul Schrader’s seminal 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir[5].”

From these data I calculated two measures:

  • LISTS: number of times a film was included in a primary source (124-3,253 titles[6]), meaning LISTS range from 1-32. All lists are weighted equally.
  • POINTS: LISTS plus “1” if on one of the 13 shorter lists[7] or up to “2” for appearing on a sub-list (up to 100 titles) in one of the 32 primary lists. Currently, POINTS has a maximum of 67.5; Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 points.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that films with higher LISTS/POINTS scores are intrinsically more “noir” than films with lower LISTS/POINTS scores. That would require a consensus definition that does not yet exist[8]. Instead, I simply observe that the higher the LISTS/POINTS score, the higher the level of consensus that a particular title is film noir, because more writers who have examined these films have denoted it as such, however indirectly. That said, only 11% of films in the database have as many as 12.0 POINTS, while only an additional 9% have between 5.5 and 11.5 POINTS. The former I label “Universal,” the latter I label “Debatable,” and the other 80% of films (including 2,327—fully 48%–with only 1.0 POINTS) I label “Idiosyncratic.”

That being said, because a higher POINTS score results in part from inclusion on more smaller lists often specifically intended to highlight exemplary films noir, films with a higher POINTS score can broadly be considered more “noir.”

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Since its inception in 2003, a total of 346 films have been screened at NOIR CITY, primarily at the magnificent Castro Theatre, with 64 screened multiple times; the entertaining Night Editor has been screened four times[9]! These 346 films average 16.4 LISTS and 20.1 POINTS (with medians of 18 and 19, respectively); by comparison, the overall database average is 4.0 LISTS and 4.5 LISTS (both medians=2).

The theme of NOIR CITY 17 was “films of the 1950s,” a natural follow-up to the NOIR CITY 16 theme of “A” and “B” film pairs, 1941-1953. Curiously, while the latter period is generally considered the apex of noir (especially 1944-50), it is clear from Figures 1 and 2 that the years 1950 to 1961 showed no drop-off in noir level[10].

Figure 1:

Average LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-17

Figure 2:

Median LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-17.jpg

In fact, the 2019 NOIR CITY had its highest noir level since 2006, averaging a robust 19.9 LISTS and 25.0 POINTS (medians 20 and 24, respectively). One reason for this high noir level was that every screened film was in the “Universal” category, including the films from 1960 (A bout du souffle [Breathless], 15 POINTS; Psycho, 13 POINTS) and 1961 (Underworld U.S.A., 21 POINTS; Blast of Silence, 12 POINTS) which closed out the festival. Moreover, among the 24 films screened this year, six rank in the top 100 by POINTS (≥29)—including two in the top 10:

Kiss Me Deadly (54.5)

Touch of Evil (52.0)

Pickup on South Street (40.5)

Odds Against Tomorrow (36.5)

The File on Thelma Jordon (35.5)

Angel Face (33.5)

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NOIR CITY is scheduled to return for a second year to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA on June 7, 2019; I will definitely be attending, likely with one or both daughters in tow (less certain of my wife Nell). As of this writing, I do not know which, if any, of the 24 films screened in San Francisco will be screened at the Brattle, though I hope the 10 films include at least one of the four films I still have not seen[11].

As for the yet-to-be-scheduled NOIR CITY 18: as of now I am planning to attend. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] In the previous five years, I typically had already seen only eight of the average 25 films to be screened.

[2] Also, the previous five years the “official” NOIR CITY hotel was closer to Union Square. Due to renovation, this year the “official” hotel was a few blocks from the Castro Theatre. While that is a fun neighborhood, half of the fun of these trips is being a short walk from Chinatown and other “downtown” sites. This made it that much harder to justify the time and expense of an 11-day trip some 3,000 miles to the west.

[3] Dictionaries, encyclopedias, “filmographies” in books about film noir

[4] Cited in the text, however obliquely, in such overviews as Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir, and James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.

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

[6] Range: Mark Osteen’s Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream to John Grant’s A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir

[7] Because each of the three ground-breaking mid-1940s articles by Lloyd Shearer, Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier 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. Shearer, Lloyd. 1945. “Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen,” New York Times Magazine, August 5, 1945. Frank, Nino. 1946. “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: l’Aventure Criminelle.” L’Ecran Francais, August 1946. English translation “A New Kind of Police Drama: The Criminal Adventure” by Alain Silver. Chartier, Jean-Pierre. 1946. “Les americains aussi font des films ‘noirs.” La Revue de Cinema, November 1946. English translation “Americans Also Make Noir Films” by Alain Silver. All three articles were reprinted (pp. 8-23) in Silver and Ursini’s Film Noir Reader 2.

[8] In fact, one goal in constructing this list is to single out the films most-often cited as “noir” then examine those films for commonalities from which a formal definition could be constructed.

[9] 2006, 2009, 2013, 2018

[10] I subtracted one LIST and one POINT from each screened film because appearance at NOIR CITY is one of the primary sources. Simply add one to each value to calculate each year’s actual LISTS and POINTS average and median.

[11] The Scarlet Hour, Trapped, Underworld U.S.A., The Well 

My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

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My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

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Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

Center-City-map-small2.jpg

The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

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When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

IMG_0292.JPG

I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

Berger Storage Company 1915.jpg

And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

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The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

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But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

IMG_0274.JPG

The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

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.

**********

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.

In March 2019, I wrote about my decision not to attend NOIR CITY 17, while updating my quantitative analysis of the festival.

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:

IMG_3762 (2).JPG

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.

**********

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 16: 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…