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Noir Returns to San Francisco Roots

Still from “Kiss Me Deadly.”

American writers have almost always felt the sting of political censorship and social conformity, but they also been resilient and have found ways to express their creativity despite repression. One of the best examples of creativity in the face of repression can be found in film noir, the Hollywood movies that were first made in the 1930s and 1940s and that exposed the dark, corrupt, murderous ways of the society.

For the most part, American directors, producers, writers and actors made the pictures, though some German exiles from fascism like Fritz Lang, lent their European styles to the Hollywood productions. French critics gave the pictures the name “noir” meaning black. They also attached a theory to the genre that sprung up in the wake of World War II when the U.S. was supposed to be the world’s superpower and in which fathers  were thought to know best, mothers practiced good housekeeping and kids were like Dick and Jane and later like those teenagers named Ricky and Dave Nelson.

Film noir came about just as televisions were invading homes and apartments. They were “B” movies, often made on low budgets, and not expected to be box office hits. But John Houston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel (1929) of the same name, and Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), based on Raymond Chandler’s novel (1939) of the same name, showed audiences and critics that film noir could be made both artistically and commercially successful and that they could create and sustain cults. Hammett, who belonged to the American Communist Party, viewed the society from the left. Chandler viewed it from a conservative, though no less trenchant, perspective.

Movies that belong to the film noir genre have been worshipped the world over ever since the 1940s. It’s fitting that San Francisco, which gave birth to the modern noir novel, often hosts noir film festivals. The latest one, titled “Noir City,” takes place at the Castro Theater in the Castro District and runs from late January until February 4th. Then, the program moves to Seattle, Denver, Hollywood, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.

The films include JealousyThe Blue Dahlia, and Night Editor as well as This Gun for Hire (1942), based on a Graham Greene novel, that’s set in San Francisco and in which the hunter is also the hunted.

For those who can’t make it to a theater to see any of the above movies, they can be found in libraries and on DVDs nearly everywhere including online. Indeed, noir which was one limited to a cinematic territory all its own, is now literally everywhere.

Over the past sixty years directors have reinvented noir clichés and remade the femme fatales, the fall guys and the gangsters that appear in movies such as Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1955) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Then, there’s Roman Polanski’s Chinatown that was made at the time of Watergate, but set in the 1930s and that took on the politics of water in the Golden State and that didn’t let the detective, played by Jack Nicholson, walk down L.A.’s mean streets as the proverbial knight in shining armor, and with a six gun not a sword.

In an essay titled “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler insisted that the detective had to rise above the world of nastiness in which he moves, but in his novels, the detective becomes just as nasty as the suspects he investigates.  He recognizes it, too.

The world is rotten in film noir, but there are no organizers, no radicals or revolutionaries who seek social change, and, while film noir shows how venial capitalism, can be it doesn’t offer alternatives.

I first watched film noir like Lady in the Lake on late-night TV. Later, I saw pictures such as Citizen Kane in movie theaters in Paris and New York. Yes, Citizen Kane has all the elements of noir, including a reporter who acts as a detective, a mystery, a set of clues, and a dead body. For decades, I taught film noir at Sonoma State University. Last year, I published a noir novel called Dark Land, Dark Mirror, which features a woman private investigator, a newspaper reporter, a femme fatale, and a gangster who appears to be a gentleman. It’s set in California today.

For those not familiar with film noir I recommend: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Lady from Shanghai, The Big Heat, Pick Up on South Street and Kiss Me Deadly that has perhaps the quintessential noir ending: the world itself blows up and takes the detective, Mike Hammer with it.

Noir City. Castro Theater, San Francisco, January 26 to Feb. 4; Seattle, February 16 to Feb. 22 and Denver March 23-25. For more information go to http://www.noircity.com  

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