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.
When identifying film noirs, Rich’s selections are similarly free-flowing, including not only classics like The Maltese Falcon and DOA, forgotten titles like Woman on the Run, and later noir-flavored titles like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Conversation, and Basic Instinct. But why, for example, include some of these more recent films, such as Dirty Harry, into the noir tradition of, say, Lady from Shanghai? Says Rich, “They both typify where film noir was in those different periods. In the 1945 of Lady from Shanghai, it was the classic film noir period. The war was over, and there was sense of optimism. People were working, but there was still a sense that everything was not all right; there was a haunting subterranean residue of a world lurking underneath all that prosperity. By the time you get to the ’70s, the despair, griminess and seediness that the older film noirs sought to bring to the surface is everywhere. Cities were dangerous places to be, and there was no sense of optimism. Dirty Harry comes along and, like many of these films in the ’70s, had to go in a different direction. It wasn’t about exposing a crime – now the police force had become this reactionary, crazy thing. So, both films capture what was going on in San Francisco at the time, and they both address the city’s history in surprising ways. But even Dirty Harry manages to capture some of the magic of the city. That scene at Kezar field, there’s a glorious haunted quality about it, this beautiful field in the middle of the city….”
For Rich, Dirty Harry represents one response to the San Francisco of the ’70s and Harvey Milk, who is not discussed in the book, represents the other. “Films like Dirty Harry and The Conversation were addressing a prevalent sense that things had gotten rotten in San Francisco,” says Rich. “Like much of the rest of the country, the city was in decline, and there was a hopelessness. Dirty Harry said that the only way to deal with this souring of the ’60s dream was through government fascism. Harvey Milk and his movement represented the opposite. He rallied the people of the city behind him and brought a sense of optimism and civic pride. He was his own reaction to the grimness of the city described in those other films, and, of course, his is its own tragic story.”
Following his research and writing of San Francisco Noir, Rich was offered a job at the Paris Review in New York, so he left the city. “I miss it a ton,” he says. But he still relishes the memories and discoveries prompted by his investigation into the sunlit, fog-shrouded dark side of San Francisco. (Although, as Rich writes, “It is misleading to talk of a San Francisco fog. The city has many fogs, each one distinct.”) When asked to name one single great discovery from his time spent researching and writing this book, he pauses before citing the Sutro Baths, the world’s largest bath complex that only appeared in one film: Don Siegel’s 1958 pic, The Lineup. “It’s this strange ruin of a giant swimming complex at the edge of the city on the side of a cliff house,” Rich remembers. “You have to climb down a little ravine to get to it. There are eight pools, and one was the largest pool in the country. It was this huge glass palace that burnt down in 1966, and the guy that owned it fled to Canada. But if you go there, the contrast between the beautiful nature and the ruins, it’s sublime.”