Running with the night

Shedding light on the "Best of Columbia Noir" retrospective
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FILM NOIR FEST The Columbia trademark: a literal goddess swathed in virginal white robes, she serenely holds aloft a torch à la the Statue of Liberty. What say we gussy her up in black satin and replace that blazing torch with a hot little .45? It seems apropos, considering the Roxie Theater is hosting a "Best of Columbia Noir" retrospective. But does the program manage to eclipse all that angelic light? Yes and no. While there is plenty of nefarious activity on display, a weirdly frequent moralizing often fails to capture the noir spirit.

Take Knock on Any Door (1949). A social justice–courtroom drama steeped in moral outrage, it has the gall to cast Humphrey Bogart not as rogue private dick but as upstanding defense attorney. As directed by Nicholas Ray, Door is a prestige picture flirting with humanity's underbelly, eventually offering a mea culpa to wash itself clean.

Even "B" movie bona fides like The Whistler (1944) can't help suffer a little moral affront. Its titular character operates in Rod Serling mode: part superego, part harbinger of doom. Robert Rossen's Johnny O'Clock (1947) offers all the traditional noir elements, but dang if its criminal antihero (Dick Powell) doesn't get redeemed by true love. When the SF-set The Lineup (1958) focuses on a pair of drug henchmen, it's a fascinating character study; when it follows forthright SFPD detectives, it's Dragnet.

Speaking of lineups, there's a curious dearth of femmes fatales in this one. Even Sam Fuller, the king of exploitation with a social conscience, fails to deliver one in his otherwise crackerjack Crimson Kimono (1959), a gritty exploration of race relations in midcentury Los Angeles. Anita Ekberg camps it up in the uproarious, Freudian cheesecake-fest Screaming Mimi (1958), but her femme fatale status is seriously undermined by a lack of personal responsibility — she's like a buxom Barbara Stanwyck with a frontal lobotomy.

Thank the dark lord for the grotesquely atmospheric and oddball Soul of a Monster (1944). It won't be giving much away to reveal that the movie takes the femme fatale concept to its logical end. Never mind the film's coda about faith and redemption, the sight of the devil marching resolutely through dark streets, downing power lines in her wake, obliterates all that corn. We can finally chalk one up for the bad girls.

THE BEST OF COLUMBIA NOIR

Sept. 17–30, $5–$9.75

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com

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