"If there's one thing I hate, it's a double-crossin' dame." That's Big Jim Colfax from the film noir classic "The Killers" the day he was gunned down. He was talking about his woman, Kitty Collins, who would have sold her own mother if the price was right.

Welcome to the dark side of the screen, inhabited by hard-boiled detectives, beefcake chumps and back-stabbing babes who could peel paint off a wall with their tongues.

Who better to guide us through the dark side of Hollywood than the mayor of noir city, Eddie Muller, founder of the annual San Francisco Noir City film festival.

The czar of noir was on hand May 24 to introduce "The Killers," which played to a full house at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater, where I got comfortable with a glass of Big Daddy ale.

I was sans pizza because in my determination to land the best sofa in the cinema I arrived an hour too early for pizza. The vintage Superman cartoons showing before the film distracted me so much I forgot to go back for a slice.

"The Killers," adapted from a Hemingway novel, goes something like this: A pesky investigator puts the pinch on double-crossing dame Kitty Collins (smoking hot Eva Gardner) and crime kingpin Big Jim Colfax, who put the blast on prizefighter turned small-time thief Swede Andersen (Burt Lancaster in his screen debut) over the dough from a payroll heist. (The film was remade in 1964, becoming Ronald Reagan's last movie.)

It don't end happy for none of 'em. Never does in noir city.

That's part of what keeps us coming back.

Noir — the offspring of German Expressionist cinema and the school of hard-boiled crime fiction — is notoriously hard to pin down but is popular even decades after its post-World War II heyday.

That is when society lost its innocence but was at the height of style, Muller said.

Seeing those two things happen simultaneously is why film noir remains enjoyable for today's audiences, Muller said.

And, people get to live on the edge through the movies' morally ambiguous heroes, without risking their own necks.

"You want to see more film noir in the East Bay, right?" prompted the emcee for the night, the "Mayor of Thrillville," another imaginary movie metropolis.

The cult movie cabaret is the brainchild of lounge lizard for hire Will "The Thrill" Viharo, publicist and programmer for the sister speakeasy theaters — the Cerrito on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito and the Parkway on Park Boulevard in Oakland.

In response to Viharo's question, applause rose up from the Cerrito crowd decked out in spats and fedoras, high hills and fish-net stockings. Translation: Yes.

Viharo hosted film noir festivals at the Parkway for six years. He quit because "Harold and Kumar movies were more popular," Viharo said.

"You can't force feed people cool culture."

Not be dissuaded from putting it on the menu, however, Viharo has a slate of gangster noir movies planned for July at the Cerrito.

It's hard to believe there is not as much of a hunger for film noir in the East Bay as in San Francisco, he added.

He was referring to the "Noir City" film festival at the Castro in San Francisco that packs in noir aficionados.

Muller said to make the festival, which will be in its seventh year come January, successful people have to feel smart for coming out instead of spending their time doing something else.

He spends most of his time doing detective work to track down hard-to-find prints for the festival and his Film Noir Foundation, as well as writing and touting his own noir movie.

"The Grand Inquisitor," a dark and disturbing 20-minute mystery set in Alameda, made its East Bay debut at the Cerrito that night, before "The Killers."

Muller said he is of the school that believes film noir continues but doesn't look or feel like the classic stylish Hollywood crime drama.

If the protagonist knows something is wrong but does it anyway, "chances are you're dealing with film noir," Muller said.

That would make "No Country for Old Men" and "Michael Clayton" citizens of noir city, which is, to paraphrase a Noir City film festival poster slogan, a bitter little world.

That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. But if you have a cool shindig, e-mail me at awoodall@bayareanewsgroup.com or visit the Night Owl blog at www.ibabuzz.com/nightowl for more events and oddities.

Information
  • For more information about the Noir City film festival or the Film Noir Foundation, visit www.filmnoirfoundation.org.
  • Find out what's playing at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater by visiting www.cerritospeakeasy.com. or calling (510) 814-2400.