San Francisco noir

Jul 06 2014, 15:26 IST
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SummaryFor almost a century, the US city has been linked with the enigmatic genre

SAN FRANCISCO is well-known for its transformations, the most recent one fuelled by tech money that has seemingly scrubbed much of the city clean. Evidence of it tends to be easy to mock: the $4-artisanal toast, the shuttle buses carrying workers from the city interior to Silicon Valley, the preponderance of reclaimed wood. But for almost a century, the city has been indelibly linked with an enigmatic genre that might be considered an antidote to all of that: noir.

Noir can be tough to put your finger on: a fog rolling in from the bay and coating city streets, a lonely sort of glamour perched on a bar rail, a sense of menace just over your shoulder. It is a genre that revels in ambiguity.

And so perhaps a search for noir in San Francisco was bound to yield some mysteries. Was an apartment at the edge of the Tenderloin, one lovingly restored in the decor of a bygone era, actually home not just to the writer Dashiell Hammett, but his most famous creation, Sam Spade? Who was the enigmatic woman from the 1920s whose name adorns a nearby cocktail bar, lovingly made, speakeasy-style, in an actual speakeasy? And what about that doorway at the end of the alley, a pivotal location in Hammett’s best-known book? Above all: could this city still be home to noir?

The search led me to a handful of disparate but passionate individuals, dedicated, in one way or another, to celebrating an era when the idea of darkness held a certain romance. My guide through this urban landscape was Hammett. Though he lived in San Francisco for less than a decade, his association with both the city and noir is inarguable.

I met Don Herron, one of Hammett’s pre-eminent appreciators, in front of the Flood Building in Union Square. Soon after we started chatting, Herron said something that, as a devotee, made my heart sink. Hammett’s writing, Herron said, wasn’t really noir. He went on to explain: “Hammett is almost a precursor,” he said. “He’s proto-noir.”

Hammett’s work would come to encapsulate noir, a genre with a dizzying timeline: the term was coined and popularised in the late 1940s and early 1950s by French film critics who used it to describe American films from that era, many of which were, in turn, based on books written in the 1920s and 1930s. Hence, proto-noir.

Herron and I headed up from Union Square into the Tenderloin, the notoriously seedy neighbourhood where Hammett lived and set many of his stories. Of all of old San Francisco, it may be the neighbourhood most intact. Demographics have changed, but its sense of character remains. We continued up through the Tenderloin, Herron pointing out 891 Post Street, where Hammett lived and wrote. But no location holds a more essential place than our next stop, Burritt Street, where, in The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is shot and killed by the book’s femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. We descended on to Stockton Street. Herron had noted a door at the end of Burritt and said he had always wondered where it led. A half-block away was the newly re-branded Mystic Hotel at the tail end of a restoration. We headed up a flight of stairs and were ushered into the Burritt Room, a speakeasy-style bar fronting a tavern room. The bar wasn’t open yet, but we were taken up a couple more flights, out an unmarked door—and into the back end of Burritt. One mystery explained. The Burritt Room is just one of seemingly endless spots around town housed in former speakeasy spaces. Perhaps no spot better celebrates the San Francisco-noir association better than a speakeasy-style bar secreted within another speakeasy-style bar—and in the Tenderloin no less. Heading down Jones Street towards O’Farrell, I passed a pane of frosted glass labelled the Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency. With a password, I gained entry to Bourbon and Branch, a dimly-lit and bustling cocktail bar. After a quick right through a fake wall, I headed into Wilson and Wilson, a love letter to noir, Prohibition-era drinking and, as the name indicates, the detective trade.

The night before, I found myself back at 891 Post Street, Hammett’s home. I was led into the building by Eddie Muller, a San Francisco native, author and self-proclaimed ‘noirchaeologist’. We entered apartment 40. The apartment has been restored to be a simulacrum of what it might have looked like in the 1920s, outfitted with all things vintage: a gramophone, a frosted-glass door and a desk topped with a typewriter.

As the light began to fade, Muller said he believed that the appeal of noir can be summed up in his three-word description of the genre: “suffering with style”. Part of Muller’s take on noir is that, in the end, it’s not about solving mysteries.

As I headed down Post back towards Union Square, I realised that my search for noir was itself based on a red herring. Noir is a state of mind. I thought back to a phrase Herron had used. “It’s almost a magic spell,” he said.

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