February 25, 2024
A Cinematic Journey into the Depths of Film Noir


The second-story man mutters to the airport floozie, “It’s crackers to slip the rozzer the dropsy in snide,”* and suddenly we’re in a strange new land, where subtitles might be necessary to suss out what the characters are saying. A place where the only thing we know is that danger lurks, and it may be difficult to piece together what it all means.

Welcome to Noir City 21, the latest installment of the Film Noir Foundation’s annual excursion into the depths of the ever-popular cinematic movement known as film noir. Our guide is the East Bay’s Eddie Muller, a.k.a. the Czar of Noir, author of Dark City and The Distance, and the host of his own cable TV show on Turner Classic Movies.

He’s the man with the gimlet eye; an eye for whatever gimlet the bartender is pouring in that big movie saloon in the sky. The joint where William Holden, Glenn Ford and Marilyn Monroe bump into Ninón Sevilla, Jean Gabin, Silvana Mangano, Kuga Yoshiko and Youseff Chahine, in the hour just before closing time, when anything can happen.

As in some of Noir City’s previous foreign-film showcases, the 2024 lineup—taking place Jan. 19-28 at Oakland’s legendary Grand Lake Theatre—hopscotches merrily through 12 double features, matching a clutch of familiar English-language noirs with a tantalizing assortment of often-obscure whydunnits from such outlandish locations as Egypt, Mexico, South Korea, Argentina, Italy, Japan and France. The common denominators are the unseen hand of fate and that perennial nosebleed, misplaced trust.

The rarest-of-the-rare title in this year’s Noir City is doubtless 1948’s Without Pity (Senza pietà), the story of what happens when a sympathetic Black U.S. Army noncom named Jerry Jackson (played by former James Bond adversary John Kitzmiller), waiting for his orders to return home to the States, befriends an Italian party girl (Carla Del Poggio). Without Pity is directed by Alberto Lattuada, whose dark comedy, Mafioso (1962), starred Alberto Sordi as the most reluctant hitman in Sicily.

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Here, in a post-World War II Italy where stealing U.S. government supplies is the No. 1 local occupation, the fast-paced violence is the perfect backdrop for a pretty blonde trying to get back to the provinces with the help of a Black G.I., the only man around who doesn’t try to hustle her. They’re both doomed, of course.

The screenplay and story, by a young Federico Fellini—in collaboration with Tullio Pinelli, Ettore Maria Margadonna and director Lattuada—push every postwar social commentary button available. The film was banned by both the American and British armed forces, if not for its interracial romantic angle, then for its frank portrait of the victors and the vanquished getting their fingernails dirty in topsy-turvy Europe. Without Pity shows Jan. 25.

Or we could find ourselves in Cairo Station, a 1958 glimpse into the Egyptian underworld in which a news dealer (portrayed by director Youssef Chahine himself) loses his bearings over a sexy lemonade hawker (Hind Rustum, billed as “the Arab Marilyn Monroe”). It plays Jan. 20 in a double feature with Union Station, a 1950 L.A. imbroglio starring odd couple William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald, directed by Rudolph Maté.

Or how about the mean streets of Buenos Aires, the setting for Carlos Hugo Christensen’s 1952 Cornell Woolrich adaptation, Never Open That Door (No abras nunca esa puerta)? It screens Jan. 19 as part of a Woolrich twin bill with Hollywood’s Street of Chance.

The trick in cooking up a festival devoted to a cinematic movement that peaked in the 1940s is to stir constantly over continuous banked heat. After 21 years of Noir City—an annual event in seven North American markets—Muller has it down to an art.

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“What pleases me most is that it didn’t happen quickly. It wasn’t an overnight thing” says Muller, via email. “It’s part of my overall job—keeping classic films accessible and essential for this generation and beyond.”

Grand Lake audiences will drink to that. For more info: noircity.com.

* This coinage, from novelist Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds, literally means, “It’s crazy to slip the policeman the payoff in counterfeit money.” Words to live by, and a splendid example of 1960s-era Mad Magazine marginalia.

* * *

Jan. 19-28 at the Grand Lake Theatre, Oakland.