Arts & Events

Annual 'Noir City' festival shines a spotlight on cinematic darkness

By Justin DeFreitas
Wednesday January 19, 2011 - 09:59:00 AM
Olivia de Havilland portrays identical twins caught in a murder investigation in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946).
Olivia de Havilland portrays identical twins caught in a murder investigation in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946).

The American roots of film noir begin with the crime fiction that emerged during the 1930s from the pens of writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and multitudes of lesser-known talents. In the wake of the Great Depression, these pulp authors reshaped the literary landscape with dark, cynical, morally ambivalent tales of crime, sex and vice — stories steeped in shadowy imagery, tough talk, and a hardscrabble hyper-realism that portrayed a brutal, hostile world. There were no heroes, only anti-heroes — self-preserving pragmatists whose cynicism was born of dashed hopes and faded ideals.

It was only a matter of time before these stories infiltrated Hollywood, merging with the stark, shadowy imagery of German Expressionism, which crossed the Atlantic along with the refugees who left Germany just ahead of Hitler's advancing stormtroopers. And thus a bold and distinctly downbeat genre was born, a German-American hybrid that introduced a stock of melodramatic characters: the dangerous and brooding urban gangster-villain; the tormented innocent caught up in nefarious circumstances beyond his control or comprehension; the icy, diabolical femme fatale; and an array of edgy protagonists ranging from the introspective, tormented, world-weary anti-hero to the twitchy, slippery, would-be hero, the third-rate, small-time hood looking to get ahead in a hostile world for which he is ill-equipped.

Noir City, the annual film festival that celebrates these dark cinematic gems and presents them on the big screen in all their tawdry glory, returns to San Francisco's Castro Theater this Friday with another 10-day program of dames, destruction and depravity. The festival is full of rarities; in fact, most of films in this year's program are not available on DVD. 

The festival features 24 films, from A-list masterpieces to B-movie programmers, and kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Friday with Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter in Curtis Bernhardt's High Wall (1947), presented in a new 35-mm print preserved by the Film Noir Foundation. The double feature continues with Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a Peter Lorre film that some consider the first American noir. 

Highlights include two classics from George Cukor: Gaslight (1944), starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and A Double Life, with Ronald Colman's Oscar-winning performance as a Broadway actor slipping into madness; Strangers in the Night (1944), just one of director Anthony Mann's many great films; Marilyn Monroe as a mentally unstable babysitter who seduces Richard Widmark in Don't Bother to Knock (1952); Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), playing the role created by Agnes Moorhead in the original radio production that was one of the most famous broadcasts from that medium's golden age; and what noir festival would be complete without at least one Humphrey Bogart film? This year, it's The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), in which Bogart plays a mentally unhinged painter with murderous designs on his wife — Stanwyck again. 

But the festival's best shows are often the lesser-known gems, pictures large and small that have, for one reason or another, slipped into semi-obscurity over the years.  

Olivia de Havilland turns in two strong performances The Dark Mirror (1946), portraying identical twins caught up in a murder investigation. A psychologist aids in unravelling the crime by subjecting the sisters to the usual round of Rorschach tests, and though de Havilland ably delineates the sweet, kindly sister from the jealous and possibly dangerous one, director Robert Siodmak takes pity on the audience by giving the girls personalized necklaces that spell out their names in bold letters — it's as though Siodmak was taking advice from a bad editorial cartoonist.  

Woman on the Beach (1947) was directed by the great Jean Renoir, yet the film was drastically cut before its release. Still, it's a strong enough little film, with Robert Ryan as the lovestruck innocent caught in the grip of seductress Joan Bennet. Like an apparition, she appears on the beach and before long Ryan has stepped into the role of savior, trying to free the distressed damsel from the clutches of her husband, an aging painter who has lost his sight, his muse, and, we're left to assume, his virility.  

Joan Bennett appears again in a film by another festival regular, director Fritz Lang, whose German films exerted a strong influence on noir. In America, Lang's vision was curtailed, sometimes for the better, but oftentimes for the worse. With Secret Beyond the Door (1948), Lang had simply lost his mojo, spinning a nonsense tale of psychoanalytic babble while hoping his visual flair would carry the day. It didn't, but it's still an entertaining affair, with Bennet struggling to unravel the mysteries of Michael Redgrave's tormented psyche. The film will be presented in a new print restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a project funded by Martin Scorcese's Film Foundation.  

Noir City 9. Through Jan 30 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. For more information see or .