Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Sin City 

Two new books on San Francisco noir tell vastly different stories

Wednesday, Aug 31 2005
There is, as you've probably heard, more than one San Francisco. In fact, there are an infinite number of San Franciscos: real, imaginary, tourist-friendly, and sinister, with every possible iteration and combination in between. Two recent books, both titled San Francisco Noir, propose to guide their readers around these multiple San Franciscos, helping them navigate the fictional and the "actual" city: the sunny, attractive veneer and its seedy, roiling underbelly. While it's unlikely that anyone has recently become lost on the fictional side of town, the books are, in addition to interesting and entertaining, also quite useful.

The first San Francisco Noir is a guidebook to the city as seen through the lens of film noir. Each of its chapters connects a single film with a location in the city, illuminating San Francisco's impact on noir cinema, and the films' impact on S.F. The second San Francisco Noir is an anthology of short fiction, each story tied, as with the first book, to a specific location or neighborhood in the city. The most significant difference between the books isn't that one is a work of film criticism and the other fiction (although that's undeniably important), but rather that they each present radically divergent visions of life in contemporary San Francisco.

Nathaniel Rich's San Francisco Noir (The Little Bookroom, $17.95) covers 41 films shot or set in the city, from 1940 to the present. He begins with classic and conventional noir films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), continuing with representative selections through each decade until he ends with modern San Francisco noirs like Basic Instinct (1992) and Twisted (2004). One of the more compelling aspects of the book, and one that makes it worth reading from beginning to end, is the way it traces the development of noir cinema as a whole. The crux of this development comes with Vertigo's invention of neo-noir. "Hitchcock ruptured the limitations of classic film noir," Rich writes, "proving that the crucial component of film noir was not its conventions of style or even plot, but its tone: that eerie feeling of dread spurred by a realization that the world is an unjust, sad, and violent place."

Nearly all of these films, as noirs, focus on those feelings of dread and violence. As such, none of them is really about San Francisco. This poses a challenge to a guidebook, because the films actively distort, ignore, or conceal the city they inhabit. A good example is 1952's The Sniper, which altered street signs, featured intentionally unspecific dialogue, and used generic newspaper names to keep the film's location vague. Rich is an astute detective, though; reading the fine print on a police report that's briefly flashed on-screen, he catches the name of the real-life San Francisco nightclub whose marquee is illegible in the film. (It is the Paper Doll Club, now boarded up but still visible at 524 Union, near Grant.)

It's entertaining to follow Rich around the city as he turns up dead ends. Searching for the residence of a character in Out of the Past, Rich realizes that "114 Fulton would be somewhere in the middle of the Civic Center." These bunk leads also reveal some of the most exciting bits of history in the book. "The brief glimpse of the Chambord Apartments" (the Gaudi-esque "wedding cake" building on Nob Hill) in D.O.A. , for example, "is one of the rare views of the building in its original condition"; and Jules Dassin's 1949 picture Thieves' Highway gives us "the best visual record we have of the old San Francisco produce district ... destroyed just ten years after the film's production." It's exhilarating to imagine that pieces of San Francisco's historical record exist only in classic noir cinema.

In the neo-noir films of the 1970s, such as Dirty Harry, noir's "notion of a criminal underworld is upturned," and the violence happens in the light of day. In the noir films before and after this period, however, the violence is strictly subterranean. San Francisco, in most cases, thus operates as a glamorous, cosmopolitan ledge from which the hapless noir protagonists fall into the seedy underworld. This contrast is present within the films themselves -- the bright lights of the city set against the doom the characters are led to -- but it's also present in the book, which repeatedly contrasts the sinister quality of the films and the relative sunniness of the contemporary San Francisco locations. At the end of the chapter on Born to Kill (1947), for example, Rich notes that a killer would never "lure an unsuspecting victim [to Ocean Beach] today, since the beach is no longer a dark, secluded location, but a popular alternative to the city's nightlife (although the occasional waterlogged body does wash to shore from time to time)."

If Rich's camera slyly (and necessarily) pans away from the corpse on the shore, the lens of Peter Maravelis, the editor of Akashic Books' anthology San Francisco Noir ($14.95), zooms in for an extreme close-up. In his introduction, Maravelis writes that "these are depictions of San Francisco the local visitors' bureau hopes will recede along with our fading memories." Two stories, both by established crime novelists (Eddie Muller and Domenic Stansberry), read like conventional crime fiction. Others use a standard noir plot but add present-day San Francisco twists: The detectives' hard-boiled monologues on the corruption of the city now include diatribes against gentrification and SUVs. The only witness at the scene of an arson is a dancer from Esta Noche, the tranny club on 16th Street. And so on. Beyond the stories with typical noir plots, the collection becomes eccentric. About half of the stories have very, very stoned narrators (or protagonists), and on top of the strong influences from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the spirits of Jack Kerouac, Lautreamont, and even Kathy Acker begin to take over. Michelle Tea, whose story turns Bernal Heights into a blasted psychological landscape and a dank, sexual hell, creates a perfect voice for the collection, hitting precisely the space where the weary vernacular of a young career prostitute in the San Francisco bar scene coincides with the cynical monologue of a traditional noir narrator.

While Nathaniel Rich's book defines San Francisco noir through the city's relationship with film, Maravelis' collection defines it as a new literary genre. "San Francisco," for the Maravelis collection, refers not only to the mythology of a deadly "Barbary Coast" or an alluring, potential-drenched "American El Dorado"; it also refers to the byproducts of the Beat era and '60s counterculture. The political idealism, freedom of expression, and hedonism remain, but they've been infused with the eerie dread and subterranean violence of noir. Rich's book sees the noir element of San Francisco as a residue, with traces of forgotten malevolence lingering around the edges of the city, visible only with a careful and perhaps ironic eye. Maravelis' collection sees the city today more as a blasted shit-furnace, where injustice, violence, and dread are as alive and omnipresent as the tchotchkes for sale on Fisherman's Wharf.

About The Author

Andrew Leland


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"