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Editorial

Marriage, Noir Style

by Sura Wood

“Noir City” celebrates unholy matrimony at this year’s film fest.

Marriage, the theme of the latest iteration of the San Francisco Film Noir Festival's “Noir City,” might seem an unlikely topic for a genre that usually traffics in lust, larceny and murder. Viewers will find, however, that the 25 films that screen at the Castro Theatre over the course of 10 days and nights this month upend traditional notions of “till death do us part. “The [festival] films are centered around how the bonds of matrimony affect an array of characters—those who crave a permanent union, those who’ll stop at nothing to preserve it and those who will do anything to escape it,” says Eddie Muller, founder of the Noir City Foundation and co-programmer, with Anita Monga, of the festival, now in its 13th year. “The main impact of film noir on American culture was to dispel the movie-made myth of ‘happily ever after,’” he points out. “In mid-20th-century Hollywood, writers and directors struggled to bring a more mature perspective to popular entertainment….And while many crime dramas of the day—later to be christened 'noir'—focused on how avarice and corruption infected the culture at large, nowhere was noir’s subversive influence more strongly felt than when it probed behind closed doors.”

The festival opens with a new 35mm restoration of “Woman on the Run,” a film resurrected from the ashes, so to speak, after the only existing print burned in a fire at Universal Studios. (A dupe negative was later discovered at the British Film Institute.) Directed by Norman Foster, a protégé of Orson Welles, this crime story vividly evokes 1950s San Francisco, where Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) fears for his life and disappears after he witnesses gangsters kill a man whose testimony would have put a crime boss behind bars. Demanding to know his whereabouts, police hound Johnson’s restless wife, played by the voluptuous former “oomph girl,” Ann Sheridan, who sheds no tears over her vanished spouse and soon takes up with a charming, intrepid reporter who persuades her to help him track down her husband. “If the caustic banter about matrimonial acrimony [in the script] has an extra spark,” writes Muller in the program notes for the film, “it’s due to co-screenwriter Alan Campbell, better known in Hollywood as 'Mr. Dorothy Parker.’” Campbell married the caustic writer twice, and their rows, according to Muller, were legendary.

Some of the relationships behind the camera were as complicated as those depicted on screen. For example, Collier Young, who wrote the screenplay for “The Bigamist” (1953), with a plot that revolves around a man secretly keeping two wives, one in L.A. and the other in San Francisco, navigated his own mine field in real life. While married to the film’s star, Joan Fontaine, he worked with his ex-wife, business partner and the film’s director, Ida Lupino. (Lupino had become the first woman to direct a film noir—“The Hitch-Hiker”—earlier that same year.)

The movie is part of a mini-tribute to the late Fontaine that includes her Oscar-winning turn in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” starring Cary Grant in one of the only movies in which he was cast as the villain; and “Ivy,” an Edwardian period piece with striking avant-garde production design, and cinematography by Russell, who shot Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Fontaine acts against type here, portraying a devious, social-climbing femme fatale clawing her way to the upper echelons of British society by whatever means necessary, including murder. “Ivy is one of most cold-hearted, calculating [women] in the history of film noir,” observes Muller.

Defiant, sexy and unconventionally beautiful, Barbara Stanwyck was never a standard-issue Hollywood bombshell. But she found juicy roles like the duplicitous opportunist in the preposterous yet immensely entertaining “No Man of Her Own.” In this rousing adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s novel “I Married a Dead Man,” the actress plays a pregnant, down-on-her-luck woman on a train, fleeing the abusive lover who jilted her. When the train crashes, she assumes the identity of the newlywed bride of a man killed in the accident. Welcomed into the dead man’s family and her deception nearly complete, the lie she has constructed unravels when her nightmare of a boyfriend reappears and blackmails her.

Some purists don’t consider movies like the Stanwyck vehicle true noirs, in part, says Muller, because they feature female protagonists or women constrained by the circumscribed gender roles assigned to them. “I have noted that many film ‘scholars,’ particularly men, tend to not include so-called women in jeopardy films in the noir canon—as though the psychic and social travails of female characters aren’t on the same existential level as that of male characters,” he says. “They classify those films as melodramas, and [therefore] unworthy of the dark intellectual patina bestowed by the highfalutin’ term ’noir.’ I disagree.”

Not to be outdone by feminine skullduggery, bad behavior by men is duly represented in films such as “The Hidden Room” (originally titled “Obsession”), a walk on the dark side that dives headlong into male psychosis. In this creepy tale of a “perfect crime,” Clive, an eminent English therapist (Robert Newton), comes home to find his wife cavorting with another man; it’s not the first time he has caught her in an adulterous escapade. Taking his revenge, he promptly escorts his wife’s paramour out the door at gunpoint and holds him captive and in chains in an abandoned bomb shelter; needless to say, the man is never seen or heard from again. This is the first of two films made in England by American director Edward Dmytryk after he was blacklisted here during the McCarthy era.

The festival includes an upbeat double bill featuring “The Thin Man” and “After the Thin Man,” both of which were shot all over San Francisco. Based on stories by Dashiell Hammett, who kept a studio apartment on Post Street, and with screenplays contributed by husband and wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, the films star the effortlessly sophisticated, boozy duo Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), who drank chilled martinis and held court in an Art Deco penthouse while solving crimes and maintaining the most ideal fictional marriage in movies.

Jan. 16 → 25

Castro Theatre

429 Castro St.

Noircity.com