Over to the Dark Side
Scott Macaulay speaks with Nathaniel Rich about San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present.
Try to think of a noir city and, chances are, you’ll first think of New York, the location of such classics as Pickup on South Street, Laura, and Night and the City —a place where the skyscrapers throw the dark shadows the genre is known for down onto the cold streets below. Or perhaps you’ll think of the Los Angeles of Mildred Pierce and Chinatown. Long representing the frontier dream of quick wealth and social reinvention, the town is also the embodiment of all those dreams crashed to earth, crumbled by betrayal, avarice, and passions run amok. But a case can be made that San Francisco, that foggy, Spanish-flavored city by the sea, is perhaps the ultimate noir town, and that argument has been argued convincingly by Nathaniel Rich in San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present (Little Bookroom, 2005), a fascinating piece of scholarship that is as much travel book as film essay. San Francisco Noir, writes Rich, is a guide to an “other San Francisco,” one that’s “quite different from the one depicted in tour guides and romantic comedies. In Rich’s San Francisco, “it’s always night, where the fog is thick with dread, and where no one ever dies – they only get murdered.”
“I have always loved San Francisco,” says Rich by phone from Guadalajara, where he’s attending a writers' conference. “And I’ve always loved film noir as well. I was fascinated why so many film noirs, particularly in the 1940s and ’50s, were set in San Francisco. It wasn’t even one of the top ten biggest American cities at the time, its national profile wasn’t where it is today, and it is such a beautiful city that it seems like it should be unsuited for such seedy subjects, such despair. The book came out of my desire to figure out why that was.”
Rich, a New Yorker who is currently an editor at the Paris Review and the author of the novel The Mayor’s Tongue, researched and wrote San Francisco Noir during a two-year period spent living in the city. “I had only been there a couple of times, maybe even only once,” he said, “but after I moved there I learned it better than I know New York. In addition to watching two or three films a day – I tried to watch every single San Francisco related film – I immersed myself in the physical city, wandering around, and spending time in the public library, and I fell in love with it in a profound way. I can give a guided tour with tons of anecdotes and digressions of the city’s historical past, which I can’t do in New York. It’s a magical place, one of the few places in the U.S. that feels like a foreign country.”
Critic Geoffrey O’Brien describes San Francisco Noir as “both a guide book and a dream book,” and, indeed, its simple structure – each chapter consists of Rich’s intoxicating descriptions of both a single film’s cinematic artistry and its sense of place – turns each locale into a kind of historical reverie. In his chapter on Chinatown at Midnight, for example, Rich discusses the demise of the Chinese exchange at the Old Chinese Telephone Building, where there were banks of live telephone operators who spoke five Chinese dialects and who actually memorized the numbers of the 2,500 subscribers to the Chinatown telephone system. And when Rich discovers that there is no actual Pier 13 from the film The Woman on Pier 13, he allows his discussion to drift into a discussion of the city’s labor movement and of the station house of the San Francisco Bar Pilots, the “oldest continuously operating private enterprise in California” and where each day the bar pilots steer large vessels through the Bay.