Film Noir from A to B

by Sura Wood

This year’s Noir City film fest concentrates on classic noir, pairing “A”and “B” movies.

After 16 years of searching for novel approaches to film noir—offering foreign and newer films and seeking out under-appreciated treasure—the locally based Noir City Film Festival returns to its roots.

This year, the festival concentrates on classic noir: black and white American films made during the genre’s peak, from 1941 to 1953. On consecutive evenings, each devoted to a single year of that period, double bills pair “A” and “B” movies, duplicating the original programming. 

“I had wanted to do a festival of genuine B films, but, with a running time of less than 80 minutes, I couldn’t do a whole program around them,” says Noir City producer and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller. B-films, produced by secondary units at the studios and destined for the bottom half of a double bill, had smaller budgets and lesser-known stars, but, says Muller, “They were also the training ground for A-list directors such as Joseph Lewis, Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann, who made a dozen B-pictures before they ever got a crack at a movie with a major screenwriter and actors.”

Whether classified A or B, noir is notorious for tough women who push back. In “The Big Heat,” Gloria Grahame persists despite being subjected to horrific male brutality, doing what’s necessary in her flashy signature role as a sexy gangster’s moll assisting a straight arrow cop (Glenn Ford). He’s seeking vengeance against city corruption and the mobster who killed his wife; she’s out for some payback of her own. Written by a former crime reporter, and regarded as director Fritz Lang’s best American film, “it’s got to be one of the greatest crime movies ever made,” notes Muller. “It’s like the original ‘Dirty Harry.”’ Occupying the B slot on the same bill is “Wicked Woman,” a seedy cult film set in a Western town, starring the leggy Beverly Michaels as a manipulative, bad-news blonde oblivious to the havoc she wreaks on men and the damage she leaves in her wake. She bewitches a handsome bar owner (Richard Egan) into bilking his alcoholic wife, arouses the lust of a boarder at the rooming house where she lives and leaves both men in the dust when she lights out for Mexico.

Some female characters didn’t play dirty; they were simply steely and independent. In “Jealousy,” an arty rarity from Czech ex-pat director Gustav Machaty, Jane Randolph plays a self-reliant taxi driver in L.A. caught in a risky love triangle between a suicidal European writer and a roguish doctor. The alluring Veronica Lake, with her silky blonde pageboy falling across one eye, was cool, sharp and unflappable, a shrewd woman who didn’t need a man.
That persona, which she played to the hilt in the 1940s, is perhaps why she remains one of the most popular stars of that period; she costars with Alan Ladd, her frequent on-screen partner. The duo appears here in “The Blue Dahlia” and “This Gun for Hire.” 

While women had agency to burn on screen, they were also instrumental behind the camera. Though rarely afforded opportunities to direct films in an industry that was—and still is—dominated by men, women wrote a surprising amount of the crime fiction on which the movies were based. Some, by necessity, adopted male pseudonyms like Craig Rice, a.k.a. Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig, a mystery writer some called the “Dorothy Parker of detective fiction.”

One of her works was the source for “The Underworld Story,” a neglected masterpiece about an unscrupulous, disgraced reporter at a small-town newspaper who cynically exploits the sensational case of an African-American maid (played by a white actress) charged with murdering her socialite boss. “The Accused,” an adaptation of a novel by June Truesdell, gives a feminist slant to a Loretta Young vehicle. The actress, cast against type, is a college professor who fends off a male student’s aggressive advances with a tire iron, killing him, which makes her irresistible to both the victim’s guardian (Robert Cummings) and a homicide detective investigating the case. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s short story “Address Unknown,” which was turned into the 1944 film of the same name, was first published in a magazine whose editor deemed the material too strong to be credited to a woman. He dropped her first name from the byline; she subsequently used Kressmann Taylor for the remainder of her professional career.

The short, beautifully constructed movie version revolves around letters, read aloud in voice-over; the correspondence is between a German-born San Francisco art dealer who, after returning to his native country, is gradually seduced by Nazi ideology, and his friend, appalled by the transformation of a man he thought he knew.

“The Man Who Cheated Himself,” a 35mm crowd-pleaser from 1950, recently rescued and restored by the Film Noir Foundation, has its festival premiere this year. The first indie production released by Jack M. Warner, son of the Warner Bros. mogul, it’s a police drama centered on a homicide cop (Lee J. Cobb) who sells his soul for the love of a woman. He witnesses her killing her husband and helps her dispose of the body; it’s downhill from there. But the film’s primary appeal for local audiences will be its multiple San Francisco locations, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Sea Cliff, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Telegraph Hill and a climactic scene at Fort Point, long before Hitchcock shot “Vertigo” there.

Jan. 26 → Feb. 4

Castro Theatre

429 Castro St., San Francisco