Nathaniel Rich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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This raises the next topic we have to discover, because your book is not just about film noir but it's about San Francisco and San Francisco in film noir. In the introduction you explain what provoked you to write this particular book, and tell about that day when you made a comment about San Francisco which someone reacted negatively to.
Well, I always wondered why there were so many of these films shot here, and whenever I would mention the idea for the book, and the title of the book, to friends and people who lived in San Francisco, they'd often be shocked, because to them and to many people, San Francisco is one of the cheeriest, happiest, most romantic cities in the world. The thought of anything sinister going on didn't make sense to them. There's some truth to that, but I think that's part of the reason why so many of these films were shot here, because it goes back to the original classic era of noir when you wanted to have a strong contrast between the outer world, the glamorous world, and the underworld.
There's no city that is as beautiful, and happy, and glamorous as San Francisco in many ways, and therefore the contrast between that and the underworld is all the more dramatic. I think that was part of the reason why many of these filmmakers decided to shoot here, because it was the perfect model for noir to show corruption -- that even in this place that resembles a paradise there is this very sinister thing going on underneath, and no one's safe from it. I think that's probably the reason why Kaufman moved Body Snatchers up to San Francisco too. Maybe L.A. wouldn't be such a stretch to imagine that everyone there is a pod-person, but in San Francisco, you know something must really be wrong!
Here it would have something to do with biotechnology.
Right. Engineer them themselves.
So, there's this contrast between beauty and the underworld. It also must have to do with the topography of the place, the hills and the rise and fall of the landscape, and so on.
Sure, the topography certainly gives itself to these stark camera angles, and naturally the city has all these almost expressionistic lines in the environment. I think that was part of it, and I think proximity to Los Angeles is also a factor, but at the same time, I don't think that's everything, because there weren't any [noir] films made in San Diego, for instance, and Seattle is a very hilly city but you don't see many films shot there. I think it has mostly to do with the image of San Francisco as this beautiful, almost paradise, the city by the bay. And then there's also a historical element, that ever since the Gold Rush era as the Barbary Coast, it was a place where people would run away to, would go to start anew, often in search of fabulous riches and wealth, and people would change their identity. All those themes are very crucial to film noir, so it fits there as well. It was a convergence of all of these factors: the historical, topographical, and the image of this beautiful city.
There's one element that strikes me, which I'll raise now, which is San Francisco's potential for the exotic. I happened to watch The Lady From Shanghai, which is one of the movies that you discuss, and there is a sinister tone that comes from the Asian influence. She is a woman who lived in Shanghai but who also has a driver who is Asian. At a turning point in the film, Orson Welles flees to the Asian community.
The first time I saw Vertigo, I was struck by the Spanish influence that Hitchcock was playing with -- the mysterious Carlotta has a Spanish background, and then there is the mystical element which is also present, whether Carlotta is still alive. I guess what I'm suggesting that in addition to this beautiful landscape and all the reasons that you've given, San Francisco is open to these cosmopolitan influences. That presence can be seen in a lot of these films.
Absolutely. The film that features that the most is a very obscure film called Chinatown at Midnight, which begins with clips -- as many of these films do, by the way, and especially ones in the forties and fifties -- of a panorama of San Francisco, and then zooms in onto one particular part of the city and then into the underworld. In this film, the underworld is Chinatown, and so there's this ridiculous voiceover by a man who first introduces you to the city, how beautiful the city is, the trolley cars and so on, but then within this city there's the sinister Oriental world of Chinatown. It's extremely dated, obviously, but it plays up that angle, that foreignness and strangeness that to some extent is part of the city. Many of these films try to use either the Chinatown angle or some kind of cosmopolitan angle to give a sense of foreignness, some kind of exotic quality that you may not be able to get in other cities, like Los Angeles, for instance.
One other thing we have to mention, which you had a beautiful paragraph about, which is the weather, especially the fog. That also is a contributing factor in influencing directors to choose San Francisco to make films, and you to choose to write this book about San Francisco in the films.
Absolutely. I love the fog. I'm always frustrated that there aren't more films that make use of the fog. One example I can think of is Born to Kill, a film with Lawrence Tierney from 1947. There's a beautiful scene shot at night at Ocean Beach, or what's supposed to be Ocean Beach, although you don't see the water, it's just on the sand dunes. There's a fog sweeping through under a street lamp and sand is blowing around and it's very eerie. But there aren't very many examples of films that make dramatic use of the fog. You'd expect a lot of these films to have some kind of sinister criminal walking out of the fog, or into the fog, but there aren't many of them, and maybe it has to do with the fact that it's hard to film fog. I don't know, but I always want the fog to be more a part of it. It's part of the identity of the city, so it works in that way, but it's rare that it's actually part of the film itself.
You've mentioned several films. You've mentioned The Maltese Falcon, you mentioned Hitchcock's Vertigo, you mentioned Orson Welles' Lady From Shanghai, and of course Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry, although I guess he wasn't the director of the first one. Is there a common theme or element that emerges that combines these very different films [other than] the use of San Francisco, or is it just a way to fill out our understanding of the environment in which these directors made these great films?
If you look in certain periods, there are certainly things in common around San Francisco. In the classic period from the forties and fifties, San Francisco is always a beautiful, glamorous city and they make as much of that as possible. Most of them begin with a shot from on top of Twin Peaks, a panorama of the city, sometimes it's moving right to left, sometimes it's left to right, sometimes it doesn't move at all; and then it goes into the scene itself. Many of these films also hilariously have a narrator who introduces the viewer to the city as if they'd never heard of it before, so explaining that San Francisco is the twelfth biggest American city, and really, really silly primers on the city, as if it was something unknown to the viewers.
If you try to compare the films from that era to the seventies, it becomes very difficult. In fact, the films of the eighties and nineties have more in common with the earlier age. The seventies tend to focus on a different San Francisco, this grittier San Francisco that we were talking about, where the city is no longer as majestic as it once was, and it's very much about the decline of the American city and the decrepitude of it. But in the eighties and nineties you see a very nostalgic return to the way San Francisco appears in those earlier films. Often many of those films, films like Basic Instinct or Twisted (another Phil Kaufman film that came out last year), even Final Analysis, very consciously look back at those earlier films, especially Vertigo, and revisit them almost to the point of mimicry and imitation. Jade is another example. So there is unity at both ends, but in the middle there was a period which produced many of the best films, the most interesting films of the bunch, where it became something else. The directors who had come of age watching these films when they were young, in the forties and fifties, wanted to take it to some other level and to do something different but using the same themes. [They] made more extreme films in a certain way, and films where they emphasized these certain qualities of noir until they became almost unrecognizable. Then in the eighties and nineties it conforms back to the original.
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