Monday, January 26, 2009

Noir City San Francisco: Wicked as They Come (1956)/Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Whenever the dark carnival that is Noir City rolls into Seattle, as it will next month, Rosemarie and I are at every screening. But host and programmer Eddie Muller told us more than once that we weren’t getting the full experience until we took in a double bill at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, the place where Noir City was born. This year, we decided to rectify that.

On Saturday night, we were part of a crowd over 1400 strong, the second consecutive sell-out of the festival. Things get off to a rollicking start with David Hegarty on the Castro’s mighty Wurlitzer organ, playing a mix of favorites from the ‘20s and ‘30s. He finishes the set with a rendition of San Francisco, the crowd clapping along as the Wurlitzer sinks below stage.

The evening is a tribute to actress Arlene Dahl, so after a few welcoming words from Eddie Wicked as They Come unspools. Arlene plays a woman hell-bent on escaping her drab working class life, no matter how many seductions it takes. Wicked, based on the novel Portrait in Smoke by Bill S. Ballinger, is a familiar story complete with pat psychological explanation, but Arlene plays the bad girl with such relish that it goes down easy.

Ms. Dahl, glamorous and fiery of both spirit and mane at age 83, is in attendance along with her son, actor Lorenzo Lamas. (Dude, it’s Renegade!) Eddie interviewed her on stage over champagne. She talked about her memorable first day on the MGM lot (watch the hands, Errol Flynn!), working with the great cinematographer John Alton and director Anthony Mann on the Noir City discovery Reign of Terror, her relationship with John F. Kennedy. She won me over completely by speaking highly of Chez K favorite Dennis Morgan, her co-star in her first “official” movie My Wild Irish Rose.

A redhead, Ms. Dahl said she was often used “to bring color” to films, but what she really loved was to play the femme fatale. The twain met in our next feature, Slightly Scarlet, which teamed Arlene with fellow titian titan Rhonda Fleming. I had seen the movie before, but never in Technicolor on the big screen. Yowza. In this James M. Cain adaptation the ginger goddesses play sisters – Arlene’s the bad one – who both fall for intellectual gangster on the make John Payne. It was every bit as delirious and unhinged as I remembered. I’m still fairly certain the ending makes no sense. And the capacity crowd ate it up.

That was it for the movies, but there was more noir to come. We went to the fabulous Kayo Books, where I nearly wept at the sight of so many pulp classics up for sale. I should have brought a second empty suitcase with me. Still, I made a dandy haul that included some Fredric Brown, a copy of Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand to call my very own, and a Johnny Liddell thriller by Frank Kane, who wrote pretty much every episode of the old Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer TV series.

Across the street from Kayo is the apartment building where Dashiell Hammett lived while he wrote Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. I stopped by to pay my respects, and later went to the corner of Bush and Stockton, where Miles Archer breathed his last in Falcon.

Cocktail report: I’d long wanted to bend an elbow at Bourbon & Branch, and I’m happy to report it’s as good as advertised. The rye maple fizz on the new menu is extraordinary. I’d also heard great things about the Alembic Bar but was concerned that Haight-Ashbury would be a bit out of the way on this trip. I needn’t have worried. (Thanks, Todd and Chad!) The Alembic is worth making time for. Their Vieux CarrĂ© had me flying before I reached the airport. It was the perfect way to wrap up a fantastic weekend.

More photos are up at my Flickr page.