Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing III

In two previous posts (I, II), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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On Friday, March 20, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 20

And this homage to the brilliant Netflix series Stranger Things by our 4th-grade daughter was on the always-popular white board; apparently she still retains the obsessive love of the show I instilled in her, and one I discussed last December.

Upside Down Nora

While that same daughter had something of a rough morning, our 6th-grade daughter had a terrific morning; the latter girl is genuinely enjoying her workbooks and other projects. Providing ample time for each daughter to exercise and/or FaceTime friends helps immensely as well. That said, it was our younger daughter who, in the evening, asked if we could have “school” again tomorrow (Saturday). I am certainly happy to oblige—I have a review “quiz game” I have been thinking about putting together—but Nell and I suspect her outlook will be different in the morning. Still, to the extent these “classes” are about imposing structure and routine in the era of social distancing, maybe we should do some form of group learning activity every day, including weekends.

As I noted in the first “dispatch,” I planned to teach basic politics/government for an hour and basic applied math for an hour every weekday afternoon—except Friday. To break up the monotony, I will teach a hopefully-more-entertaining form of history on Fridays.

It is no secret I am a massive film noir fan. In October 2018, I had the opportunity to teach a course titled “What Is Film Noir” through Brookline Adult and Community Education. I only had six students, and I had a series of technical glitches trying to show movie clips—using my own DVDs—using Nell’s ancient laptop, but I nonetheless immensely enjoyed those four Wednesday nights.

Our daughters have actually watched a handful of classic films noir: both girls have seen The Maltese Falcon; Murder, My Sweet; Laura; The Naked City; Strangers on a Train and Rear Window; as well as long chunks of Out of the Past. Our older daughter has also seen Double Indemnity. They each spent some time at the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston in June 2018, watching the aforementioned Murder, My Sweet and helping their father sell Film Noir Foundation merchandise; this was my “reward” for having help to set up the festival. And they have certainly heard their father talk at great length about the subject.

It thus made perfect sense when it was time for “Daddy Prepatory” yesterday afternoon for me to set up my desktop computer in the “classroom” and open the PowerPoint slides from my first class. While I basically jumped ahead to slide 22 (of 130), in which I begin to tell the history of film noir as an idea, we did linger briefly on two photographs I had used to help to establish my bona fides to teach this class in 2018.

What is Film Noir

The first one I took in July 2017. It shows part of the “film noir” section at the now-defunct Island Video Rentals on Martha’s Vineyard.

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The second photograph was of yours truly attending NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, California the following winter.

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The two-part class went extremely well, with both girls asking insightful questions for the most part; our younger daughter did try to invoke Stranger Things once or twice, along with other more recent bits of pop culture. In the first hour, we focused on how “film noir” was a label first imposed after the fact on a particular set of American crime films, starting with two French film critics in 1946. After a 30-minute break, I told them two different, albeit broadly overlapping, “origin stories” for film noir:

  1. Traditional story: it was an inevitable organic artistic movement
  2. What in my opinion is a more accurate modification: it emerged from economic and creative necessity with the rise of B-movies in the 1930s

To be fair, by the middle of the second origin story, the usual doodling-based fidgeting had become sitting on the floor playing with our golden retriever, so I wrapped up quickly.

And with that we ended—possibly—classes for week one of our necessary experiment in home schooling.

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In my previous post, I briefly discussed some thoughts I had about the efficacy of using a designated test to determine whether a person has a condition such as the novel coronavirus. Specifically, I introduced the concepts of sensitivity (the percentage of persons who have the condition who test positive for it) and specificity (the percentage of persons who do not have the condition who test negative for it). And, given how hard it is to have 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, I asserted epidemiologists generally prefer to have higher specificity (i.e., fewer false positives), which is achieved by loosening the criteria used to identify the condition. This preference stems from the relative rarity of most conditions epidemiologist study, which results in having many more false positives than false negatives.

Being the sort of person who does these sorts of things, though, I decided to use Microsoft Excel to test this idea. I set up a series of 2×2 tables such as the following in which I varied four values: sensitivity, specificity, prevalence (a proxy for whether everyone is tested, or only those persons deemed likeliest to have the condition) and the total number of tests performed.

Truth

Positive Negative
Observed Positive 142,500 42,500 185,000
Negative 7,500 807,500 815,000
150,000 850,000 1,000,000
Sensitivity 95%
Specificity 95%
Prevalence 15%
# Tested 1,000,000
Ratio FN/FP 5.7

What I was primarily interested in, beyond the raw number of false positives (FP) and negatives (FN), was the ratio of the former to the latter. Table 1 summarizes the results; the number of tests administered did not alter these ratios given the same set of sensitivity, specificity and prevalence values, so I omitted it from the table.

Table 1: Ratio of False Positives to False Negatives Using Different Combinations of Sensitivity, Specificity and Prevalence, Based on 1,000,000 Tests

Prevalence Sensitivity Specificity FP/FN #FP #FN
15% 95% 95% 5.7 42,500 7,500
90% 95% 2.8 42,500 15,000
95% 90% 11.3 85,000 7,500
80% 95% 1.4 42,500 30,000
95% 80% 22.7 170,000 7,500
33% 95% 95% 2.0 33.350 16,650
90% 95% 1.0 33.350 33,300
95% 90% 4.0 66,700 16,650
80% 95% 1.5 33.350 66,600
95% 80% 8.0 133,400 16,650
50% 95% 95% 1.0 25,000 25,000
90% 95% 0.5 25,000 50,000
95% 90% 2.0 50,000 25,000
80% 95% 0.25 25,000 100,000
95% 80% 4.0 100.000 25,000
85% 95% 95% 0.18 7,500 42,500
90% 95% 0.09 15,000 42,500
95% 90% 0.35 7,500 85,000
80% 95% 0.04 30,000 42,500
95% 80% 0.71 7,500 170,000

A test with sensitivity<80% and/or specificity<80% should not be utilized. Also, for any prevalence, the ratio of FP to FN will be the same across cases where sensitivity=specificity, albeit with different raw values.

Here are the primary conclusions from Table 1:

  • The lower the prevalence—or, in the case of COVID-19, the less you restrict testing only to those deemed likeliest to have it—the higher the likelihood you will have many more false positives than false negatives, irrespective of sensitivity and specificity
  • Within a given prevalence level, FP/FN is
    • Lowest when specificity > sensitivity
    • Highest when sensitivity > specificity
    • In the “middle” when sensitivity = specificity
  • The total number of “false” values (FP + FN) is
    • Lowest when both sensitivity and specificity are equal and close to 100%
    • Highest when sensitivity >> specificity

I saw a report on Twitter that 33% of persons testing positive were false positives. Based on these 20 scenarios, that would seem to indicate a situation where a fairly wide swath of the population is being tested (prevalence=15%), both sensitivity and specificity are at least 90%, and sensitivity > specificity. That percentage, which is not THAT meaningful, to be pehonest, would decrease if specificity were equal to or higher than sensitivity.

If you want to explore other scenarios like this, here is a protected copy of the workbook.

Disease Testing Worksheet

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

The Noir of Who: Backstory and Part 1

Back in, I think, 8th grade English class, we read Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. A friend of mine (whose mother would later introduce me at his wedding as “her third son”—a high compliment) was so taken with the intricate web of connections between the book’s many characters that he pulled out a piece of paper and attempted to graph them. He ended up with two columns of identical names with lines connecting nearly every name in the left-hand column to nearly every name in the right-hand column. It looked like a game of cat’s cradle gone horribly wrong, and I was fascinated by it.

To this day I remain fascinated by connections between seemingly disparate things. Because in life, as in art, everything connects to everything when looked at just the right way (though with all due respect to Carl Jung and The Police, I think the “acausal connection” of “synchronicity” is a stretch; like cigars, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence).

It was inevitable that connections like this would make their way into my posts, beginning with describing the joy I took tracking how many actors and actresses from the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of 1935-43 had appeared in the two dozen films screened during the 2015 NOIR CITY film festival. This exemplifies what I would call the “two worlds collided” connection, when disparate interests overlap in an interesting (if not necessarily meaningful) way. Great examples (for me, anyway) would be if I turned on MSNBC one weekday evening—and Rachel Maddow was interviewing director David Lynch or Chris Hayes was dissecting the latest game played by the Philadelphia Phillies[1].

Or when you continually see elements of film noir appearing in Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. I use the word “resurrection” in homage to the scene from the brilliant film noir Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955; 54.5 POINTS) in which Dr. G. E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) says, after he and his goons have tortured Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) to death:

If you revive her, do you know what that would be? Resurrection, that’s what it would be. And do you know what resurrection means? It means raise the dead. And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?

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To be perfectly honest, for most of my life I was not a fan of Doctor Who. My wife Nell (now as ardent a fan of the series as I am) and I had similarly annoyed reactions to the show as children: it always seemed to be airing (or about to start) on our local PBS station just as we wanted to watch something else.

In fairness, I did love the show’s original opening theme (which for a time I conflated with the opening theme from Dark Shadows[2]).

Around 1991, not long after the first incarnation of the series was cancelled, an apartment-mate would watch Doctor Who every Saturday afternoon with a small group of friends. The few times I tried to watch an episode with them, I was stymied (and, frankly, a bit bored) by the serial nature of the show (prior to 2005, a single story would be told in multiple half-hour-long episodes).

And that was that…until May 2010.

At that time, I was vaguely aware that Doctor Who had returned, but it still held no interest for me. But then another friend shared this video with me.

Charmed by Craig Ferguson’s boyish enthusiasm, I relented and decided to watch the first few minutes of a recent episode, expecting to be confused and bored again. Our OnDemand included the current Series (#5). It made sense to start with first episode of the Series (“The Eleventh Hour,”[3] April 3, 2010). I settled onto the sofa, clicked “Play” on the remote control and began to watch.

Within a few minutes, I realized I was inexorably hooked on Doctor Who. It was that compelling. It helped that this was the first episode to feature Matt Smith as The (11th) Doctor, as well as the Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as new companions Amelia Pond and Rory Williams, respectively, and that it started a new storyline under a new showrunner, Steven Moffat[4]. Not only could I enjoy the episode on its own merits, it allowed me (and Nell, also instantly transfixed when I convinced her to watch the episode a day or so later) to ease into the series and its particular iconography.

We watched all of Series 5, first OnDemand and then as they aired, and we have watched every episode since then. Between Series 5 and 6 (I think), I watched the previous four Series’ in order. I also watched some episodes from the first incarnation (1963-89), though I remain less enamored of them (with a few notable exceptions from Tom Baker’s run as the 4th Doctor).

It was only a matter of time before a) our daughters also became fans (our eldest daughter practically memorized this book) and b) we started buying Doctor Who paraphernalia—I even had a TARDIS iPhone case until I inadvertently drove over it a few months ago. And one of the first posts I ever wrote was a data-driven analysis of post-resurrection Doctor Who episodes (updated and vastly improved here).

TARDIS phone.JPG

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As I watched the series, I was also further exploring my growing fascination with film noir. It was inevitable that I would begin to observe “noir” aspects to the series (even if, as Ferguson notably sang, the show “is all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”). Not long after defending my doctorate in December 2014, I started to play with the “Doctor Noir” persona (the appellation was, I believe, coined by a college friend)—even going so far as to adopt the handle @drnoir33 when I joined Twitter in July 2017.

IMG_1595.JPG

The author at the 2015 NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco brandishing a replica of the 11th Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (and omnipresent bow tie).

These two worlds “collided” in my head until June 2018, when I finally sat down to write what would become “The Noir of Who: Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who.”

What I originally expected (naively, perhaps) to be roughly the length of a short peer-reviewed journal article (3,000 words) soon evolved into a 10,000+-word magnum opus. Following some gentle, albeit pointed, criticism from Nell, I whittled it down to just over 8,300 words.

And that was the version I e-mailed to the editors of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY on August 17, 2018, knowing full well the usual procedure for prospective authors is to submit an idea for a piece first; I suppose I was thinking “look, I actually have a finished product for you.” I was also aware there is little overlap between film noir devotees and Whovians, even joking on Facebook when I posted this photograph of my replica of the 9th/10th Doctor’s sonic screwdriver sitting atop a 2015 NOIR CITY souvenir brochure that “nobody here knows what this is.”

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The bottom line is that I was going to write “The Noir of Who” anyway. One reason I remain comfortable with the decision I made nearly two years ago to become a writer, despite not yet earning any income from it, is that as difficult as the writing process is, I have taken more joy in it (especially on this site) than in nearly anything I ever previously done. Moreover, at times it as though ideas need to physically come out of my head and onto the page. (Never mind that it has also been almost two years since I started writing the book I thought would take six months, tops, to write.)

Needless to say, after a bit of nudging, I had a response on September 28: a unanimous “intriguing idea, but far too long to fit within the traditional confines of a print magazine), suggesting I trim the essay to ~1,500 words as a possible installment of “Noir…or Not?” However, in January 2019, the revised version was also unanimously rejected.

Which, I must admit, stung a bit[5]; I was proud of what I had written, and I thought had presented solid examples of the influence of classic film noir on the resurrected Doctor Who. I concede the original submission was both too long for a publication governed by traditional size restraints and somewhat “off-topic.” Indeed, where I struggled most writing “The Noir of Who” was in providing enough information about the series to elucidate its basic premise, characters and themes for readers who had never seen the show without inundating them with unnecessary information. I likely would have had the same challenge establishing what “film noir” is to an audience of Whovians, had I submitted the essay to a Doctor-Who-themed publication.

But in cutting the essay down to 1,500 words, clarity was sacrificed for brevity. Necessary background information on the series, along with many examples of noir influence, was removed.

So after much though (and trying not to think about it), I have decided to post the essay on this site (edited down to just over 7,600 words) in four installments.

The first installment, establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself, may be found below.

Please enjoy.

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The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 1

Typewriter keys pound out narration amid nocturnal views of the Manhattan skyline: “New York, the city of a million stories. Half of them are true, the other half…just haven’t happened yet.”

Mark Hellinger’s closing words in his exemplary film noir The Naked City echo unmistakably: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them,” while the typewriting recalls neo-noir Hammett as the titular detective-turned-writer rewrites the film’s events in a literary Moebius strip.

An older man speaks: “So, will you take the case, Mr. Garner?”

Garner, the narrator, is a dark-haired young man wearing a gray raincoat over a dark suit, tie loosened at the collar: “Sure, why not?”

“Because you don’t believe me,” answers a large gray-haired man in a stylish blue three-piece suit: Dashiell Hammett’s man of power, broadly afraid of nothing and no one.

“For 25 dollars a day plus expenses, I’ll believe any damn thing you like.”

The office where they stand is lit solely by two thick-shaded table lamps behind Garner’s head, a desk lamp, an inconspicuous fire and street lights dimmed by thick curtains.

After more banter, Garner says “Goodnight, Mr. Grayle.” He pockets a packet of bills, dons his gray fedora and departs. Outside, rain soaks Manhattan.

More typing: “The address Grayle gave me was an apartment block in Battery Park. He said it was where the statues lived…I asked him why he didn’t go look himself…He didn’t answer…Grayle was the scaredest guy I knew. If something scared him, I kinda wanted to shake its hand.”

An obscured Garner climbs short stone steps into an eerily dark brick building atop which a red neon sign flashes “WINTER QUAY.” Inside the dusky lobby, he is a dark shadow crossing a black-and-white chessboard tile floor. His shouted “Hello?” causes a cage elevator straight from the Bradbury Building to whirr into life, its car descending and opening with a sharp ding. It deposits Garner at the end of a short hallway with blood-red carpet and doors reminiscent of the blistering-hot hallway at the end of the neo-noir Barton Fink.

The typewritten label affixed to the right of the door to room 702 reads “S. GARNER.” Garner enters with a tentative “Hello? Anyone home?” A standing hat rack holds a fedora and raincoat exactly like Garner’s, while a battered wallet on a wooden side table contains the time-worn private investigator’s photo-license of “S. Garner.” Pulling out his wallet, Garner extracts the identical—albeit practically new—license.

Looking befuddled, Garner hears a noise in the bedroom, where a figure lies in bed. To Garner’s angry-scared “Who are you?” the response is, “They’re coming for you. They’re going to send you back.”

“Who’s coming? Back where?”

“In time. Back in time. I’m you.”

An old man with wispy gray hair sits up in bed, fully lit. Pointing mournfully at Garner, he repeats, “I’m you.”

Garner darts into the hallway, murderous-looking marble statues at either end. Looking from one to the other, they get closer. Garner’s drawn gun looks useless. Entering a dark stairwell—its slats cutting shafts of light—his descent is blocked by statues, forcing him to climb flight after flight as the typing reappears: “1. The Dying Detective.”

On the rooftop, Garner backs to its edge as loud thumps shake the building. He pauses, bewildered. Looming behind him are giant sharp teeth menacingly arrayed inside a wide-open marble mouth. With his head framed by the Manhattan skyline, Garner turns to look, and exclaims, “You gotta be kidding me.”

And we see

Winter Quay Statue of Liberty

…just before the opening credits, not of a classic or contemporary film noir, but of “The Angels Take Manhattan”, the September 29, 2012 episode of the longest-running science fiction television series ever: Doctor Who.

Yet only the overtness of noir distinguishes “Angels.” While Doctor Who has mostly fit Craig Ferguson’s pithy summation (The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, November 16, 2010) as “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”[6], it has also exhibited far more “noir” since its 2005 resurrection than one would expect. Among other elements, the resurrected Doctor Who has effectively utilized three interrelated aspects of classic film noir:

  1. Characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and Chandler’s “good man” gone wrong.
  2. Doubling/mirroring: the divided self
  3. Fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate

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”The Doctor” (original name a secret) is a centuries-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords can see and feel time itself, enabling them to protect the laws of time, including “You can’t rewrite history, not one line!” (“The Temple of Evil,” May 23, 1964).

For unknown reasons, The Doctor stole a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), the device Time Lords use for time/space travel, and ran away from Gallifrey. Despite having all of time and space to inhabit, The Doctor maintains a particular affinity for Earth.

As for The Doctor’s name, in “Twice Upon a Time” (December 25, 2017), the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) warns the about-to-debut 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor), “you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyway…except children. […] But nobody else. Nobody else, ever.” This pseudonymity evokes Hammett’s unnamed Continental Detective Agency operative and reminds us the second “Mrs. DeWinter” in both Daphne DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca and its 1940 film adaptation has no first name.

Doctor Who was conceived by Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who astutely made 27-year-old Verity Lambert the first woman to produce a drama at the BBC. With its hypnotic black-and-white title sequence and intelligent writing, Doctor Who’s debut episode (“The Unearthly Child,” November 23, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was shot—a truly noir debut) instantly distinguished itself. “Unearthly Child” also featured the first of 40+ “companions” to travel with The Doctor and the first startled observation the TARDIS (now permanently disguised as a 1950s British blue police box) is “bigger on the inside.”

2010 T

A life-long fan, Newman once described science fiction “as a marvelous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society.”[7] The same is true of film noir, and not only in sci-fi/noir hybrids like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Actors like John Garfield (critiquing capitalism in Force of Evil) and Robert Ryan (anti-Semitism in Crossfire, racism in Odds Against Tomorrow) used film noir to express their social conscience. Media’s demagogic excesses were excoriated in Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury) and The Underworld Story. And crime-reporter-turned-director Samuel Fuller tackled faux patriotism in Pickup on South Street, inter-racial romance in The Crimson Kimono and prostitution in The Naked Kiss.

Doctor Who connected instantly to film noir, casting popular actor William Hartnell as the peripatetic Time Lord. Hartnell may best be known to film noir fans as Dallow, Pinkie Brown’s (Richard Attenborough) henchman in the 1948 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. Hartnell had played harassed publican Fencie in the 1947 robbery-gone-wrong noir Odd Man Out (co-star Cyril Cusack actually turned down the role of The Doctor), and also appeared in the films noir Appointment with Crime, Escape, Footsteps in the Fog and Temptation Harbor.

Within three years, however, Hartnell’s arteriosclerosis led him to flub lines with increasing regularity. Facing cancellation, Doctor Who’s producers had an ingenious solution: Time Lords could prolong their lives by “regenerating” into an entirely new body (with equally-new personality) while retaining all knowledge and memories. In “The Tenth Planet, Episode 4” (October 29, 1966), The Doctor regenerated into the 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton). Five additional Doctors followed before decreasing ratings and shrinking budgets led to the series’ cancellation in December 1989. Other than a 1996 American series pilot that went nowhere (featuring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor),  the series would not air again until the BBC aired “Rose” on March 26, 2005 (starring Christopher Eccleston at the 9th Doctor). Executive Producer (and chief writer) Russell T. Davies would helm 60 episodes before being replaced by Steven Moffat in “The Eleventh Hour,” himself replaced by Chris Chibnall in September 2018.

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Following the opening credits of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the 11th Doctor enjoys a sunny afternoon in modern-day Central Park with married friends Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). The Doctor reads aloud from the hardboiled “Melody Malone” novel being typed in the cold open. While getting coffee, Rory encounters Weeping Angels, perhaps the most terrifying villains in the resurrected Doctor Who. “Quantum-locked” beings who turn to stone when seen, they are described as:

Weeping_Angel

Sent to 1938, Rory encounters Melody Malone, actually River Song (Alex Kingston), about whom more below. The Doctor and Amy follow in the TARDIS, despite difficulty landing in 1938 Manhattan. They learn Grayle has been torturing a captured Weeping Angel, explaining his terror. Rory soon meets his older self in a Winter Quay apartment, where Manhattan’s Weeping Angels store time energy. After “old Rory” dies, Amy and “young Rory” find themselves trapped on the roof by the Statue of Liberty, the definitive Weeping Angel. “Young Rory” reasons if he dies then and there, the resulting paradox (he cannot be sent back from 2012 if he dies in 1938) would destroy Manhattan’s Weeping Angels. In a heart-stopping moment, Amy and Rory leap together off the roof…and land unhurt in modern-day Central Park, alongside The Doctor and River. But a surviving Weeping Angel sends Rory back again. Since the TARDIS can no longer land safely in 1938 Manhattan, a tearful Amy allows the Weeping Angel to send her to join Rory, whereupon she writes the novel.

Neville Kidd pointedly photographed the 1938 scenes in “Angels” using the low-key high contrast lighting of classic film noir. As producer Marcus Wilson explained in 2012, he “[t]ried to shoot [“Angels”], not in a film noir style but [to…] look like film noir.”[8] In the same interview, Moffat’s “Angels” writing is termed “Chandlerian.” Asked if his “head is full of film noir,” Moffat said, “As research I watched The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.” His research paid off, as the episode successfully uses various film noir tropes—femmes fatale, private detectives, convoluted timelines, doubling/mirroring, and a malevolent-fate ending—to tell a tragic story.

DalekTPO2

Again, however, the resurrected Doctor Who has been aesthetically and tonally darker overall. The in-universe reason for this shift is how the 9th Doctor engineered the end of the last great “Time War,” conflicts fought across all of time and space between Time Lords and Daleks (metal-encased squid-like creatures whose sole purpose is to “exterminate” non-Dalek lifeforms). Weary of the endless carnage, the War Doctor (John Hurt, a “shameful” incarnation between Doctors 8 and 9) simultaneously annihilated the Daleks AND the Time Lords. The devastating psychic impact of this type of act is described by Major Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) in “Hide” (April 20, 2013) as he and The Doctor stand in a literal darkroom (the developing photograph of The Doctor evokes Weegee, whose darkly-beautiful photograph collection Naked City inspired the 1948 film noir):

The Doctor: Yes, but how does that man, that war hero end up here, in a lonely old house, looking for ghosts.

Palmer (remorseful): Because I killed. And I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths. Yet here I am, still alive. It…it does tend to haunt you, living, after so much of…the other thing.

Like Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) after gangsters killed his wife in The Big Heat, the 9th Doctor was “born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge” (“Journey’s End,” July 5, 2008). He is crushed by guilt like Frank Enley (Van Heflin), who betrayed his fellow prisoners of war in Act of Violence, or Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), who allowed another man to be executed for his crimes in Scarlet Street.

Reflecting The Doctor’s transformation, the interior of the TARDIS itself changed from brightly lit

Tardis interior #5.jpg

…into a dark and shadowy lair:

Tardis shadow.jpg

This interrogation scene in “The Idiot’s Lantern” (November 10, 2006), set in 1953 London, has a distinctly noir feel.

Idiots_Lantern_37884

Even new villains physically manifest noir: the tiny piranha-like Vashta Nerada travel as literal shadows, Weeping Angels thrive on darkness and The Silence—Edvard Munch’s The Scream in black suits, white shirts and black ties—are forgotten when you cannot see them (amnesia—a staple of classic film noir plots since 1942’s Street of Chance—as cloaking device).

Silent.jpg

To be continued…

[1] Unlikely perhaps, as Hayes is a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.

[2] Newspapers.com tells me that in 1976 and 1977, it aired at 11:30 pm weeknights on Philadelphia’s Channel 48, right after Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I would watch with my mother. This is a great example of “interrogating memory,” as I thought I saw the beginning of the show around 1983 or so, after a show like Doctor in the House at 11:30 pm or so. And while we are making connections: a star of Dark Shadows was one of the queens of classic-ear film noir, Joan Bennett.

[3] OnDemand did me no favors by listing Billie Piper—who left the series in 2006—as one of the stars of the episode.

[4] Curiously, the last time I had an instant visceral positive reaction like that to an unfamiliar television show was when I stumbled one night onto the “Nightlines” episode of Coupling. I had no idea who any of the characters were, but I pretty much laughed from start to finish. Both Coupling and Series 5 of Doctor Who had the same show-runner: Steven Moffat.

[5] I would also argue the e-mails were unnecessarily…let’s call it “snarky.”

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9P4SxtphJ4 Accessed June 14, 2018.

[7] Cook, Benjamin. January 12, 2006. “Chaos and Creation in the Junkyard, “Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition: In Their Own Words. Panini Comics (12): 5.

[8] http://femalearts.com/node/309 Accessed June 19, 2018.

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 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…

Prescott TV

…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:

Rex fire escape

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.