San Francisco Noir by Nathaniel Rich

San Francisco Nor by Nathaniel Rich
San Francisco Nor by Nathaniel Rich
San Francisco Noir -  The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present by Nathaniel Rich wears out a resepctable slab of shoe leather in tracking down some famous locations from movies ranging from The House Across the Bay (1940) to Twisted (2004).

The book revisits 41 movies, some of which are classic film noir, othres which might be better classed as late twentieth century crime shockers.

Although many of the locations are gone, or maybe didn't even exist in the first place (as in the case of The House on Telegraph Hill), San Francisco Noir doesn't linger too long on anyfilm, and offers much needed geographical analysis, as opposed to film criticism. 

The film criticism is there, but it's to the point, journalistic, and snappy.  This is from Nathaniel Rich's writing on Out of the Past (1947):

Rarely do movie stars have any difficulty faking a tear or a temper tantrum.  But few can convincingly act humble.  As Out of the Past's Kirk Douglas sai, "Making movies is a form of narcissism."  Robert Mitchum is the exception:  he was so skilled at self-deprecation that he convinced several generations of film  critics (another group not particularly inclined to humility_ that he was a bad actor.  His sleep-walk and his famously inert face—his eyes peering out as if from behind a mold of aspic—was readily misconstrued as a blank acting style.


Criticism of film that inlcude criticism of film criticism can't be bad. But most of San Francisco Noir is about detail, and there are truly great short essays on Vertigo, Dirty Harry and Basic Instinct, the last of whcih is a film that Nathaniel Rich seems to know inside out.

Better still, Nathaniel Rich asks why so many film noirs are shot in San Francisco at all.  It makes sense that some take place in Los Angeles, because it is close to where the studios were, but what, he wonders, explains the preponderance of film noirs shot in San Francisco.

Only the twelfth largest Amercian city in the 1940 national census, San Francisco was remote enough in the movie-going public's consciousness that the openings of many of the films set there in this period feel it necessary to begin with a civic primer.  "San Francisco: one of America's twelve great cities," boasts the narrator at the beginning of Chinatown at Midnight, perhaps hoping the message might resonate with viewers in some of the other top twelve cities, like Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

He argues that film-makers were drawn to San Francisco's strange mythology, as it always been known as a place of misfits, a rep dating back to the Gold Rush days, when San Fran was nicknamed 'with a mixture of derision and terror' as The Barbary Coast., because of its loose rule of law.

In the noir era this had changed, and although the city is glossy on the surface, violence and vice are hidden in every dark corner.

It's a great book, and even if it can make no sense of the bizarre use of San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon, it makes the best effort. 

Plus it's also a strong read because not only will it contain films that are not familiar to you, there really are facts in this book that you can only get here, and that is down to good ole fashioned legwork.


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