D.O.A. in Noir City

Last night would’ve made Jeannette MacDonald (and Clark Gable) proud. It would even have made pious priest Spencer Tracy (Father Mullin to you) unloosen his collar a bit.

If those cast members don’t ring your bells, you’ve missed a sentimental favorite of San Franciscans everywhere: the 1936 MGM melodrama San Francisco, which features a very scary (and surprisingly authentic-feeling) earthquake scene. It’s the movie that gave us our rousing anthem of a city song, “San Francisco” (the one that signals the show is about to start, when played by one of the Castro Theater’s incredible pipe organists). It’s all about the good ol’ bad ol’ days of the really swingin’ Barbary Coast, which made the Condor Room and the strip joints of later years seem like Pollyanna’s tame uncle Milton. It’s not noir, but baby–it’s San Francisco.

So why would they be proud, you ask? Because on another rainy, miserable, dark and stormy night (the only kind of weather that reflects the emotions on the screen), San Franciscans packed the Castro Theater for another night of Noir City: San Francisco Noir.

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir with the heart of gold, and uber-talented writer/director of The Grand Inquisitor, introduced the films of the evening, which led off with one of the most deliriously delicious B-noirs of the late ’40s, D.O.A. He also announced some fabulous news for noirheads and film lovers everywhere: Noir City and the San Francisco International Film Festival will be teaming up to host a holiday of international noir. Can you say merci?

Graham Leggat, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, was on stage with Eddie to discuss the deal. While details are yet to be determined, think about what great noirs may be in the offering … Rififi. Ossessione. Harikomi. Makes you want to learn how to say, “Build my gallows high, baby” in multiple languages, doesn’t it?
(that last line is from Out of the Past, not only a SF noir, but also one of the best).

This terrific news was accompanied by a grim reminder of why the Film Noir Foundation exists. D.O.A. had to be shown on (suck in your gut, this hurts) DVD. Why? Because the only good 35 mm copy exists in the hands of some schmuck collector who would rather hoard it and see it rot than loan or rent it (for market prices) to a non-profit that could SAVE it. The only 16 mm print is in tatters. Such is the price of having classics in the “public domain.”

When it comes to film preservation, there is no “public domain”, really–there are only good collectors and bad collectors, and unfortunately, we were dealing with the latter.

But hey–The Prowler has bee restored, so maybe something can be done for D.O.A eventually. The case of these two films alone should prove why you need to contribute to the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit behind Noir City. Ticket money directly funds film preservation. It saved a Josephy Losey classic and the best film made by Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes from destruction … and believe me, DVD is nice, but it isn’t the same as film, especially when the film is too fragile to even digitalize.

And what about D.O.A.? It’s a terrific noir premise … man in bebop bar (San Franciscans loved their jazz, even in ’49 B movies) gets poisoned with a radioactive substance (which for some reason the film shrinks from naming, other than “luminous toxin”), wakes up with one hell of a hangover, finds out he’s going to die in one day or two weeks at the most, and spends the rest of the movie in LA tracking down the killer.

Incredible shots of the Bradbury building in LA (and a drugstore, complete with soda fountain–would that those were still around) … evocative scenes in San Francisco, especially with sweaty suburban everyguy Edmond O’Brien hoofing it down Market Street (and in one clip, you can see the old Key System train crossing the bottom level of the Bay Bridge) . There’s also Neville Brand’s over-the -top-of-Mt. Everest imitation of a Richard Widmark psycho-thug, and Luther Adler as Majak, who sounds like he should be related to Spock, but is really a suave but sinister Middle Eastern “businessman.”

Some very odd musical sound effects of comic wolf-whistles … a music score by Dimitri Tiomkin that makes Max Steiner sound like Philip Glass … and unintentionally funny dialog (when he sees his girlfriend for what he knows will be the final time, he asks “Is that a new outfit”?–must have been straight out of the manual on How to Talk to a Woman, copyright by Father Knows Best). All in all, a fun-filled B movie with more laughs than chills, but hey–laughter is chicken soup for the noir soul. I’ve seen it before (on a small screen), and it was most definitely worth seeing again.

If you want me to put on the film critic hat, I’ll say this: B movies are more revelatory of the times than their more respectable brethren. D.O.A. dates from ’49, released in 1950, the height of the witchhunts and hysteria that sent people to jail for believing in the Constitution. The film not only contains patronizingly sexist dialog (part of the post-war effort to retrain women out of the job market), but it also encapsulates the sense of hysteria, paranoia, xenophobia, and the “unknown danger within” mentality more obviously seen in such films as I Married a Communist (also known as The Woman on Pier 13.)

There are more reasons to see noir than the obvious ones … so don’t overlook D.O.A. Last night’s viewing was particularly enjoyable because the daughter of leading lady Pamela Britton, a fine actress of great appeal, was in the audience.

Alas, this intrepid noir writer could not stay for the second feature, despite the great temptation of a woman’s prison movie starring Gypsy Rose Lee’s little sister (yup, Baby Rose!). I’ll have to find The Story of Molly X outside Noir City limits.

I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my no-doze at home …

Next time: Bogie and Charles Laughton, on the final Friday of Noir City 6!