This was a wild, wicked town once, with a worldwide reputation for vice, drink, and the pleasures of the flesh. But the Barbary Coast is long gone, the strip clubs on Broadway are tourist traps, and the Haight and the Castro are generations removed from their hedonistic heydays. But for 10 days every year, when Alameda author and impresario Eddie Muller draws the curtain on the San Francisco Film Noir Festival, we can immerse ourselves in a heartless and heartbreaking morass of carnality, crime, and cynicism. In Noir City, the steaks are tough but the dames are tougher. Every last loser lusts after something a big score, a handsome hunk, a ticket out but comes up empty. That world-weary fatalism permeated countless B movies in the late 1940s and early '50s, resonating with hard-bitten vets and rebutting the false promise that the postwar boom would include everyone. Half a century on, noir's unflinching acknowledgement of corruption and classism seems more honest and prescient than the glossy musicals, romantic comedies, and literary adaptations Hollywood pumped out after the war. Screenwriters such as Dalton Trumbo (The Prowler and Gun Crazy on Jan. 26) cut through the crap, aided and abetted by tough guys like Charles McGraw (Reign of Terror and Border Incident on Jan. 30) and Richard Widmark (Roadhouse and Night and the City on Feb. 3). But Noir City is ultimately about the dames, for Muller has an admitted soft spot for gifted actresses who never got their due. The spotlight shines again tonight on the beautiful Gail Russell (Moonrise and Night Has 1,000 Eyes), who died of a booze-induced heart attack in her mid-30s. The indomitable Marsha Hunt, now 90, stars in the world premiere of Muller's short drama, The Grand Inquisitor, on Jan. 26. As if to prove once and for all that even good girls go bad in Noir City, the fest opens with a tribute to Joan Leslie on Jan. 25, who takes a turn for the worse in Repeat Performance and The Hard Way. The actress celebrates her birthday (she'll be 83 the next day) with an onstage interview sandwiched between the films. She probably hasn't any wicked stories to tell about our town, but you never know.
Jan. 25-Feb. 3, 2008