NOIR CITY: the great San Francisco festival of film noir

Noir City 2017
I always look forward to the Noir City film fest, which gets underway in San Francisco this week. Noir City is the annual festival of the Film Noir Foundation, spearheaded by its founder and president Eddie Muller. The Foundation preserves movies from the traditional noir period that would otherwise be lost. Noir City often plays newly restored films and movies not available on DVD. And we get to watch them in a vintage movie palace (San Francisco’s Castro Theatre) with a thousand other film fans.

The theme of this year’s festival is the Heist Movie, Noir City is presenting a wonderful array of heist movies from the classic American film noir period, foreign noirs and an especially healthy selection of neo-noirs. Being noir, you might not expect many of these heists to end well. And some are from noir’s Perfect Crime sub-genre – they’re going to get away with the elaborately planned big heist EXCEPT FOR ONE THING.

Noir City runs January 20-29. To see the this year’s Noir City program and buy tickets, go here.

On Noir City’s first weekend:

  • The Asphalt Jungle: As long as things go according to plan… John Huston directed a marvelous cast (Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, John McIntire). And even Louis Calhern knows that Marilyn Monroe isn’t going to stick around as his moll.
  • Violent Saturday: a completely overlooked film from one of my favorite directors that I hadn’t seen until Eddie Muller programmed it for this festival. Filmed in the bright Arizona desert with CinemaScope and De Luxe color, the story is plenty noir.
  • Four Ways Out: Saturday night, Noir City goes goes Italian with the last script written by screenwriter Federico Fellini before he started directing. Four guys pull a heist, and it goes bad four different ways.
  • Big Deal on Madonna Street, the funniest film in the festival, with an Italian gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Watch for a 34-year-old pre-Fellini Marcello Mastroianni.
  • Rififi: This French classic is the top heist film ever and pioneering in its use of real time. After the team is assembled and the job is plotted, the actual crime unfolds in real-time – over thirty minutes of nerve wracking silence.
  • The Big Risk: It’s a highlight because it’s a French noir starring the bloodhound-visaged Lino Ventura that I have NOT seen, so I’ll be going to Noir City myself on Sunday.

And midweek, at Noir City:

  • The rarely-seen Once a Thief (Alain Delon, trying to keep Ann-Margret while being hunted by Van Heflin) and The Sicilian Clan (with the neo-noir trifecta of Delon, Ventura and Jean Gabin), both on Wednesday evening, January 25.

I’ll be writing about Noir City’s tremendous final weekend. Stay tuned.


THE SICILIAN CLAN: Gabin, Delon and Ventura

Jean Gabin and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN
Jean Gabin and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN

The 1969 French neo-noir The Sicilian Clan is an exemplar of noir’s Perfect Crime sub-genre – they’re going to get away with the elaborately planned big heist EXCEPT FOR ONE THING.  In this case, the one thing is Sicilian macho pride.

There’s an inventive jail break, an exciting boudoir escape and an impossibly brilliant heist plan. There’s also a great scene with a kid and his toy gun.  The suspense tightens even more when a minor character’s wife unexpectedly shows up and threatens to derail the heist again and again.

Most of all, director Henri Verneuil knew that he had three unbeatable cards to play, and he got the most from them:

  • Alain Delon –  Impossibly handsome and dashing, no one ever removed their sunglasses with more of a flourish than Delon.  Delon was in his early thirties, and at the peak of his string of crime movie vehicles, after Anybody Can Win and Le Samourai and before Le Cercle Rouge and The Gypsy.
  • Lino Ventura –  One of the most watchable French stars, Ventura’s bloodhound face had been reshaped by his earlier career as a professional wrestler.   Here, he’s the guy you’re drawn to whenever he’s on-screen.
  • Jean Gabin – Probably the greatest male French movie star ever, Gabin had dominated prewar French cinema with Pepe LeMoko, La Grande Illusion, Port of Shadows and Le Bete Humaine.  After the war, he aged into noir (Touchez Pas aux Grisbi) and, in the 1960s, into neo-noir.  Gabin oozed a seasoned cool (like Bogart) and imparted a stately gravitas to his noir and neo-noir characters.

In The Sicilian Clan, Delon plays the reckless hood in over his head.  Gabin plays the crime boss who is exploiting him.  And Ventura plays the cagey detective after them both.

Here’s a nice touch – the highly professional gang brings in an outsider who is a hopeless drunk.  What is his specialty and why do they need him?  When we find out during the final heist, it’s a stunner that no one could see coming.

The whistling and boings in the offbeat score tell us that it’s the work of Ennio Morricone in his Spaghetti Western period; I’m a Morricone fan, but this is not one of his best.

The Sicilian Clan is not a classic.  The dialogue is grossly clichéd.  There is not a single ordinary looking woman in the film.  An obligatory tryst is tiresomely predictable and made worse by the score’s wacky, clanging music.

But the plot, while contrived, is well-contrived.  And the combination of Delon, Ventura and Gabin will make almost anything work.  You can watch The Sicilian Clan at the Castro Theatre during Noir City 2017, or stream it from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

[Note: In our post 9/11 world, audiences will feel uneasy when a hijacked airplane flies low over the Manhattan skyscrapers.]

Lino Ventura and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN
Lino Ventura and Alain Delon in THE SICILIAN CLAN