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Noir and San Francisco

Noir and San Francisco

"If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen." —Dashiell Hammett

In our very first notebook edition, our fair city is the muse. Widely considered to be the birthplace of Noir, San Francisco, particularly at night, is an ideal setting for a story of mystery and intrigue. It is here, and more specifically, in a tiny but tidy fourth floor Tenderloin apartment that Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton investigator, put pen to notebook (well, in this case it was actually finger to typewriter) and created the prototype of the genre. 

San Francisco’s Dashiell Hammett put those hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it ingredients together to kick start a new storytelling style and genre. Take the Maltese Falcon, initially written as installments to the pulp fiction magazine Black Mask in 1928. Anti-hero protagonist. Check. Femme fatale. Check. Spartan, no-nonsense dialogue. Check. Existential loneliness and gloom. Urban, gritty glamor with looming presence of menace. Check. Check. Check. 

What exactly is Noir? It is a bit of an ambiguous genre and perhaps is best captured by a feeling rather than a checklist. Picture a dimly lit, fog laden urban street with unexpected, hidden twists and turns. A lonely glamour with a sense of danger just around the corner. It’s a dark alley, where Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon, gets lured into and then gunned down point blank by a beautiful, mysterious woman. 

San Francisco was destined to be the setting for film noir. Yeah, Hammett kicked it off when he walked the mean streets of the Tenderloin 100 years ago. But if it were not for the ideal setting, it may have never coalased. The impossibly steep hills and winding staircases, crooked streets disappearing into dead-end dark alleys - the perfect backdrop for the intoxicating combination of mystery, romance, menace, glamor and existential dread. Cloaked in fog, San Francisco is as noir as it comes.

The city, since its colorful Gold Rush days, has been known for its tolerance of corrupt and criminal elements. It is a place where the desperate, when they have run out of places to hide, come to the far edge of the continent, perhaps to the part of the city that is literally called Lands End. Legendary madams and prostitutes, corrupt politicians, notorious outlaws, clandestine drug and gambling dens populate the city’s history.

The first World War was a formative experience for many of the earliest Noir authors. In Hammett’s case, he was in the Ambulance Corps and it was there, in 1918, that he contracted the Spanish Flu, which killed anywhere from 20 to 60 million people. This deeply scarring experience — a world war while there is a deadly pandemic going on — set in motion a narrative style that defined the genre.

Little did Hammett know, when he was pounding out dark urban tales from his cramped, smoke-filled Tenderloin apartment a century ago, that his work would spawn generations of brilliant artists from around the globe. Filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur and John Huston and authors such as Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Chester Himes, Natsuo Kirini, Walter Moseley, Fuminori Nakamura — to name a few.

Does Noir inspire you?