Noir City: What to See at the 8th Annual Film Noir Festival


The eighth Film Noir Festival kicked off Friday night at the Castro Theatre with a double bill featuring André de Toth's Pitfall, a nerve-racking depiction of adultery and its messy aftermath, and George Sherman's Larceny, a crowd favorite from years past about two grifters targeting a wealthy widow. The festival continues through the end of the month with a collection of doomed romances and lurid thrillers, starring the genre's best-known stars (among them, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Veronica Lake) and directed by some of cinema's earliest innovators, including Fritz Lang, Henry Hathaway and John Huston.

For tickets and showtimes, visit the Noir City website. Having trouble finding the movie that's right for you? No problem. Here's a list of the festival's most appealing selections, starting with the very best: Huston's masterful Asphalt Jungle.

The Asphalt Jungle
“This is a film chiefly concerned with human relationships.” So says John Huston in his introduction to the underworld crime drama that would earn him a third Oscar nomination for direction. He’s right, of course. Partnerships, some forged in good faith and others steeped in treachery, are at the unsentimental heart of Jungle, as are the vices that undo its antiheroes. Watching them scramble to dodge the rap for a heist gone wrong is sublime entertainment, and surprisingly poignant as a study in futility. (1950, B&W)

The Gangster

Shubunka (Barry Sullivan), a two-bit hood turned well-to-do crime lord, comes undone in director Gordon Wiles' cheerfully eccentric take on the 1937 novel Low Company, written and later adapted for the screen by Daniel Fuchs. Shubunka's high-society girlfriend, played by former Olympic figure skater Belita, merely feeds his increasing paranoia. (1948, B&W)

The Mob

Broderick Crawford (All the King’s Men) stars as an undercover cop aiding a murder investigation he helped botch, posing as a New Orleans heavy and drinking the part. The story twists and turns agreeably – nobody is who he claims to be, least of all Crawford’s wisecracking flatfoot – leading, inevitably, to a showdown pitting lawman against the elusive crime boss who’s been hiding right under his nose. (1951, B&W)

Shot in Technicolor – a rarity among the noirs of its day – Niagara seems almost as intoxicated by the spectacle of the Falls as it is with Marilyn Monroe’s ever-popular bosom. Here, in one of her earliest hits, she plots her husband’s murder while vacationing in what was then America’s honeymoon capital. The only problem? Her hubby (Joseph Cotten, of Citizen Kane) is wise to her cheating ways and itching for payback. (1953, Color)

Odds Against Tomorrow
Bank robbers, take note: Don’t let a thing like race complicate an otherwise well-planned job. That’s the most obvious lesson of Odds Against Tomorrow, a delightfully tense genre exercise in which a hard-boiled bigot (Robert Ryan, of The Wild Bunch) and a Harlem jazz singer (Harry Belafonte) butt heads while planning a $50,000 stickup. (1959, B&W)

Pickup on South Street
Sam Fuller’s story of a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who unwittingly runs afoul of Communist spies was roundly criticized at the time of its release for exploiting the Red Threat. That’s missing the point of South Street, a movie less concerned with politics than with the desperation that drives its characters, small-time crooks and stoolies scraping by on society’s fringes. Violence is a constant in their lives, as inescapable as the lust that binds Widmark’s grifter to Jean Peters’ shady courier. Their struggle to survive it is sometimes far-fetched but always compelling. (1953, B&W)

A Place in the Sun
Long before she was a tabloid staple, Elizabeth Taylor was a two-time Oscar winner. A Place in the Sun predates her most acclaimed roles, opposite Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Montgomery Clift in the following year's Suddenly, Last Summer, but finds her transitioning gracefully from adolescent star to leading lady. Here, she plays a sweetly seductive socialite who effortlessly lures Clift, a frequent co-star, into her orbit. That doesn't sit well with his fiancée (Shelley Winters), who's already pregnant with his unborn child. (1951, B&W)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The 1981 remake, written by David Mamet and starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, boasts searing performances and handsome cinematography, but lacks an obvious raison d’être – its characters, so richly conceived in the lurid pages of James M. Cain’s erotically charged novel, seem without purpose. Tay Garnett’s original, featuring James Garfield as a hardened drifter and Lana Turner as the femme fatale who coaxes him into murder, remains the definitive take on this twisted romance. (1946, B&W)

Slattery's Hurricane
It sounds hokey – a decorated Navy pilot (Widmark) regrets his wayward past as his life flashes before his eyes, high above the clouds in the throes of a deadly storm. Yet Widmark, still in the infancy of a storied big-screen career that would last another 42 years, makes Will Slattery something more than a two-timing daredevil with a wicked streak. He is, above all, human, given to passions that sometimes lead him astray, but likable just the same. (1949, B&W)

Walk a Crooked Mile
Coupled with Roy Del Ruth's Red Light (1949) for the festival's always-popular San Francisco Night, Walk a Crooked Mile is a diverting reminder of Cold War paranoia, following an FBI agent (Dennis O'Keefe) and a Scotland Yard investigator (Louis Hayward, of The Saint in New York) as they track a Communist spy ring to the Bay Area, portrayed here as a hotbed of lefty agitation. (1948, B&W)

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