By FilmNerd February 13, 2009


Scandal Sheet, 1952

Newspapers may be dying, but thanks to Eddie Muller, founder of San Francisco's Film Noir Foundation—which is dedicated to preserving film noir prints—classic hard-boiled movies about newspapers are alive and well. And you can see them this week, starting tonight at SIFF Cinema.

Noir City, a yearly weeklong festival of film noir gems programmed by Muller, a San-Francisco-based writer who has put together the noir series for the last seven years—is featuring newspaper noir this year. Muller, a former newspaper reporter himself and the son of longtime San Francisco Examiner sports columnist also named Eddie Muller, chose the newsroom theme because of the current crisis that's demolishing print journalism.  (Previous series themes have been "Women on Top", starring female protagonists, and "N.Y. vs. L.A.," a series of double features featuring movies with similar hard boiled plots set on the dueling coasts. Muller has also ignored themes altogether some years, just playing the rarest noir films he could get his hands on.)

Muller , who I exchanged emails with  this week in advance of his series' SIFF engagement, says film noir—home of the tough-guy hero and the ruby-lipped femme fatale – is "one of the very few organic artistic movements in the history of Hollywood."  Along with westerns, film noir is one of the United States' only native film genres— though its name was coined by a French film critic in 1946. Like much of American culture, film noir is a love-child of the highbrow and the lowbrow—born when arty American filmmakers got crushed out on German expressionist cinematography (think Fritz Lang) and applied American hardboiled crime fiction (think Raymond Chandler).

Newspaper noir—a subgenre of which I was not aware until Muller brought it up with this series—works because of the similar histories of the news and film industries.  Muller points out that many of classic cinema's greatest writers—Ben Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz, Gene Fowler, Samuel Fuller, to name a few—came from the newspapers, again highlighting the highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy. Muller argues that these writers' accessible style came from their newspaper experience:  "They all had the human touch, because they understood that their readers were common people, and they transposed that touch to their screen work." 

Muller, the "Czar of Noir," says Seattle is among the few cities that gets to host the weeklong engagement because it's one of the few cities with a venue that can screen archival prints. "There aren't many theaters left that can do 'change-overs,' which means a two projector system," Muller says. Consider yourselves lucky, denizens of Seattle—we have a film scene that can handle the real thing. (Other cities on this year's noir tour: LA, DC, and Chicago.)

There are 14 films in the series. Every night, the week-long festival presents a double feature for $10: An "A" film – like Deadline USA (Richard Brooks, 1952, featuring Humphrey Bogart)—is paired each evening with a shorter, pulpier "B" film like Scandal Sheet (Karlson, 1952, not available on DVD).  This choice was made in keeping with noir's historical context; in Muller's words, it's "as close as you're going to get to actually going to the movies in 1948."

Those looking for a real steal should buy a $50 Noir City festival pass, $35 for SIFF members, which includes admission to all 14 screenings.  Do the math; that's $3.50 per film.  Just in case you can't make it every night, I asked Muller what his favorites are.  Though he says "there's not a bad film in the bunch," the evenings not to miss are opening and closing nights, with Deadline USA/Scandal Sheet and Alias Nick Beal/Night Editor, respectively.

 In general, double features start at 7pm with 2pm weekend (and Monday) matinees – but check the schedule, as this does vary in one or two cases to accommodate running time.

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