You walk into an ornate picture house. Live jazz leads you by the ear. You sit under the canopy of an art deco chandelier. Gilded pipes, from a Wurlitzer organ, frame the vocalist; a femme fatal, in a black gown, adorned with white roses. As you wait for the lights to darken, and the crimson curtains to part, you are contented with déjà vu. You haven’t been here before. You’ve seen this before. But you’ve seen it as voyeur. You watched a black-and-white man walk in here, and you sighed wistfully, knowing your local multiplex would never be as near.
Such was the scene last month, at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, for Noir City X, the Film Noir Foundation’s annual festival, hosted by president and founder, “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller. While indie films premiered at Sundance, rare sexagenarian pictures returned to the screen, of a packed 1920s theatre.
Of the 26 films presented, 12 are not available on DVD, of which three were “buried” or “lost.” Preservation is the Film Noir Foundation’s mantra, Noir City’s theme, and Muller’s labour of love. Noir City screened Thieve’s Highway (1949), which Muller described as “fueling his love” of noir. As a child, Muller read through his TV Guide, looking for movies with “street,” “night,” “big,” or “city” in the title. He stayed home to watch any noir found. “Highway” was close enough to “street” for cutting school.
A History of Narrative Film says that film noir “both thematically and stylistically…represents a unique and highly creative counter tradition in the American cinema.” The style went on to influence other equally important movements like French New Wave and New Hollywood, as well as the acclaimed directors Jean Luc-Godard, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, and so many more that it feels like a disservice to only name three.
In turn, noir pictures, particularly of the post-World War II cycle, are invaluable. It is unfortunate that extinction threatens the “lesser known titles…worthy of rediscovery.” Fortunately, people like Muller and the Noir City audience curb that trend.
For years, Muller begged Universal Studios for a reel of Naked Alibi (1954), but the studio could not find any remaining prints. However, according to Muller, his persistence and Noir City’s welcoming reception of Universal’s other noirs, convinced the studio to return to the vault. One print was found. The studio made a fresh 35mm copy especially for Noir City X, making Thursday’s audience the first to see Naked Alibi in almost 60 years.
The Breaking Point (1950) was another refurbished print. Muller said that he showed the film for years, but Warner Brothers only had one reel. After repeated showings, the print wore to the point that another playing would have destroyed it forever. The Film Noir Foundation and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation then battled to determine, as Muller described, “Who loved this film more?” The Film Foundation ultimately restored The Breaking Point, but Noir City X was the first showing.
The problem of “lost,” “forgotten,” or “buried” pictures sounds like an issue for older films but, in fact, the situation may be worse for digitally stored films.
Earlier this month, the Motion Picture Academy’s Science and Technology Council released part two of its “Digital Dilemma” report, concerning digital preservation. Obviously, digital advancements greatly improved film making. Shooting on digital formats saves time and resources. Furthermore, digital presents a visual quality superior to print. However, the lifespan of print vastly outlasts that of digital. Prints may be forgotten, but they are still there. Someone just has to find them.
In the digital sphere, “file formats can go obsolete in months…affect[ing] movies still looking for distribution, not merely library titles.” This is particularly true of independent films, which take longer to find distributors, meaning “by the time distribution is secured, the digital data may become inaccessible.” Basically, filming technology is improving so rapidly, that distribution equipment is updated for new file formats. In turn, the updated equipment cannot read dated formats.
If it is difficult to attain films from an immensely important style and time, how will modern films fare if there are already difficulties? Muller, the Film Noir Foundation, and Noir City not only return beloved and influential classics to the screen, but also highlight the importance of maintaining an accessible film library. Cinema cannot grow if filmmakers cannot review the past.