The Hollywood Foreign Press association was front and center as The Noir Film Festival kicked off its 18th edition at the splendid Castro 1920s movie palace in San Francisco. It was the seventh year in a row that the HFPA has supported the restoration of another almost lost noir film, re-premiering it on the Festival's opening night.
This year it was an HFPA double bill: two restored Argentinian noir films made up the opening night's program. The first, La Bestia Debe Morir (The Beast Must Die) from 1952, was supported in part by the HFPA. The second film, El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire), 1953 was the second ever to be restored entirely with HFPA funds.
After the world re-premiere at Noir City 18, this HFPA restoration will be presented as the closing event of the first day of the HFPA Restoration Summit, taking place at the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, February 15-16.
In San Francisco, the excitement was palpable as the fans in the sold-out 1400 seat theater cheered Eddie Muller, the founder, and director of the Film Noir Foundation, as he came on stage to address the festive audience, many of them dressed in 1940s costumes, in the noir spirit.
"We kick things off with a double bill of lost classics from Argentina," said Muller, "The Czar of Noir". "Despite titles evoking horror, about a beast that must die and a black vampire, both movies are sensational examples of noir, saved from obscurity and decay thanks to the support we receive from film lovers around the world, and the generous grant given by the HFPA. "These films", Muller continued, "will amaze a new generation of movie lovers, and we hope they inspire reevaluation of the work and career of the man who directed them both, Román Viñoly Barreto."
The Beast Must Die is based on a novel by Irish poet and mystery writer Cecil Day-Lewis (writing under his Nicholas Blake pen name) the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, eight time-nominee and twice Golden Globe winner.
The novel opens noirishly: “I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him", thus combining the first-person noir narrative of a would-be murderer with a traditional detective story.
The novel was also the basis of Claude Chabrol’s better known Que la Bête Meure (1969), but the Argentinian version which the HFPA helped revive came first. It stars Ibanez Menta, known as Argentina's Boris Karloff, for his horror film roles. Here however he plays a bereaved father whose son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver. The character of a simple man now bent on murderous vengeance because of his tragedy, "is noir to the core," said Muller.
The overflow audience roared in appreciation at the presentation, and again as the show started with a full-screen credit title thanking the HFPA.
El Vampiro Negro is based on Fritz Lang's 1931 film M'. It is the second remake (after Joseph Losey's 1951 version, shot on location in downtown Los Angeles), but this time it was written from a woman's point of view: It stars the beautiful Olga Zubarry, known as The Argentinian Marilyn Monroe, who plays a cabaret singer trying to protect her young daughter from a mysterious would-be pedophile murderer. At the same time, she has to parry the advances of the prosecutor who is pursuing the killer. The script, Muller explained, "is a proto-feminist reimagining of M', focusing on female characters who were ignored in the earlier films.... a major rediscovery and now a pristine digital restoration, which should lead to a worldwide reappraisal of the films of writer-director Román Viñoly Barreto."
It is the second time that the Festival's theme is International Noir. The ten-day program, "Noir Knows No Boundaries" includes noir films from some eleven countries, from Japan to Mexico, Sweden to South Korea, and of course- Argentina. Muller said: "This year’s Noir City offers a wide-ranging but thematically cohesive immersion in a vast world of sordid, sinister, and sexy affairs. In the course of ten days and nights, you’ll realize our credo is more than just a catchy slogan: “It’s a Bitter Little World. America doesn’t hold a monopoly on swaggering gangsters, larcenous lovers, surly ex-cons, corrupt cops, and scheming femmes fatales. On this year’s cinematic sojourn, you’ll (see) more than enough style to fill up any existential void. I hope you find life-changing movies here. This is definitely the way to meet them: larger than life, restored, on the big screen. Now, more than ever, it’s essential to resist the dread and paranoia of contemporary times by looking beyond our differences. Let’s appreciate the noir ethos for the creativity it inspires and the warning flares it long ago flashed on screens worldwide. Noir has no national boundaries. It’s the same story, everywhere."
In addition to the special presentation at the HFPA Restoration Summit on February 15, noir fans all over the country will have a chance to experience the restored Argentinian classic when the full program hits the road and will be shown in seven more Noir City 18 satellite festivals throughout the U.S. including festivals in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
And each festival will open with the double bill of Argentinian noir movies restored by the HFPA grants.