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