The Castro Theatre
San Francisco's beloved Castro Theatre, built in 1922, is one of the city's oldest surviving movie theaters, and, by my account, its only movie palace. Timothy L. Pflueger, the theater's architect, also gifted us with the Alameda Theatre, the Alhambra Theater, the Paramount Theatre, and the Oroville State Theater (in my mom's hometown), among others.
This is my first visit to the Castro, despite having once lived in the city for four years, and I'm sure sorry I waited so long. The building's façade, marquee, and vertical sign are all stunning (the letters in the vertical sign blink on and off in succession; I had to time my photo just right). The box office sits outside, in front of a large bank of doors. Just to the side of the box office is a kiosk with the theater's program for upcoming films, one for January and one for February. The programs are gorgeous, tabloid-sized calendars listing the movies to be shown (the bill changes daily!), and with film descriptions on the reverse. There are too many mini-festivals and theme nights coming up to list here, so I recommend clicking the link above or picking up one of these programs (also available at various Landmark theaters).
The lobby is shallow but wide, with a staircase on either end leading up to a mezzanine. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to go upstairs, as I was confused by some signs that seemed to indicate only certain ticket holders were allowed up there (I believe I was in error). But you can see a wonderful picture of it here.
The concession stand sells Lindt chocolate bars (vegan), and let me tell you, when half of that 2.5 serving bar is already gone, the other half looks pretty darn sad, all by its lonesome, so it's best to be merciful and quick.
The Castro has but a single screen in an absolutely stunning, 1400+ seat auditorium (I believe this is the largest seating capacity for a single auditorium in the entire city). This photo begins to do it justice. I felt like I was in the lost city of Atlantis, where artifacts from many different world cultures had once co-existed together in unity. The art deco chandelier drew my eye upward, where I noticed what looked like Buddhist figures painted on the ceiling. The mural on each wall, the golden columns on either side of the screen, and some circular portraits at the front are all reminiscent of ancient Rome, but each seems to have been constructed in tribute at a different time.
I was attending the first film of a double-feature, part of the 8th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival (the $10.00 admission is good for both films). A line stretched around the block to get into the theater, and once inside I found the place was packed and lively. The show opened with a short video, The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. If you do nothing else today, click on that link and watch the video tribute; it's awesome. Being in that packed theater, and watching all those intense, dramatic shots, while the music pounded away, I wanted to see every film noir movie ever made.
Ushers walked up and down the aisles selling programs for $5.00.
An emcee then took the stage to introduce the film, giving a short history of the movie's journey from steamy novel to silver screen, and of actors John Garfield and Lana Turner (apparently it was a big deal that Garfield, a Jew, got to kiss Turner, one of Hollywood's best known beauties at the time). Fewer than 10% of the movies I've seen predate my birth, so I love these sorts of contextual introductions that get me up to speed on what was going on at the time the film was made. The host read us a letter from Garfield's daughter, Julie, and then the curtains lifted.
(I've lost my ticket stub. But I'm not terribly sad, because the ticket was the one shoddy thing about the theater; it was one of those generic "Admit One" tickets and instead of having the theater's name on it, it read "Home Depot".)
Edit: March 25, 2010. I've found my ticket stub! But, as it turns out, it's from Office Depot, not Home Depot, so those of you who have been trying to sneak into the Castro this past month with your reams of Home Depot tickets, now you know why you were turned away. Try try again.
None. Except the tribute to film noir. I'm generous, so I'll give you another chance to click the link: The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
A drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), stops at a roadside diner for a meal. The diner has a "help wanted" sign posted, and Frank, expressing only a casual interest in the position, is immediately offered the job by the diner's proprietor, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Frank isn't in a hurry to tie himself down with a job, until he sees Nick's wife Cora (Lana Turner) standing in the doorway wearing what by modern standards is still barely anything. When Nick leaves the room Frank walks right up to Cora and kisses her. Yeah, she's that hot. She doesn't kiss him back, but she doesn't slap him either; she just gives him this look, as if to say, "like that's never happened before", and then proceeds to reapply her lipstick. Frank's wanderlust evaporates. He tells Nick he'll take the job.
Cora is in no hurry to cheat on her husband, but Frank, who otherwise seems like a reasonable guy, is so crazy for her it's infectious. She soon begins to reciprocate his feelings, and one thing leads to another (more recently this euphemism was clipped to mean "they have sex", but in the 1940s it still meant "they plot to kill her husband . . . so they can have sex").
The movie progresses in three gripping acts, each with stakes higher than in the previous. In Act One they fall in love and plot murder. Nick is a nice guy, but he's an obstacle to each of our fledgling lovers (though, interestingly, for different reasons). Frank and Cora orchestrate an elaborate accident to befall Nick, but just as they set events irrevocably into motion, things start to go wrong. In Act Two they must face the consequences of their actions, under the increasing scrutiny of the district attorney (Leon Ames). Frank tries to disentangle himself from the situation, but is pulled back in, culminating in a fateful car crash. And that's when things get really serious. Act Three isn't messing about. There are court hearings, betrayals, accusations, confessions, and conspiracies. And no one invited Act Four, but it's going to work its mischief anyway.
Wow. What a roller-coaster. This is one of those movies during which I watch helplessly as the protagonists make choices I would never make, getting themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. The emotional chemistry between Frank and Cora is a bit lacking, but as we learn more about their characters and motivations, this actually makes sense. All the leading actors, including Hume Cronyn as an attorney, deliver captivating performances. The plot starts to snowball, building toward a destructive avalanche that our anti-heroes can't possibly escape (a particularly ironic plot development is repeated in the more recent noir The Man Who Wasn't There). I couldn't tear my eyes away.