Sunday Classical Music Noir Citys

Sunday’s Noir City was all about classical musicians; dark, evil, down-and-dirty classical musicians.

Well, not quite.


Talent isn’t enough to make you a great musician. You need to work hard. You have to devote yourself to your art. And you have to sleep with Joan Crawford.

In Humoresque, John Garfield plays a brilliant young violinist from the streets of New York, trying to eke out a living. The promise of success, and then the reality, comes from a wealthy, extremely alcoholic matron of the arts (Crawford). She’s married, but that doesn’t stop her from making beautiful music with her handsome fiddler friend.

Garfield and Crawford were magnetic stars, and it’s fun to watch them spark. Crawford is the real standout, knocking back one drink after another and swinging to emotional extremes.

For a melodrama, Humoresque has a surprisingly strong collection of funny one liners (and yes, they’re intentional). Oscar Levant plays the sidekick pianist, and gets to say most of the wisecracks. “She was born with a silver flask in her mouth.”

And, of course, it’s filled with great music. Isaac Stern worked as a music advisor.

The story slows down in the last half hour, which is why I give it a B. Most of it would earn a B+.

But I can’t really call this movie film noir. There’s no crime, no violence, and no sense of an inherently amoral world. Yes, it’s in black and white and occasionally shows dark shadows. But that doesn’t make it noir.

The 35mm print was hit and miss. Some reels were in excellent conditions. Others were badly scratched. At one point, the film broke.


The other film on the double bill was definitely noir. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good a movie.

But the pre-show was great. First, we were treated by a very good violin solo. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the violinist’s name.

Then Eddie Muller took the stage with Monica Henreid, the daughter of one of the film’s stars, Paul Henreid. She talked about her father’s long friendship with co-star Betty Davis, and how the famous cigarette-lighting scene in Now Voyager came about (it was his wife’s idea).

She told about her father’s political troubles. Working in his native Austria in the 1930s, and he was blacklisted for refusing to sign with the National Socialist Actors Guild. He eventually went to England. But when the war started, he became an enemy alien and was blacklisted there. Then he came to America, and had a good career until the 50s, when he was blacklisted again.

Onto the movie:

Betty Davis plays a musician, although we never see her make music. She’s far too worried trying to hide her past from her brilliant cellist of a new husband (Henreid). He’s just come to the US after some horrible experiences under the Nazis, and he’s too emotionally unstable to deal with the fact that she has been the mistress of a famous and brilliant composer.

Luckily for the audience, that composer is played by Claude Rains. Without Rains’ wonderful scene stealing, this stage-bound talky melodrama would be unbearable. Davis is best when she’s tough, and she’s not tough here. And Henreid is best only when playing a calm but fearless revolutionary; he’s not the artist type

And the story is just too dumb. All she has to do is tell her husband that she’s not a virgin, and her problems would be over. But by the time she finally confesses, there’s been a murder (I told you this one really is a noir).

Thanks only to Claude Rains, Deception gets a C+.

The 35mm print was uneven, but not never got as bad as Humoresque.

Saturday at Noir City

I attended three of the four movies screened at Noir City Saturday. They didn’t all adhere to this year’s theme: The Art of Darkness (ie, dark films about artists). But they ranged from reasonably entertaining to absolutely brilliant.

But the movies themselves aren’t the festival’s only attraction. Many people dress up for Noir City, usually in 40’s style clothing. So, before we get to the movies, enjoy these pictures:

The Dark Corner

Saturday’s matinee wasn’t really about artists, but on those who feed on art: curators, critics, and most important, collectors.

And the first film, Dark Corner, barely touched on the subject, with one of the villains running a gallery. Not much is made of that. But since the movie was enjoyable, I let that pass.

This 1946 potboiler manages to be both a pretty good noir thriller, and a parody of the genre–still new in 1946. Mark Stevens plays the hard-boiled private dick to a way-over-the-top extreme. When he picks up two liquor bottles with one hand and pours their contents into one paper cup, you know it wasn’t meant to be serious.

Lucille Ball plays his secretary/romantic interest…another hint that this was meant to be played at least partly for laughs. And yet it’s an effective mystery/thriller.

I give it a B.

The festival screened The Dark Corner in a perfectly acceptable 35mm print.


The second movie in the matinee wasn’t all that great. But it really was about art critics, curators, and collectors. And also about forgers and criminals.

An art museum employee has a nervous breakdown after surviving a horrible train wretch. But no trains have been wretched. Obviously, someone has been playing with his mind.

That shouldn’t be surprising. A lot of his co-workers don’t like him, because his lectures are too much oriented to regular people. He also wants the museum to invest in an X-ray machine, which can help them study how the great artists created their works. But there’s a little problem here: An X-ray machine can also identify a forgery.

It was modest fun. I give it a C.

Again, I have no complaints about the 35mm print.

The Bitter Stems

Few experiences are as exciting as going to see a movie you’ve never heard of and discovering a classic.

This Argentinian thriller from 1956 can hold its own amongst the best thrillers of the classic noir period. We know within minutes that the main character–not a hero in any sense of the word but the person through who we see the story–is planning to kill his business partner. We know enough about noir to know that he will do the dirty deed, and that everything after that will go horribly wrong.

A flashback fills us in. The soon-to-be-a-murderer starts out as a journalist, but not a particularly good one. He’s frustrated with his assignments and his pay. Then he meets a con man. The two go into business. Their business is profitable and not all that illegal, but not strictly honest, either.

No need to tell you the rest of the story. Better to enjoy it yourself. I give it an A.

This is one of the best-made noirs I’ve scene. The dark, shadowy photography has a moody subtlety the heightens the experience. And that was greatly enhanced by one of the best 35mm black and white prints I’ve seen in a long time.

According to Eddie Muller’s introduction, Saturday’s screening was the film’s North American premiere, and this is the first print of The Bitter Stems with English subtitles. Although it was revered in Argentina in its time, it has been all but lost. But the negative was recently found rotting in a basement, and it has now been restored.

I didn’t stay for the last film, Girl With Hyacinths. It was just too late for me.

Rear Window and Noir City Opening Night

Friday night I came the Castro for opening night of this year’s Noir City festival. They were screening one of my all-time favorites, Rear Window, along with the obscure Public Eye from 1992.

After grabbing my seat in the 3rd row, I went upstairs to the mezzanine, where I examined the bookstore table. The covers looked fun, but I didn’t buy anything. My backpack was heavy enough already.

This year’s Noir City theme is “The Art of Darkness”–noir stories about painters, writers, musicians, and other creative people who barely make a living from their passion. The opening night double bill focused on photographers.

It clearly wasn’t about clockmakers. The Festival scheduled the double bill in such a way as to guarantee running late. Rear Window was set to screen at 7:30, and Public Eye at 9:30. Rear Window is just five minutes short of two hours.

The festivities started soon after 7:30, with this year’s classical music-themed trailer. Then the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, took the stage, pointing out that our society is built on money, but our culture is built on art. He introduced the model for this year’s poster (sorry, but I didn’t get her name), and then talked a bit about Rear Window. The movie started at about 7:50.

I’ll be posting a full essay on Rear Window soon for my A+ List. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. A news photographer confined to a wheelchair and his small apartment (James Stewart) has taken to watching his neighbors to relieve boredom. Then he begins to suspect that one of those neighbors committed murder. The movie is thoughtful, funny, and entertaining. The suspense builds slowly to a point that’s almost unbearable. And it says some interesting things about how we live our lives in the modern city.

But I’m not sure it’s really film noir. Most of it is in bright colors, and the murder is dealt with as something strange and unusual, not the inevitable consequence of our sick world.

The Castro screened Rear Window digitally, probably from a DCP. And it was the sort of DCP that gives digital projection a bad name. The long shots were slightly fuzzy with dots that didn’t look quite like film grain. And the close-ups had that ultra-smooth, waxwork look you find in early digital transfers.

Rear Window is a great film to see with an audience. People laughed and gasped in all the right places. Unfortunately, there was a guy sitting behind me who also laughed in all the wrong places–including the death of a small dog. Very annoying.

The movie ended around 9:45–15 minutes after the second feature was set to begin. Ten minutes later, with no hint of the intermission ending, I decided to skip Public Eye and go home. I didn’t want to be up that late.

And besides, I had to finish this article.

First Film Festivals of 2016

The Bay Area’s traditional December film festival draught will end soon. Here are four festivals coming down the pike:

SF Sketchfest

January 7 – 24

Yes, it’s a stretch to call Sketchfest a film fest. After all, it’s primarily about standup comedy. But it has some funny movies, too

These movies include Teen Witch, Hook, the wonderful Waiting for Guffman, and Hot Shots–all with special guests. Alan Arkin and Sally Field will be honored–Arkin with a screening of the cold war comedy that put him on the map, The Russians are Coming. The Russians are Coming, and Field with her new film, Hello, My Name is Doris.

Berlin & Beyond

January 14 – 21

This collection of German-language films (not all from Germany) will take over the Castro from January 14 through the 17th, then move to the Goethe-Institut San Francisco for another three days.

As I write this, there’s no schedule up on their website, and they’re listing only two films: Head Full of Honey and In Spiderwebhouse. Let’s hope they get more stuff up soon.

Noir City

January 22 – 31

This year, the theme for the biggest noir festival around is “The Art of Darkness.” According to the website, “This time the tortured protagonists aren’t felons or fall guys, they’re writers, painters, dancers, photographers, and musicians.”

They’re opening with my all-time favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, on a double bill with The Public Eye from 1992. Like most of the much older movies to be screened, I haven’t seen that one.

It closes with Peeping Tom and Blow-Up (this is the only festival I know of that regularly runs double bills). I’ve never seen Peeping Tom on
the big screen, and–unfortunately–I won’t be able to see it this time.

The festival will also screen Humoresque, In a Lonely Place, Young Man With a Horn, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Knife, The Red Shows, and a whole lot more.

Mostly British Film Festival

February 18 – 25

Here’s your chance to see foreign films without having to read subtitles. Most of these are new films that haven’t screened yet this side of the pond, so I can’t really tell you about them.

But they’ve got a lively sprinkling of classics, as well. They include The Long Good Friday, Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, but set in England), Mike Leigh’s brilliant Secrets & Lies, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

[January 1: I originally mispelled, and have just corrected, Alan Arkin’s name. My thanks to Gary Meyer for catching the error.]

Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

Coming in December: Day of Silents & Alamo Drafthouse

It’s a little early to write about December, but here are two events I want to tell you about right away. In fact, I wanted to tell you about them weeks ago, but I was too busy.

A Day of Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run a one-day festival at the Castro on Saturday, December 5. As one would expect, it’s going to be a very long day…but probably a fun one.

I’ve only seen one of the five programs scheduled: Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (11:00am). Fairbanks was the top action hero of his day, and also an auteur who wrote and produced (but didn’t direct) his movies. This swashbuckler isn’t his best movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. The movie contains one of Fairbanks most spectacular stunts–and yes, he did it, himself. Fairbanks sticks his knife into the top of a sail and slides down, holding onto only the a knife. Of course there were a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks to make it safer than it appears, but it was still dangerous and looks amazing. The stunt was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

This was Fairbank’s only color movie, shot in two-color Technicolor. To my knowledge, it’s the first feature shot entirely in Technicolor that wasn’t financed and produced by the Technicolor company. For decades, The Black Pirate was available only in black-and-white; the color was restored in the 1990s. This will be my first chance to see it in color on the big screen.

The Alloy Orchestra will provide the musical accompaniment.

It will be followed by:

  • Around China with a Movie Camera
    (1:00): A selection of newsreels and travelogues shot in China. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Grim Game
    (3:00): A melodrama staring the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Inhuman Woman (6:30): Can one make a good silent film around a singer? We’ll find out with this French film, which the Festival describes as a “fantasy.” Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Piccadilly (9:15): I seldom stay for the last film of the night at the Silent Film Festival, but I just might with this one. The always-amazing Anna May Wong plays a scullery maid turned dancer in this British film. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission

Movie lovers in Texas, New York, and other locations have enjoyed Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas for years. Now it’s our turn.

The Alamo Drafthouse company has restored The New Mission Theater (in the Mission, of course), and it will open December 17 with the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve yet to attend a Drafthouse theater, but the company’s reputation for good beer, good food (meals as well as snacks), and good projection seems promising. They screen mostly new movies, with some classics–often of the camp variety.

Judging from some of the photos on their Facebook page, The New Mission looks spectacular. And even though they have chopped it up into a multiplex, They’ve kept enough of the original to have one spectacular auditorium.

Or, at least, that’s what the photographs have led me to believe.

I’ve added the New Mission to the list of theaters this blog covers.

The final day at the Mill Valley (San Rafael) Film Festival

Sunday was the last day of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I spent the day at the Rafael, but I didn’t stay long enough to catch any of the official closing films or the closing party.

Here’s what I caught:

B Truth
I kind of wish I was new to the theater. I would have loved to have asked a volunteer “Where do I go for Truth.”

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence turned out to be fake, turning the exposé into a mediascandal that helped Bush and destroyed several journalism careers, including Dan Rather’s. Writer/director James Vanderbilt gives us a slick, entertaining, but unexceptional movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. It has one very big casting flaw (Robert Redford as Rather). But it tells a story that we should all know and remember.

There was no filmmaker Q&A.

This was, of course, the festival’s last screening of Truth (but hopefully not their last truthful screening). There was no Q&A after the film. It opens in theaters soon.

Panel – The Future of Film Technology
How will digital technology, immersive games, and other innovations change the nature of cinema. Angela Watercutter of Wired Magazine chaired a discussion on where we are going.

The panelists, going from left to right, were:

  • Tiffany Shlain: Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Webby Award founder
  • Christopher Coppola: Filmmaker and teacher and member of a famous cinema family
  • Shane Hurlbut: Cinematographer
  • John Gaeta: Lucasfilm designer
  • Jess Lee: InVisage president and CEO

Lee was the only one there promoting a product–a new camera technology called QuantumFilm. He screened a short film shot on a smartphone using his company’s system. The image looked soft and out of focus. He also showed some us-vs.-them comparison images, but I never trust demos done by people who have something to sell.

A few highlights from the discussion. There may be a few errors in the quotes, but none of them are substantial.

Shlain: The most exciting new advance was when they added the “photograph yourself” feature to cellphones. It’s so empowering. There’s no camera crew to intimidate you.

Coppola: Pity the artist who blames the equipment.

Hurlbut: I try to read the story, listen to what the characters say. The story will tell you what to shoot it on; what lens. You have to read the subtext.

Hurlbut: What I’m finding is the way I’m moving the camera is changing because of the physical size. I find that very exciting. Something that used to be 60 or 70 pounds is now a six-pound box.

Coppola: When you say “cut” using film, you stop everything. You can keep going and improvise with digital. Actors love that. [Coppola also claimed that he showed digital camera tests to the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who “liked what he saw.”]

Hurlbut: There will always be artists who stick with film; they like the look and feel of it. But what I’m not liking is the look and feel of the budgets.

Shlain: It’s changing how you create. There’s pros and cons. You can do so much on the fly now. It’s like when they were first able to move the camera; that was so radical.

Hurlbut: The quality of television has gone through the roof. I remember when you couldn’t get a famous actor on TV. But now the scripts are so good.

On the theatrical experience:

Hurlbut: Is the movie-going experience dying?

Coppola: For my seven-year-old, it already has. There’s this multi-tasking thing.

Hurlbut: It’s still my favorite way to sit in a darkened theater. That’s something I’m going to hold onto.

Gaeta: Along with church, it’s one of two places where you disconnect from Twitter and Facebook.

Shlain: People still like theater experience.

The Saga of Ingrid Bergman
This isn’t a movie, but a museum-like exhibit around the corner from the Rafael, celebrating the great actress and movie star.

I enjoyed it. Most of it was mounted photos, many of them movie stills. Captions helped outline her life and career–mostly her career. I found one error: A caption credited Alfred Hitchcock for writing and directing Notorious. He directed it, but Ben Hecht wrote it. in addition to the photos, three video screens offered mini-documentaries about stages in her life.

The exhibition runs through Thursday at 1020 B Street, San Rafael. It’s connected to the Rafael’s current Ingrid Bergman Retrospective.

A Tikkun
The last film I saw at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival turned out to be the best. But I’m not sure how much a non-Jew would appreciate this fantasy drama set in Jerusalem’s strictest Orthodox community.

A young, male Chasid, extremely religious and prone to accidents, survives a near-death experience. He comes out of it changed in slight but (for his family) frightening ways. He doesn’t need his glasses. He refuses to eat meat. He hitchhikes late at night as a way to study the world outside his enclosed community. He even visits a brothel. Sometimes he seems holier than the more conventional Chasids; other times, blasphemous. Shot in widescreen black and white, with no background music, this very odd film is unlike anything you may ever see.

I find it to be a strange, spiritual experience. But after the movie, the man sitting next to me enthusiastically called it the best anti-religion film he’d ever seen. I guess people see what they want to see in it.

There was no filmmaker Q&A.

Will you get a chance to see it? Maybe. An American release is possible, but as far as I know, not yet confirmed.


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