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Festival Review: NOIR CITY Film Festival — It’s That Noir Time of Year

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"This could only happen in San Francisco," said "noircheologist" Eddie Muller, at Friday's opening night of the 8th annual NOIR CITY Film Festival at the venerable Castro Theater, "because you are the smartest, most sophisticated, sexiest moviegoers in the world!"

I'm inclined to agree. This is one hip, rowdy audience, which cheers enthusiastically when the names of noir royalty appear in the credits, such as Andre de Toth, the director of the opening double bill films, Pitfall and Larceny, and laughs heartily at what some purists consider to be all the wrong places. In response, Muller instituted the first house rule of NOIR CITY, which the "Voice of Noir City," William P. Arney, thundered down from the balcony: "Enjoy yourself." "This is a movie house, not a museum," said Muller and left us to appreciate the show in whatever manner we cared to.

Castro signThis year's festival theme is both sides of "the coinage of noir," as Muller termed it—lust and larceny. As Fred MacMurray succinctly put it in Double Indemnity, "I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

Noir is rarely pretty, and there will be plenty of lust and larceny on display in the 24 films chosen by long-time Castro programmer Anita Monga, now Artistic Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, including 19 not available on DVD. Classic fare such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Pickup on South Street, and A Place in the Sun are joined by rarities like The Gangster and Suspense, two vehicles for ice skating star Belita, "the Ice Queen of Film Noir."

The success of the first NOIR CITY in 2003 led to the creation of the nonprofit Film Noir Foundation, helmed by Muller, and 100% of festival profits go to fund the preservation of noir films. This year's showpiece, restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is Cry Danger, starring Dick Powell, screening Saturday, January 23 at 7:30 p.m., followed by Broderick Crawford in The Mob at 9:30. There is also a separate Saturday matinee of two Robert Siodmak films, Fly-by-Night and Deported, featuring, reportedly upon his demand, a cameo by mobster Lucky Luciano.

NOIR sign

This year's Honor Roll of stars we lost choked me up with powerful clips of classic noir showcasing Gale Storm, Jennifer Jones, James Whitmore, Ricardo Montalban, Nina Foch, Patrick McGoohan, Karl Malden, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Luckily they live forever on the silver screen.

As the poster for Pitfall advises us, with the wrong woman to show you how, it doesn't take long to succumb to the fatal fury of…the NOIR CITY Film Festival. I discovered some of my now-favorite films at past festivals, such as Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear, Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run and 99 River Street, with its unforgettable cigarette-lighting scene between Brad Dexter and Evelyn Keyes.

This year's crop is sure to unearth more gems, but the surprise delight of opening night was the short they screened before Muller came out, The Endless Night: a Valentine to Film Noir, put together by 20-year-old Santa Rose Junior College student Serena Bramble, who downloaded clips from DVDs and expertly assembled them into what Muller called the most "visceral" summation of noir he has ever seen, using the iMovie software that came with her Mac.

Serena Bramble
Serena Bramble

The film is her "tribute to [her] favorite genre, to the dark shadows and the profound despair of the soul." Though she is currently studying psychology, Muller told her she needs to be cutting film for a living. Amen. She has made a stunning, sophisticated montage, artfully and suspensefully edited and scored to perfection with "Angel" by Massive Attack. The audience loved it.

I had fun trying to quickly identify the films as the clips flew past: The Letter! Shadow of a Doubt! Uh… Scarlet Street! Detour! Gilda! The Killers!—35 in all—and I don't know who could sit through this tantalizing sampler without wanting to see every one of them.

You can view The Endless Night on You Tube, but if in San Francisco, I suggest you wait and see it as these lush black-and-white gems were shot to be seen: on the big screen amongst an appreciative audience—and you will find no better screen, theater, or audience, than those at NOIR CITY 8 at the Castro.

The festival continues through January 31 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St. below Market. See Noir City for the complete schedule. Tickets at the door, $10.00 for a double bill, or at Brown Paper Tickets. A festival passport is $100. Early arrival and public transportation are recommended.

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