Monday, April 28, 2008

San Francisco Noir by Nathaniel Rich

While film noir is more often associated with Chandler’s L.A. and Woolrich’s New York, Hammett’s San Francisco is where it all began. Not only did Dash virtually invent hardboiled fiction, but Huston’s 1941 adaptation of his The Maltese Falcon helped kick-start film noir and establish San Francisco’s special relationship with the genre. So Rich’s small volume is a welcome edition to the cottage industry of recent film noir publications. Reading like a series of dreams, this part-film book and part-travel book cites practically every San Francisco-set film noir, devoting a chapter to each comprised of a critique and a description of relevant locations. In all some forty films, including Lady From Shanghai, Vertigo, Point Blank, and The Conversation. It’s enough to make you want to stick the book in your pocket, book a ticket and traverse the city searching for sites.

Anyone who remembers Joan Crawford running down a Russian Hill street in Miller’s 1952 Sudden Fear will know that San Francisco on a foggy night is as noir as it gets. But, according to Rich, it’s the city’s claustrophobic atmosphere, its reputation as a place of misfits and double-crossers, and its topography, apparent in films as dissimilar as Daves’s 1947 Dark Passage and Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry, that give San Francisco its particular appeal. Rich also provides some fascinating trivia: for instance, the grave of Vertigo’s Carlotta remained undisturbed in Mission Dolores for twenty years, while Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past consists of San Francisco locations that don’t actually exist. Rich might skimp when it comes to stills depicting locations, but his book is essential reading for any fan of film noir.