Noe Valley Voice February 2005


By David O'Grady

The Castro Theatre is the closest we come to a movie house in Noe Valley. It's a short walk from the neighborhood--if you don't mind the alpine climb between our valleys. But it's always been worth the trip, especially for the annual Noir City Film Festival, held in January.

Unfortunately for us, the festival moved to the Balboa Theater this year--a fine theater, but too far for a leisurely stroll. So on these drizzly winter nights, when Noe Valley is shrouded in fog like a film noir set, stop by one of our neighborhood video stores for rentals that define the genre, such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Dark Passage, one of the best films to use San Francisco locations.

Or consider adding a plot twist to the usual litany of double-crossing dames, derringers, and dim lighting, by taking a look at "neo-noir" movies instead, films made in the last few decades that borrow from the 1940s heyday of noir.

Perhaps the best-known example of neo-noir is Roman Polanski's brilliant Chinatown (1974), starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. But you'll find more tough guys--and gals--in tight spots in the following neo-noir films.

Philip Marlowe Revisited

Film noir, then and now, often pits a private eye against mysterious forces of power and corruption--forces that threaten to bend or even break his moral compass. There's no better example than Raymond Chandler's world-weary Los Angeles detective, Philip Marlowe.

Marlowe debuted in the '40s but returned to the big screen in the 1970s, with the films Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Long Goodbye (1973).

Farewell, My Lovely, starring Robert Mitchum, finds Marlowe investigating two seemingly routine and unrelated cases: tracking down the former flame of a crook just released from the slammer, and recovering a stolen necklace for the seductive Mrs. Grayle, played by a Lauren Bacall­like Charlotte Rampling. But when his informants turn up dead and goons start gunning for him, Marlowe realizes the answer to both mysteries may lie with the same wealthy underworld boss.

For The Long Goodbye, director Robert Altman updates the setting but preserves Marlowe as a relic of the past, contrasting his dark suits, vintage car, and strike-anywhere matches with the yoga devotees and self-indulgent nudists of 1970s California. The story unfolds as Marlowe, played by Elliot Gould, drives a friend to Tijuana in the middle of the night and returns home to find the cops on his doorstep with the news that his friend's wife has just been murdered.

Some noir purists balk at Altman's droll humor and Gould's un-heroic portrayal of Marlowe in this film. But The Long Goodbye's stranger-in-a-strange-land theme underscores how Marlowe's personal loyalties--the hero's code in 1940s noir--have become archaic. Not even his pet cat will stand by him.

Neo-Noir's New Anti-Heroes

Marlowe's revival and reinterpretation paved the way for directors and writers to replace the private eye altogether. Movies such as Blood Simple, Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, Memento--the list goes on--breathe new life into the noir genre by putting office workers, bartenders, doctors, and the unemployed into noir-like peril.

The 1998 film Croupier, about a London casino dealer by night and frustrated writer by day, is worthy of special mention for its mix of banal seediness, moral ambiguity, and sardonic voiceover--a trademark noir device. Clive Owen plays the anti-hero, a broke, former croupier who gets sucked back into the casino life, thanks to a job tip from his father. Owen's obsession with a croupier's detachment from the game becomes a metaphor for his life, which helps his writing but threatens to snap his relationship with his live-in girlfriend. The tension mounts when a desperate gambler, played by Alex Kingston, pulls the croupier into a scheme to heist the casino.

Something about Kingston's eyes evokes noir femme fatale star Ida Lupino, and Owen's croupier is convincing as a cool guy who can still be conned. In a twist that would make David Mamet proud, Croupier also has one of the best double-cross surprise endings in recent film memory.

The Dark, Twisting Road of Mulholland Drive

Trying to create film noir in Los Angeles after Chinatown is a daunting task (L.A. Confidential is a valiant effort). But the inimitable David Lynch found a way in his meditation on Hollywood, Mulholland Drive (2001). Naomi Watts plays Betty, a wide-eyed, aspiring actress who arrives in Hollywood to find an amnesiac calling herself Rita (after Rita Hayworth) hiding in her aunt's apartment. Betty and Rita become fast friends as they set out to restore Rita's memory. But the true identity of both characters becomes the real mystery, and the Hollywood dream turns into a living nightmare of betrayal, thwarted ambition, and murder.

Typical Lynchian weirdness serves a truly engrossing mystery in Mulholland Drive: Could the heroine, villain, and femme fatale all be the same person? Rather than give it away, it's best to follow the advice of one of Lynch's oddball characters from a crucial theater scene in the middle of the film: "Silencio."

Even (Not-So) Tough Guys Need Love

For Valentine's Day, the touching Casablanca homage "Play It Again, Sam" (1972) offers an inventive mix of romantic comedy and pathos, with Woody Allen as a divorced, nervous Casanova under the tutelage of an imaginary Bogart. Soon, Allen's affections turn to his friend's wife, played by Diane Keaton. Set in San Francisco and Sausalito, it's the first film to team Allen and Keaton. "Play It Again, Sam" also comes with the recommendation of the staff at Noe Valley Video on 24th Street, where it can be found in the "Staff Picks" section. For any budding Woody Allen fan, this film may be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Until we get a movie theater in Noe Valley, we'll have to make do with neo-noir on the small screen in our neighborhood--unless someone with a projector would care to host a "Noe-noir" film festival? We'll be the only ones to know that's not a typo.