City of Noir - Page 3

Behind the fog-shrouded mystique—why so many classic mid-century film noirs aimed their cameras toward Baghdad by the Bay
City of Noir
City of Noir
Above: Behind the scenes of 'Out of the Past' (1947), with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, considered "a nearly perfect noir"—and of course filmed in various San Francisco locales.
City of Noir
City of Noir
Top: Director Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' (1958), shot extensively on location in San Francisco and starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, is considered a noir masterpiece. Above: Stewart in the heart of the City.
City of Noir
Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt huddle under the Golden Gate Bridge in the 'The Man Who Cheated Himself' (1950).

"It was sensational. It really was a revelation," he recalls, basking in the glory of having restored a little-known film that he describes as "a love story told in reverse, which is very odd."

For Poletti, the highlight of the film is a climactic roller coaster scene set at the old Playland at the Beach amusement park that is fraught with tension: "You're just on the edge of your seat the whole time. It's really well filmed."

"Another reason I love these movies, especially the ones in SF, is that they are photographic archives of the past, where you can see the city at the height of its sophistication and charm," she added.

Perhaps, but as with the 'Maltese Falcon' sets, the scenery can be deceiving: Muller concedes that much of the amusement park scene, including the roller coaster finale, was actually filmed at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.

Before 'Woman on the Run' was restored, he recalls, "It was a film that nobody knew anything about." Muller wrote a few essays about it, word spread, and what he termed the "phenomenal success" of the foundation has given him international credibility, screening his baby for an appreciative audience at the Lyon Film Festival.

Like all noir, however, there is no simple, happy ending to the story. A few years later, Muller and Monga were visiting Los Angeles again on behalf of the foundation.

"We were driving out of town when we saw smoke from the fire," Monga recalls of the artistically destructive inferno that consumed some 40,000 film copies at the Universal back lot on June 1, 2008.

"If we had never found it and left it alone, it would never have burned," Muller confessed like a true noir protagonist, explaining that it would have been in a fireproof vault rather than in an archivist's office.

Undaunted, the Czar continues to hawk and preserve film noir on cable television and at what foundation staff call the "Noir City road show," which brings the annual festival to seven cities in succession.

"My job is to make these films fun and interesting to a younger audience," he said of his oeuvre.

Noir City is a social and entertainment highlight of the year for fans like Poletti and Place, devotees who save each program and sometimes attend the festival in multiple cities.

"I met my husband at Eddie's festival, so I'm very indebted to that," Poletti said with noirish irony, noting that he and his father came to the Castro for the festival from their homes in Massachusetts.

Of course, now the couple lives three blocks from the theater, which can be problematic for household routines. One night they strolled past en route to the supermarket when they spied the marquee.

"Oh, my god, 'High Sierra'!" she exclaimed. "This changes everything, all our plans!"

Yeah, that kind of thing happens often with these flicks, ma'am.





• The 2020 edition of the Noir City film festival is slated for January 24 through February 2 at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. For film lineups and more, visit

Photography: Fred Lyon, Ernie Braun, Eddie Muller; and courtesy Reel SF (, Rico Tee Archive