Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Who's Crazy Now?" - Noir City 9, Opening Night

Stranger on the Third Floor

So…I paid my 10 bucks to park in the lot adjacent to Sullivan’s Funeral Home on Market Street in San Francisco and was heading for the Wells Fargo ATM near 16th...I checked my phone and noticed a text message…my friend Dick, who I was to meet for dinner before attending opening night of San Francisco’s 9th annual film noir festival.
I called him to find out where he was…on Castro St. between 18th and 19th - also on his way to an ATM. After we got our cash we met at Market and Castro and walked over to Café La Taza on 18th to get a bite.

By the time I finished my meal, glass of wine and coconut ice cream-over-a-warm-cookie dessert, it was quarter to seven and time to get to the theater…the line, we knew, would be long…

It was, and with our print-your-own-tickets in hand we got on line and waited for the doors to open. An eclectic crowd, we agreed...a sprinkling of ladies dressed in ‘40’s finery but most in street wear staring into space or talking with friends. Dick and I talked about my godson Nicky who’s thinking of going to his first big music concert, Coachella in April. 
Noir City at San Francisco's Castro Theatre

Once inside we checked seating on the main floor and quickly headed up the steps to the balcony. The Castro has 1,400 seats, so if you get there reasonably on time it’s not hard to find decent seats.

The evening was obviously sold out - the theater filled quickly. Then the lights dimmed, music swelled and we were treated to an intoxicating 6-minute montage created by Serena Bramble featuring clips from the countless noir and neo-noir and crime-themed films set or shot in San Francisco…from The Maltese Falcon to Dark Passage to Vertigo to Basic Instinct and many others in between and beyond…the montage culminated with the greeting, “Welcome to Noir City” and the crowd erupted with cheers and applause…(watch the montage below!)

The Castro Theatre
Next, Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, took the stage. After introducing this year’s young and slinky Ms. Noir City, he talked about film noir and about the work of preservation and his passion for it. The first screening of the night, High Wall (1947) is one of three newly restored films to premiere at the festival. The UCLA Film & Television Archive supervised the creation of preservation prints with funding provided by the FNF. Muller thanked everyone for coming - the evening’s proceeds, he said, paid for the restoration of the film we were about to see. Finally, he dedicated the event to his friend, mystery writer Joe Gores, who very recently passed away.

The theme of Noir City 9 is Who’s Crazy Now? and both opening night films reflected that premise in spades…High Wall is primarily set in a psychiatric institution, and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is about a reporter who suffers a paranoid episode (and fanastic dream) and features an out-and-out madman.

Robert Taylor, High Wall

High Wall stars Robert Taylor, still a major Hollywood star but slightly past his prime at the time this film was made. He and Herbert Marshall do the heavy lifting in this dark confection. Leading lady Audrey Totter was having a big year in 1947 with starring roles in this film as well as The Lady in the Lake, and a co-starring role in The Unsuspected. She’s a little stiff as Taylor’s psychiatrist, but the script doesn't give her much help.  Thankfully, Totter’s natural sex appeal manages to peek through from time to time. Herbert Marshall, who often played weak upstanding men, is the villain here. In a part that vaguely echoes his role in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he is one of the strengths in this flawed thriller. To enjoy High Wall, suspension of disbelief is mandatory…the film is an entertaining snapshot rather than a stark reflection of the dark subtext of the post-war late ‘40s.

Laura Ellis
 Intermission. The evening continued with a performance by chanteuse Laura Ellis who, clad in a gorgeous emerald green figure-hugging gown (think Gilda) crooned a luscious ballad that swept me back several decades to a time before my time. A protégé of The Manhattan Transfer’s Alan Paul, Ellis was a wonderful surprise. Would love to hear her version of “Green Eyes” or “Tangerine” and will be keeping an eye on her tour schedule.

The evening just kept getting better. Muller returned with the special guest of the night, Judy Wyler Sheldon, daughter of director William Wyler and actress Margaret Tallichet. Tallichet was leading lady of the night's second feature, Stranger on the Third Floor. Sheldon, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Society, recounted an anecdote about the first time she saw this film.
William Wyler and Margaret Tallichet

In the 1970s a small local film club advertised a screening of Stranger on the Third Floor and Sheldon decided to attend; she hadn't seen any of her mother's films up to that point. She decided to invite her dad and mom to come along - which they did. As it turned out, the screening was in the home of the club's president and when Judy showed up with not only her husband but her illustrious father and her mother, one of the film's stars, all jaws dropped. She mentioned to the rapt Noir City 9 audience that she hadn't been sure how her father would take not being the center of attention for once, but he turned out to be game and the evening was a big hit. Sometime later Judy Sheldon attended another of the film club's screenings and noticed that the check her father had written to cover admittance had never been cashed but was in a frame on the wall.

Scenes from Stranger on the Third Floor
Stranger on the Third Floor is a 64 minute "B" effort from RKO. BUT. It has been called America's first film noir for its stylistic elements - highlighted by one fabulous and surreal dream sequence. Art Director Van Nest Polglase was involved in just about every RKO film made from 1931 to 1942...including Citizen Kane (1941). Watch Stranger and Kane - a visual connection is unmistakable. The film also boasts cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past). While there are recognizable faces in the film (Peter Lorre as "the stranger," Elisha Cook, Jr. as Briggs), the two leads are relatively unknown. Margaret Tallichet made few films and was more occupied with her marriage to William Wyler and their family. John McGuire, who plays the reporter, had bit parts in Shadow of a Doubt, White Heat and Sands of Iwo Jima but was off the big screen by 1952. Lorre doesn't have that much screen time, but his scenes are mesmerizing and chilling. Though essentially a "B" morality tale, Stranger on the Third Floor is a must-see for those interested in the evolution of film noir...and American cinema...

Noir City 9 runs through January 30...if there's any chance you can attend - do! This is one of the premiere noir fests in the world and worth every penny of the $10 ticket price ($100 for a festival pass). I'll be back on Wednesday for Jean Renoir's legendary The Woman on the Beach (1947).


  1. So many films, so little time! All of your articles are so very well written and informative. Your blog rocks!

  2. Lady Eve, thank you for taking me (vicariously) with you and your friend to the 9th annual Noir Festival: from the first moments on a street in San Francisco to enjoying a meal and the anticipation in line, I felt I was there with you. Your reviews of both HIGH WALL and STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR were both evocative and perceptive. I agree with you regarding Audrey Totter’s role in the former and I am really jealous not to have seen the later on the large screen. I’m familiar with Alan Paul from MANHATTAN TRANSFER, as you mentioned, but I didn’t realize the group’s legacy was alive today. Laura Ellis seems to have added the “right note” to the heady mix of atmosphere (TANGERINE always evokes memories of classic films for me). Thank you also for including Serena Bramble’s montage, what an extraordinary tribute to the most (in my opinion) noir of cities. I am especially impressed that she used HURDY GURDY MAN by Donovan and not only made it work, I’m now convinced the song was written especially for this sequence. Yes, I agree with FlickChick, “your blog rocks!”

  3. Eve,

    What a great evening you had! The two films, Laura Ellis, Eddie Muller and William Wyler’s daughter, wow! HIGH WALL seems like a film worth catching for sure. Nick Musuraca’s cinematography is the major highlight of STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. He is one of the greats(Out of the Past, The Spiral Staircase, The Seventh Victim and many more). The montage clip is great, a tremendous overview of SF on film. Thanks for sharing your tremendous evening. I only wish I could be there for the festival.

  4. Thanks so much for this report! I enjoyed my visit to Noir City at the Egyptian in L.A. last spring and hope it will be back -- I'd like to visit more often this year! Loved reading about your great evening.

    Best wishes,

  5. Thanks to all for your comments...FlickChick, I've hoped this blog would do many things, and one of them is "rock" - thank you!
    Also great to know that my report gave readers the experience of being there. Wish you ALL could have been...the good news is there are noir festivals throughout the U.S. and I are of one mind on Serena Bramble's use of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" on the soundtrack. When it first began to play I wasn't sure what to think. But it works so perfectly and now, like you, I have the sense that it was written for the montage. I'll never hear it any other way again.
    Laura - I hope you check back - the Noir City 9 program included an ad for L.A.'s 2011 noir fest...Mar. 31 - Apr. 17 at the Egyptian -
    Will be back with more after Renoir's "The Woman on the Beach." Cannot wait...

  6. Thanks so much for those dates for the Egyptian! I've been Googling with no luck. I'm jotting the dates on my calendar!

    Envious of you getting to see THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH on a big screen. :)

    Best wishes,

  7. Eve, I agree your blog "rocks"!! Thank you for taking us along on your wonderful evening of film noir. I have not seen the films: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR or HIGH WALL. I will be looking for them on TCM. The song "Hurdy Gurdy Man" I thought was a wonderful unexpected suprise.

  8. I am so jealous!!! almost all the revival cinemas in the greater LA area are closed or torn down!! "stranger" is actually a really good B NOIR, with a great LORRE performance!!

  9. Eve, a most entertaining post and the YouTube video was fantastic--very impressively assembled. I especially enjoyed your description of "Stranger on the Third Floor" and the anecdotes from Judy Wyler Sheldon.

  10. I hope both Laura and "the doctor" are able to attend the upcoming festival in L.A. - another perfectly noir city. Laura Ellis is based in L.A., so hopefully she'll be part of the program.
    Though I preferred STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR to HIGH WALL, both are worth seeing...HIGH WALL is from MGM, and MGM studio head L.B. Mayer felt that every MGM film should look like an MGM film - regardless of genre or budget. One director complained that when Cedric Gibbons's art dept. created interiors for a bookie joint on one of his films "it looked like something out of "House and Garden"..." When former RKO chief Dore Schary took over as president he set out to "deglamorize" MGM's style.

  11. Man, I wish I had been there. Sounds like a great evening of movies and music. Thankyou for sharing. I need to see more "film noir."

  12. I saw your comment on Sweet and Hot, so I thought I'd check out your blog. ;). It's very neat. Well, I guess I'm you newest follower!:-)

  13. Eve, I always enjoy your fascinating description of cinema events in San Francisco. This one sounds like a doozy. I haven't seen HIGH WALL, but first viewed STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the second feature on local TV's "Shock Theatre." I remember thinking, hey, this isn't a horror it wasn't until a few years later that I fully appreciated it for the stylish achievement it is.

  14. Hi Eve! I'm a little late with my comment (I've been really ill), so I'm catching up. Your article was a great read, and like others, gave me the feeling of being there. I think Stranger on the Third Floor is a wonderful movie, and deserves its place in film noir history. Your pictures are beautiful and the montage splendid. Thanks for another really good article