With the end of Noirvember approaching, you might find yourself going through film noir withdrawal. Perhaps you have enjoyed several noir titles this month but have a strange feeling you may be missing out on something? I experienced the same thing a few years ago and did not really know what to do about it, but in 2015, I found the answer. I discovered my people.
I have been a film noir fan ever since my mom sat me down when I was a surly teenager many, many years ago, forcing me to watch one of her favourites, The Maltese Falcon (1941). From that moment on, I have loved film noir, yet had no idea there was a thriving noir community out there. Not until I attended a Noir City film festival.
As soon as I discovered such a thing existed, I ventured over to the Noir City DC festival (about an hour’s drive from where I live) in October, 2015, not only to view several unfamiliar titles, but also to hear the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller talk about film noir, which is, as he put it, “the swampy dark place in the soul that ferments”. During a special program at the event, Muller talked about the history of film noir, “Hollywood’s only organic artistic movement”. The programme lasted an hour, but was so engaging it felt like five minutes. I immediately formed an addiction.
“All you really need for a film noir is a man, a woman, a hotel room, and a weapon,” Muller said. During this presentation, Muller discussed why film noir became (and still is) popular, its many influences, the role of the detective, the femme fatale, postwar pessimism, cinematography, style, and more. It was as if someone had opened up the secrets of the cinematic universe and dropped them in my lap. I found a scrap of paper and wrote down every word Muller said. I saw other people doing the same thing.
Afterward I met Muller and had him sign one of his books. “I had no idea these fans were out there,” I told him. He grinned and said: “If you think this is something, you should come to the flagship festival in San Francisco.”
So I did.
Walking into the historic Castro Theatre, home of Noir City since 2002, I thought I had gone back in time. The Castro, a gorgeous 1,400-seat palace built in 1922, boasts not only the last known leatherette ceiling in American theaters, but also a working pipe organ, expertly played before each Noir City feature. Opening night attendees (many decked out in period costumes) ascend and descend the ornate staircases, walking across swirls of carpet from a bygone era. The atmosphere overwhelms you and you can almost be excused for thinking Humphrey Bogart is standing next to you in the concession line or that you see Barbara Stanwyck headed up to the mezzanine for a glass of champagne.
Noir City passport holders are treated to opening night champagne (unfortunately without Stanwyck) and Noir City tables filled with interesting books, t-shirts, mugs, programs and more. You will also find plenty of other vendors who bring vintage film posters, lobby cards, books, and other temptations. While there, you might hear a musical act such as the Century Sisters, San Francisco’s Vintage Close Harmony Trio, performing onstage.
As wonderful as these elements are, the real reason you come to Noir City is for the movies. Listening to an Eddie Muller introduction to each movie is like enrolling at Film Noir University. Not only is Muller’s knowledge vast, his enthusiasm is contagious. Regardless of what film is showing, the audience is chomping at the bit, eager to devour the films Muller has chosen, whether it is a hard-to-find Argentine film noir such as Los tallos amargos (1956) or a favourite along the lines of This Gun for Hire (1942) or The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
The audiences vary wildly. You may sit next to a hardcore noir fan who has been attending since the very first Noir City festival, or you might find yourself enjoying a film with someone who walked in off the street, thinking a title like I Wake Up Screaming (1941) was just too good to pass up. Some attendees cannot tell the difference between Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine. Others can immediately rattle off the name of the bartender at the beginning of The Blue Dahlia (1946) as well as all his other film appearances, all without consulting IMDb. (That bartender is Matt McHugh, by the way.) Yet I have never encountered one braggart or film snob at Noir City. (But do not even think about using your cell phone during a movie. The wrath of Charles McGraw or Jack Lambert would be nothing compared to the ire of a Noir City crowd over such a heinous crime.) Those who know little to nothing about film noir are welcomed just as much as the experts. I once met a woman from London who attends the festival every chance she gets. I also discovered a man who has been attending for over 10 years, only to learn that we live about 35 miles from each other in Maryland.
Once the films are over, the relationships are often just getting started. Many of those Noir City relationships have developed into friendships more valuable than a truckload of loot from a bank heist. I am not really sure how people who celebrate movies about killers, rogues, femmes fatale, deception, betrayal, murder, and a never-ending parade of other criminal activities can be so nice to each other, but they are. These are my people. Maybe they’re yours, too?
Noirvember is great, but for some, the celebration is not enough. I will soon begin my fourth journey to Noir City and I cannot wait.
Noir City 17 will be held once again at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, 25 January – 3 February 2019. You can find out more about the festival at www.noircity.com. Maybe I will see you there.