San Francisco Noir

by Don Herron


For the program book handed out at no additional charge during the first annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival at the historic Castro Theatre, January 2003, Eddie Muller, a.k.a. The Sinister Dr. Noir, asked me to do a page on the literary background of the genre. Below is what I sent in, but Eddie had some room to play around in during layout and asked if he could add a few lines. Why not? Eddie knows as much or more about noir as anyone around today, though even he might not be brazen enough to claim San Francisco as the birthplace of the form. If you were lucky enough to attend the festival and pick up one of the 5000 copies of the program, you can compare and contrast, see what Eddie eased in. Or you can scour the net for a copy — during the fourth day of the ten-day festival a copy already was up on eBay at $9.00. It was a great event, with twenty movies all set at least in part in San Francisco. The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage, Lady from Shanghai — plus some true rarities.

You can make the argument — what the hell, I’ll make it now — that noir was born in San Francisco. Sure, certain striking elements of the form may be traced all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe: the haunted, doomed protagonist; the mysterious female; dark, shadowy streets; crime and murder; the unreliable narrator (hey, the nutcase narrator). But noir as we know it pretty much jumped into the public eye when Dashiell Hammett sat down at the typewriter in 1928 in his rooms in 891 Post Street and wrote The Maltese Falcon for the pulp magazine Black Mask.

World War provided the backdrop for what Hammett was doing, for the tough attitude. It changed demographics, bringing more people off the farm and into the mean streets of the cities. Writing styles got punchier and sharper, reflected in the pulps, where Hammett and others by 1923 put the modern hard-boiled detective story underway. But while much noir is hard-boiled, not all hard-boiled qualifies as noir. You need that elusive combination of just the right elements and tone, and that’s what Hammett finally got when he created the amoral private eye Sam Spade. The ending of the novel, which is not the same as the ending of the John Huston movie, is actually depressing. No question it fulfills the particular demands of noir, and Hammett’s next novel, The Glass Key, is as bleak a vehicle.

In Hammett’s wake came other writers of unquestioned noir. James M. Cain (who got out of combat in WWI by doing a newsletter for the Army) wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934, followed by Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Raymond Chandler (who fought trench warfare in WWI, sole survivor in his unit of an assault on a Hun machine gun emplacement) followed his first novel, The Big Sleep of 1939, with a succession of novels and noir screenplays. (Hammett didn’t fight in WWI, by the way, but in 1918 while serving in the Ambulance Corps he contracted Spanish Influenza during the worldwide epidemic, estimated to have killed between 20 to 70 million people — a little something to darken one’s outlook on life.)

Most fans agree that Fritz Lang’s M, released in Germany in 1931, is the first full-fledged noir movie (and what a boon for cineastes that the great Peter Lorre appears in both that and the Bogart Maltese Falcon). Lang was wounded in combat in the First World War, and as the Second World War loomed, fled Nazi Germany — one of many émigrés who’d bring noir sensibilities to Hollywood. By the time John Huston directed Bogart in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, cross-pollination between fiction and film was intense. Hammett had gone to Hollywood in 1930. Chandler was a frequent presence in the 1940s, working beside the immigrant Billy Wilder on a quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity.

Following generations of noir writers got a double whammy — the psychological effects of two world wars, plus as much inspiration from film as from books, from books turned into movies. You can see this influence in the works of the arch-noir writers David Goodis and Jim Thompson, who don’t portray merely a world gone wrong, but protagonists with some dark wound at the core of their own souls, adrift on malignant streets. Goodis stepped into our burg in Dark Passage. Thompson only worked the San Francisco scene in his late-in-life paperback original based on the Ironside TV show. The third major noir writer of the fifties, Charles Willeford, served as a tank platoon commander with Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge, and was curious about how the sociopaths he met during the war would adjust once they were unleashed back home. He lived here briefly and set his major noir statement, Pick-Up (1955) in the city.

That so much film noir also features San Francisco is gratifying, and evident in this program at the Castro. Dark Passage may be my favorite (yeah, I know the ending isn’t truly noir, but Bogart and Bacall transcend strict definitions, and with élan). The city where noir was born, captured for all to see. It’s only just.