Updated on Jan. 12: Organizers of the film fest say that due to the surge in Omicron infections, the event has been postponed. New dates will be announced when the threat of exposure is sufficiently diminished.
The Noir City Film Festival, a celebrated Bay Area cultural institution that showcases classic film noir movies, has been hosted by theaters in San Francisco since it started in 2003. The festival was forced to go dark in 2021 because of the pandemic, but this year it makes its in-person return in January, and it’s coming to a new venue: Oakland’s historic Grand Lake Theatre.
NOIR CITY 19: They Tried to Warn Us!
January 20–23, 2022
- All-Access Passport (12 movies), $100
- Weeknight double bills, $15
- Weekend Shows $12.50 per film
Proof of vaccination required, mask protocol enforced.
All proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation. See Noir City website for more information.
Produced, programmed, and hosted by “Noir Czar” Eddie Muller, this year’s festival, titled “They Tried to Warn Us!,” showcases 12 movies from mid-20th century Hollywood that explore still-timely themes involving megalomaniacal politicians, corrupt businessmen, neo-Nazis, racism, anti-Semitism, sexual predators, serial killers, police brutality—even a viral epidemic.
Muller, host of the popular Noir Alley franchise on Turner Classic Movies, admits that for decades he’s sold himself professionally as a “San Francisco guy.” To connect with audiences, he has relied on the popularity of famous San Francisco detective turned writer Dashiell Hammett, whose books like the Maltese Falcon have become synonymous with the noir genre. Muller’s father also worked as a boxing reporter for the San Francisco Examiner—very noir.
But the truth is that Muller has lived in the East Bay for 30 years, and says that he loves Oakland. In fact, Muller says that the best movie experience of his life took place in Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, where he watched the silent classic Napoleon with live accompaniment by the Oakland Symphony in 2012.
The decision to move the Noir City Film Festival to Oakland came about in an unusual way. During the pandemic, Muller was forced to film his TCM show intros and outros in his own house. His Alameda neighbor of 30 years had a remodeling project going at the time, which created noise that interfered with the tapings. That neighbor happens to be Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theatre. Since his theater was dark, Michaan offered Muller the opportunity to use it as a temporary studio.
“I realized its vintage movie palace atmosphere, and the care and upkeep of the venue, would work perfectly for the type of show Noir City loyalists have come to expect,” said Muller.
And Michaan, who said he and his wife watch three to four feature films a week on TCM, welcomes the opportunity to show movies on the big screen that are “outside of the Hollywood mainstream for a change.”
While San Francisco is the star of many of the most famous noir films, Muller said there have been a few Oakland and East Bay tie-ins. In the classic Where Danger Lives, a reconstructed Trader Vic’s bar is featured. In 1949’s Alias Nick Beal, the Jack London Square dive bar First and Last Chance Saloon was recreated to serve as the Faustian character’s hangout. And Oakland native Daniel Mainwaring wrote the noir classic Out of the Past.
Muller finds it humorous that so many noir films set in San Francisco featured the Bay Bridge, which many people assume is the Golden Gate. “The Bay Bridge’s backgrounds are better, and crews are able to shoot from either direction from Treasure Island,” he said.
With the move to Oakland, the festival will see some changes. Whereas the Castro Theatre—the last venue to play host—could accommodate 1400, the Grand Lake’s capacity is 640, and tickets are already selling briskly.
The event will also be condensed from 10 to four days. “It will be a restorative tonic for folks eager to see classic movies again on a big screen and enjoy, with the prescribed protocols, a return to the party atmosphere Noir City is famous for,” said Muller.
Featured will be A Night at the Garden, a 2017 short documentary film about a 1939 Nazi rally that filled Madison Square Garden in New York City. Muller is also attempting to get the rights to show some classic noir-inspired Warner Brothers cartoons at the event.
In addition to film screenings, Muller said that Noir City fans can expect plenty of onscreen surprises, noir-inspired activities, and special guest appearances. There will be bar service at the Grand Lake Theatre, something filmgoers have come to expect at showings.
All proceeds from ticket sales will benefit Muller’s non-profit Film Noir Foundation, which rescues and restores films in danger of being permanently lost or damaged. “We created a successful festival, then used that money to restore films, which we then feature at the festival,” said Muller. “It’s a self-perpetuating system that has worked really well for us.”
One of these freshly restored films will make its world premiere at the festival: The Argyle Secrets, a mystery centered around “The Argyle Album” containing the names of U.S. politicians and industrialists who abetted the Nazis in World War II.
During the pandemic, the festival partnered with the American Film Institute for an online experience that Muller says went really well. On the plus side, the audience was able to be international, but he laments the fact that it lacked the incredible energy, excitement, and fun that comes with being together in person. “That’s what was lost,” he said, “a sense of community and shared passion.”
Muller looks forward to the Festival’s new chapter in Oakland. “It hurts that the town has lost the Warriors and the Raiders, so I’m happy to give a little something back to the city’s cultural life.”