Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Noir City X: San Francisco, Days 1 & 2

Rosemarie and I were not about to miss the tenth anniversary Noir City film festival at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. We couldn’t stay for the duration of its ten-day run, which meant choosing between opening weekend (featuring an in-person tribute to Angie Dickinson) and closing weekend (highlighted by Everybody Comes To Eddie’s: The Noir City Nightclub). Knowing the Angie interview would eventually be on the Film Noir Foundation’s website, we opted for the party. Always opt for the party.

Thursday was Bad Girls Night. Leading off: 1954’s Naked Alibi. Sterling Hayden plays a detective kicked off the force for hounding hair trigger family man Gene Barry, whom Hayden believes to be a cop killer. Barry skips town to clear his head and we learn that Hayden has his number; Barry’s a hoodlum leading a double life in the company of cantina chanteuse Gloria Grahame. Alibi is a minor effort, evidenced by the fact that its border city is called Border City. Barry’s character makes absolutely no sense. Grahame is the entire show here, but what a show it is. Her Marianna is a bad girl who deep down still believes in love and in doing the right thing, a combination that doesn’t promise a happy ending. Plus her one number, a sullen rendition of “Ace in the Hole” with voice work by Jo Ann Greer, is one for the books.

Hugo Haas was a respected Czech actor who found himself typecast in America. He moved into independent filmmaking, where he cranked out Blue Angel knockoffs (older man ruined by younger woman) to diminishing returns. In his early effort Pickup (1951), he had the good sense to cast Beverly Michaels, whom I’ve loved since seeing her in Wicked Woman, as the cause of his undoing. Haas knows exactly what he’s doing, introducing Beverly with repeated shots of her endless legs as she bobs up and down on a merry-go-round horse. Pickup is surprisingly effective, with Haas making canny use of sound.

Nightly Cocktail Report: Before the show we stopped in at Harvey’s, where I had an Old Fashioned made with Wild Turkey American Honey liqueur. Honey and whiskey, together in one bottle. If anyone other than Gloria Grahame had starred in the night’s first movie I’d never have left my barstool.

Friday was blue collar noir night. Thieves’ Highway (1949) has deservedly become a fest favorite for its tough-minded tabloid sensibility. Returning vet Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) takes over his father’s trucking business and tangles with Lee J. Cobb, the crooked broker who crippled his old man. I’ve seen this film repeatedly and always find something new to appreciate; this go-round it was the strong dramatic performance of Jack Oakie as another trucker desperate to make a buck. The movie revolves around a wildcat shipment of Golden Delicious apples, and host Eddie Muller had the brilliant idea of having gorgeous dames in period costume hand out the Biblical fruit to filmgoers. Only Eddie could get away with giving an audience produce and not having any of it hurled at him.

We saw The Breaking Point (1950) on our Paris trip last year, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to revisit the adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not so soon. It’s that intense and that heartbreaking. John Garfield is brilliant as the fishing boat captain struggling to stay afloat in every sense. Patricia Neal is the vixen who doesn’t tempt him so much as remind him that other ways of life are possible, and Phyllis Thaxter gives one of the great overlooked performances as his loyal wife. Eddie called this double-bill the best in the ten year history of Noir City. The one-two punch of these movies was particularly potent during campaign season. After listening to politicians extol the free market for months it was a bracing corrective to get a crash course in how the system actually works.

Nightly Cocktail Report: While I enjoyed a whiskey sour livened up with rhubarb bitters at Catch, the real experimentation was being done at the just-opened Ice Cream Bar at 815 Cole Street. It’s an old-school soda fountain complete with jerks (that’s a title, not an opinion) in either paper hats or straw boaters, serving up non-alcoholic confections from a menu devised by noted mixologist Russell Davis of Rickhouse. Rosemarie raved about her float with rich house-made root beer. Shakedown glitches delayed my Too Good To Be True, with ingredients including rye-based butterscotch and blackstrap molasses, but as a reward for my patience I got a free dish of their astonishing honey buttermilk ice cream. And the drink, when it arrived, proved more than worth the wait.