Noir City may trade in dress-up nostalgia for a past that many of its patrons see as impossibly distant. But the festival’s 20th edition, already in progress at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater (through Sun/29), has a theme that underlines how not-so-long ago the film noir era was: Each of the showcased features on display were made 75 years ago, so they’re only as old as you… your parents… or maybe your grandpa and -ma. In other words, these movies are still alive and kicking.
1948 was a peak year for noir, the American genre (only named thus by the French) that first emerged during WW2, then flourished in postwar years of both disillusionment and prosperity. It was also just about the last annum in which movie attendance was not drastically impacted by a competing new medium. During the year’s course, the number of US homes with televisions reached one million for the first time—a growing menace to the film industry (which hadn’t yet caved to working with rather than against it), but still possibly just a passing novelty. A decade later, that statistic would rise to 45 million, or roughly four in five households, and cinema attendance had plummeted…for good.
In 1948, however, people were still “going to the movies” as casually as they might grab a bite at a luncheon counter, not particularly caring what was playing or even what time the show started. While some were plush major-studio productions, others “Poverty Row” cheapies, nearly all the crime and suspense thrillers coming out then that would subsequently be dubbed noir were considered disposable entertainment, mere “mellers”—which was one reason they’d soon be getting sold off for TV distribution, killing off their own theatrical market. That ubiquity, plus the volume in which television began producing original series in a similar cop-detective-crime-action mode, conspired to keep noirs from serious revival and reevaluation for longer than some other popular genres.
The current Noir City edition finds plenty of hard-boiled gold in the class of ’48; its first weekend, already passed, included classics as Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai and Huston’s Key Largo. The remaining program has other titles long adored by cinephiles, like Nicholas Ray’s debut feature They Live By Night—a teenage-tragedy precursor to his subsequent Rebel Without a Cause—and Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777, long considered a prime example of the quasi-documentary style that beginning to add a more realistic, procedural edge to some crime dramas. Many noir fans will already be acquainted with Hollow Triumph, with Paul Henreid as a sociopathic ex-con who steals a respectable lookalike’s identity; veteran director Frank Borzage’s stylistically baroque Moonrise; and Sorry, Wrong Number, in which Barbara Stanwyck is an invalid hysterically certain her life is in danger (spoiler alert: she’s right).
But others still screening in the program are relatively obscure, like low-budget The Hunted (which the festival-mounting Film Noir Foundation itself has preserved); or The Velvet Touch, in which Rosalind Russell plays an imperious Broadway star frantic to protect her career from a murder she’s inconveniently committed. Others may have passed you by because they’re not really noir, albeit noir-adjacent: The serious drama of All My Sons, with Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster as father and son in an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s first successful play (a year before the bonanza of Death of a Salesman), and black comedy Unfaithfully Yours, with Rex Harrison with murderous ideations—a flop for the genius writer-director Preston Sturges, but also his last great movie.
Several films playing this week were shot by John Alton, whose inky blacks, shadows and shards of light came to define high noir style. There’s the aforementioned Hollow Triumph, Anthony Mann’s taut Raw Deal, and He Walked by Night, which was directed by Alfred L. Werker and an uncredited Mann. Loosely inspired by an actual case, it has Richard Basehart as a criminal loner eluding a long-term police dragnet after he kills a cop, a pursuit that ends strikingly in drainage tunnels beneath Los Angeles. The film finds a particularly vivid median between the emerging docudrama tenor and Alton’s gloriously Expressionistic imagery. It also made a lasting impression on one supporting player: The experience led Jack Webb to create police investigative serial Dragnet, first as a radio show, then as a long-running TV one.
There’s still more on tap in Noir City’s remainder—we haven’t even mentioned such ripe titles as Night Has a Thousand Eyes or Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. You can also drink in the memorably flippant fadeout of I Love Trouble, in which one of the several sultry dames private eye Franchot Tone has encountered on a wild-goosechase assignment shows up for a clinch, only to find he’s already in one with another lady. ‘Well, well,” this platinum blonde smirks, “I didn’t think there would be a line.” For full schedule and ticket info, go to www.noircity.com
Two new releases that opened last Friday and remain in local theaters are also worth a belated gander:
Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb
The digital era has accelerated the deterioration of many things, particularly journalism and book publishing, neither of which are quite dead yet—but would you recommend a young person enter either field now? God no, particularly if they need to actually make a living. Thus seeing something like Lizzie Gottlieb’s very good documentary inspires a bittersweet mixture of admiration and depression, knowing (as is duly stated in the film) that what it depicts is something we’ll probably never see again.
The subject is the very, very long-term collaboration between editor Gottlieb and writer Caro. The former (later The New Yorker’s editor in chief) had already worked at Simon & Schuster and Knopf—en route helping steer to realization a stupefying list of literary milestones—when he began working with the latter. Caro was a highly regarded reporter who wanted to write a book about Robert Moses, a (then-) still-living urban planner who never held an elected office, yet could claim extraordinary credit (as well as some blame) for shaping 20th-century New York City.
Characteristically rich in detail that never seemed extraneous, that manuscript required considerable editing for length…because a single spine couldn’t accommodate a 2,000-page book. Imposing as it emerged nonetheless in 1974, with little apparent popular appeal, The Power Broker was a best-seller that is still held up as the best thing of its kind ever written. For his next project, Caro wanted something of national/international rather than city/statewide scope. A half-century later at age 87, and with Gottlieb now 91, the two men are still hoping to finish the fifth, surely final volume in Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. Pulitzers, National Book Awards, et al. have accrued in the meantime. Yet these two men, as much awe as they inspire in others, are hardly resting on their laurels. In fact, they don’t necessarily even like each other. But hey, they made a commitment.
The author’s current agent doubts a publishing endeavor of this scale “could ever happen again”—who would pay for it? Who now has the attention span for it? Is its readership dying out? These are sad things to contemplate, even as Turn Every Page (which features a host of additional interviewees including Bill Clinton, and somewhat oddly Ethan Hawke reading print passages aloud) makes you feel your life will not be complete until you’ve read The Power Broker, at the very least. Which won’t be easy—because insanely, its 1336 pages are still ONLY available in a doorstop-worthy print edition. Directed by Gottlieb’s own daughter, the filmis currently playing SF’s Opera Plaza Cinema and the Smith Rafael Film Center, and will open this Fri/27 at the Century 16 in Pleasant Hill.
Another medium is the source of all trouble in this latest by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian filmmaker who’s been officially banned from activity by his government for over a decade, and was just arrested (again) last summer. This cheekily subversive quasi-documentary fiction has him playing himself, the country’s most notorious filmmaker, who travels alone to a remote village in order to work on a new project in quiet isolation.
But naturally his presence rouses great excitement—pride that the celebrated artiste has chosen this humble place to visit, fear that somehow he might get residents in hot water with the authorities. Why did he choose this border town, anyway? Does he mean to flee? His innocent photographing of residents manages to entangle him in a fractious love triangle, even as his long-distance direction of a film in Turkey also provokes rivalries and intrigue amongst its on-site cast. One thing is clear: There is nowhere it’s uncomplicated to be Jafar Panahi.
No Bears is primarily a comedy. Yet the bureaucracy, suspicion, and paranoia underlining everything here contextualizes it in the bleak everyday realities of an oppressive society. This is a real narrative feature, not a diaristic experiment to circumvent house arrest, or anything else the director has used to occupy himself (and to jab at his persecutors) in recent years. Playful, layered, and sardonic, it is art-as-tacit-activism of a very sophisticated sort. I just wish it had a different lead performer, crucial as his own presence is: Panahi may be many things to many people, but he is not much of an actor. No Bears is currently playing the Roxie Theater.