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.


VIOLENT SATURDAY: desert noir in De Luxe color


Richard Fleischer is one of my favorite directors, but I was unfamiliar with his Violent Saturday (1955) until the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller programmed it for the 2017 Noir City film festival.  Unusual for 1950s noir, it’s filmed in glorious CinemaScope and De Luxe color on location in the bright desert of Bisbee, Warren and Lowell, Arizona.

Three hoods spend a few days casing a bank in a remote mining town.  The movie doesn’t center as much on the actual heist as on the characters of the robbers and the townspeople.  The smug leader of the gang is Stephen McNally (Dutch Henry Brown in Winchester ’73).  The nasty, edgy guy who hates kids and uses an inhaler is played by Lee Marvin with inhaler.  J. Carroll Naish plays the no-nonsense crime veteran in the crew.

The townspeople are:

  • The sensitive mine manager (Victor Mature);
  • The self loathing alcoholic mining heir (Richard Egan), besotted with his straying wife (Margaret Hayes);
  • The timid bank manager and nighttime peeper (Tommy Noonan);
  • The town hottie (Virginia Leith);
  • The Amish farmer (Ernest Borgnine in full Amish beard!); and
  • The librarian with a practical approach to her money troubles (veteran Sylvia Sidney).

Unfortunately, the dialogue in Violent Saturday is pretty lame and often downright soapy: “I’ve been cheap and rotten but I’ve always loved you” and “please leave me alone for a while – I don’t want you to see me cry”.  And the ending ties everything up a little too neatly – including for the peeping tom.

But the cast did the best they could with the characters, especially McNally.  Virginia Leith is a silky and sensuous presence; her career died just a year after Violent Saturday when she wasn’t renewed by Fox (per IMDb); she’s now best known for playing the disembodied Jan in the Pan in the cult fave The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.

Violent Saturday was Richard Fleischer’s fourth film after his noir masterpiece, The Narrow Margin.  Indeed, the best thing about Violent Saturday is Fleischer’s expert direction. You can tell that this isn’t by-the-numbers directing when we see the shots of the robbers casing the bank, the dancing in the bar, when the hoods approach Amish with guns drawn and, especially, when the peeper edges past the hottie in the drug store.

[Here’s one thing that confused me about the title: the robbery takes place during regular business hours, and in the 1950s, banks were not open on Saturdays.  Maybe the robbery was on Friday and the final shootout is the next day?  Help me here somebody.]

Violent Saturday is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.