Noir City

by Daniel Borgström
January 28, 2015

The ten-day Noir Film festival ends tonight, and I saw a number of masterpieces from the forties and fifties. Most were American and British; there was also the Italian classic, "Ossessione" (1943), directed by Luchino Visconti. The Church hated the film, the Fascist government confiscated and destroyed any prints of it they could find; MGM studios acquired the rights to it and destroyed copies that fascists had somehow missed, but Visconti had hidden a print which eventually came to light and was among the selections presented at this year's noir festival at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The film isn't at all shocking by today's standards; in places it's even rather slow-moving, but as you can probably imagine, when the Church, the Fascists and MGM are all in such total agreement, you can be sure it's worth seeing -- you can trust them to hate a great movie.

Extreme poverty is the underlying condition of Visconti's film, set in rural Italy. The male protagonist, Gino, has no money, but being a skilled mechanic he's able to get meals here and there, fixing almost anything from autos to water pumps. He gets by, seeming to enjoy his vagabonding journey through life. But Giovanna, the female protagonist, has had her fill of the free and easy life, and sees no practical option other than sticking with her older husband, whom she finds repulsive, rather than running off with the young, handsome vagabond, Gino.

There were several Barbara Stanwyck films, including "
Clash by Night, " which is also about a love triangle. Economics is a more subtle element in the tapestry of this film. While this movie itself never faced censorship, the irony is that director Fritz Lang and writers Alfred Hayes and Clifford Odets suffered more from at the hands of witch hunters here in America than director Luchino Visconti did at the hands of the Italian Fascists.

The Castro Theatre is one of those beautiful old movie palaces from the 1920s, and it's huge, seating 1,400 people. Even so, its Noir City festival is often sold out. A lot of people love those old movies; some fans show up in period costumes of the 1940s and 1950s. As I stood in line hoping to get tickets on the opening night, I felt the sense of being transported back to that era, in the midst of people who seemed as though they might've been contemporaries of my parents. The couple next to me in line, with whom I had a brief conversation, looked like they came straight out of the world of my parents, especially with respect to the woman's hat (with a veil), which she told me was actually made in 1940. Seeing them there was like looking at an old family photo album with no names or dates.

Film noir is a camera on the past, a collage of portrayals and fantasies of that bygone era, whose soundtrack captures the vocabulary of the times, including words and expressions we're not likely to hear any more, woven into scripts which reflect the morality and outlook of that world – which to us is now a foreign country, even to some of us who were alive then.

January 28, 2015

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Daniel's essay on the 1951 Fritz Lang film
Clash by Night