Nathaniel Rich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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How many movies do you cover in your book?
I would think that most of them you couldn't go and check out of the video store, so how did you do the research for this? You watched them all.
I watched them all. I watched many more than forty-one. I watched many films that were set in San Francisco but weren't actually filmed there. There's a period especially in the early forties where it was considered low-class to shoot on location if you were a studio that could afford to make beautiful sets, these backdrops, and in fact, The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past, which are maybe the two most famous San Francisco noirs, were not shot on location at all. They used stock footage of the city.
For some of the more obscure films I relied on an excellent nonprofit group called the Danger and Despair Knitting Circle which is a group of mostly film collectors and noir addicts and experts who are based in San Francisco. Their goal is to create virtually a comprehensive library of all of noir, and they have something like 800 titles and they made a bunch of them available, including films like Treasure of Monte Cristo, Chinatown at Midnight, No Escape, which you can't find anywhere else, as far as I know. Many of these films are very cheap productions, Poverty Row productions, and are often very silly and strange, but are also extremely interesting and funny, especially Chinatown at Midnight with an actor named Hurd Hatfield who some consider to be the worst actor of all time, which maybe makes him one of the best. I don't know. But it was through them that I got to see a lot of these films, and that was exciting. Anyone can go to their website and order from them, as well.
You keep your sense of humor as you write this book and give it to us, because there are times where it's pretty hilarious. I remember -- and you're commenting on it -- some of the anti-Communist movies where we moved from the sinister quality of the mob or the evil woman to the Communist menace without blinking an eye.
Yeah, a lot of these films are hilarious, and if you go to screenings of them at noir festivals or elsewhere, the response that you see most often in the audience is laughter. Some people feel bad about it because the movies themselves often take themselves very seriously. But a lot of them are ridiculous and really strange, and a lot of the dialogue is so off-the-wall. I think it's important to keep a sense of humor about a lot of these films, because that's much of what's fun about them.
There's been an explosion of books in the last five or ten years about noir, and many of them were written as scholarly texts and take everything very seriously and try to codify it in a way that I don't particularly find appealing. I think it's important to understand the fun of these films as well, and to enjoy that too.
One thing that is not fun, that is somewhat dark, and I would like for you to comment on, is the role of women in these films, because they are a source of the evil, as you suggested earlier.
Often. Not always, but often. I'm thinking of Rita Hayworth in Lady From Shanghai, which I just saw. Also, more of an innocent, but in Vertigo, Madeline, the Kim Novak character who leads Jimmy Stewart as part of a plot; but then changes in the course of the film. Talk a little about that.
Even in Vertigo where the Kim Novak character originally appears as a victim at least of mental illness, perhaps, or being haunted by a ghost, turns into a character who has intentionally led Scottie, Stewart's character, into this web, and becomes very sinister and nasty in her way. She's blamed for a lot of what happens, and it's true of a lot of [the women in noir]. Rita Hayworth in Lady From Shanghai is maybe the most evil femme fatale of all of these because she's so cold-hearted and at the end she's just so evil, and that might have to do with Welles' and Hayworth's marriage at the time, [which] was crumbling. Many people point to that as the reason why he made her so nasty in that film.
There are some examples of films where the female is the main character and is the noir hero and is treated sympathetically. There are certainly not as many and the archetype is a male, often an ex-soldier or a private eye. But there are some great films -- one is Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, which is not in the book, it's not San Francisco. But another one that Joan Crawford is in is Sudden Fear where she's led in by a "male fatale," I guess, the Jack Palance character,who's this very bizarre actor who is playing a part in this similar way. It is an unfortunate thing about many of these films, and it is something that's even carried over into films in the eighties and nineties, films like Basic Instinct and Jade. Not all of these are excellent films, but they do use that same prototype. It reflects, I think, something about American culture in the forties and fifties, and today. Since the films are all about subversion and subverting norms in American society at the time, one would like to see more females have more sympathetic or heroic roles, but they're few and far between. But there have been noir festivals that have focused only on the films where the heroes are women. Usually those films are reserved for the Barbara Stanwycks and Joan Crawfords. It's very rare that someone who is not of that caliber or renown at the time would get any of these kinds of roles.
In what way do you see your work furthering the audience's appreciation of this genre? Is it by filling out this subset and the story of the subset? Do you have a goal there, or are you trying to make them tourists to San Francisco?
No -- well, there are several different goals, I suppose. The main one was it was a subject that I thought was fun and I thought was interesting and was a great way to learn more about film noir and San Francisco. I don't know if when I wrote it I was trying to entertain any particular audience or inform them. It was more just to understand why so many films have been made in this city, what is it about San Francisco that attracts these films, and trying to understand the qualities of San Francisco that attracted me to it, and what makes it a beautiful yet mysterious and strange place, and what is it that fascinates me about the city. I felt, on some level, that what fascinated me about the city is what fascinates me about the films, that it is a kind of otherworldly place where strange things can happen. I tried to write about that as well. There were three goals altogether: one was the travel guide aspect to it, one is a historical guide to the city and the city's darker past, and then the third is a critical overview of the whole genre of film noir as seen through these forty-one films, because I think they are representative of the way that the genre as a whole has evolved over these fifty-some years since it began.
When I've talked to directors in the past, people who do movies, this notion of film as a dream world comes again and again. What is it about being in this dream world but then seeing something that's actually real? There's something in the movie that you see other than the star that somehow grounds it in a reality that lets you absorb the dream. Is that fair? Is that what's going on? You go through quite a listing of all the buildings with the addresses, and so on, and I think you're right about it. Why are you right about people wanting that?
It is always an interesting thing to me, because I've never been that interested in seeing locations from films, and yet that's very much part of what the book is about. Maybe I should explain that each chapter pairs a film with a location from the film. I tried to choose locations and places around the city that feel very much part of this dream world of film, film noir in particular. So many of the sites aren't common tourist sites or even buildings at all, but empty gaps in the urban grid, and lots, and places where buildings once existed or places where there used to be something interesting but has now changed in another way.
That gets more to the nature of what fascinates me about cities, especially American cities, where there's so much renewal constantly and so much rebuilding. It's always fascinating for me to see little places where you can detect part of the city's past that still remains. You don't have that in Europe, for instance, where you're still walking amid the ruins in a place like Rome. But in San Francisco and in other American cities, where you can find little places in the city that bring back something of its past, I always find that beautiful.
There are some remarkable examples in San Francisco. One that jumps out to me is the ruins of the Sutro Baths, which was this enormous Crystal Palace-like structure in the cove under the Cliff House. And it appeared in The Lineup -- I have it as a chapter. By that point, it had become an ice skating rink because swimming pools had fallen out of favor, mostly because they were really freezing because they used ocean water. Shortly after The Lineup -- that's 1958 -- the whole palace caught on fire and burned to the ground, and the owners collected lots of insurance money and left the country, and it was this very shady, noir-like situation. The ruins remain, they never cleaned them up, and it's now a part of the Parks Department. You can walk along these fallen columns, and you can still see the outline of the swimming pool, which was the largest swimming pool, I think, in the country, if not the world, at the time. And it's very strange.
So, there are places that are exciting to me for their own noir history, but then they fit into the films themselves, and they remain to this day a place in between the city and its past, that doesn't fit in either one clearly. I love those places in San Francisco. San Francisco seems to have a lot of places like that.
Two things are striking. One is that in your book you write very good descriptions of some of these places, both from the film and from the way they are now. You just suggested that doing that is part of a rendering of the history of San Francisco and not just of the film.
Yes, but it's really an alternative history of the city. It's not the kind of history you would read in a history book about San Francisco, but this forgotten history. I tried to create, or at least reveal, a kind of "other" San Francisco, a noir San Francisco, that is there if you look for it. You have to look for it, and you see it in these films. If I had done romantic comedies in San Francisco, or musicals in San Francisco, or something like that, they choose different locations, and that's something I discovered as I was going about doing the book. Noir, since it's very much about the subversion of the outer reality of the city, focuses on strange places, out-of-the-way places, alleyways and abandoned buildings and decrepit theaters, places like the Sutro Baths.
When they do focus on a tourist landmark, such as Union Square in The Conversation, or especially Ocean Beach in Born to Kill, they render it almost unrecognizable and it becomes something else altogether so that you might not even recognize it when you go to it. I've had people who have read the book and mentioned that they didn't realize -- and obviously they're not from San Francisco, but they didn't realize that The Conversation was set in Union Square. It seems so obvious, but at the same time, it's part of what a lot of these films do, which is to render unrecognizable these places in the city that we know as major landmarks. So, by listing these locations you get at what noir is trying to do and the way that it works with the architecture of these cities, especially San Francisco.
One final question. What is your favorite film noir set in San Francisco, and why?
My favorite San Francisco film, period, is Vertigo. In that picture Hitchcock set out to make -- he called it a valentine to San Francisco. He loved San Francisco. The city is rendered so beautifully, and its color -- it's one of the first films that you'd consider noir but was shot in color, but the color itself is shot in a type of film called VistaVision and it's almost spooky -- there's a spooky quality to it because it seems ethereal, almost ghostly, which ties into the story of the film which is, in many ways, a ghost story. So the city looks beautiful in it, the Golden Gate looks really bright red, and the water is emerald and it's gorgeous, and yet you still have this feeling that everything is not quite right, that maybe it's too nice or that there's a ghostly quality to it. That's the film I would have to point to, and it's also one of the films that got me excited about the city in the first place, and one of my favorite films from a very early age.
In the classic era, I'd also mention Woman on the Run with Ann Sheridan, which has a female hero and is a very touching, moving story but also very dark and very creepy.
Of more recent films, or at least the next era, I would also say Point Blank, where the first scene and the last scene are set in San Francisco but the rest of it goes to L.A. But there again, those scenes are set in Alcatraz and at Fort Point, and those two buildings take on very haunted, mysterious qualities, and they seem very much urban ruins in the way the Sutro Baths are now. The film renders them completely unrecognizable, strange, and especially foreboding.
Well, on that note, Nat, I want to thank you very much and I want to show the audience your book again, San Francisco Noir. It's cram-packed with information beyond what we've discussed here. So, I recommend it. Thanks very much for joining us, and good luck at the Paris Review.
Thank you very much for having me. It was fun.
Thank you, and thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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