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Originally published July 1, 2014 at 6:10 AM | Page modified July 2, 2014 at 4:03 PM

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In San Francisco, the noir endures

Finding the moody, lonely glamour of noir novelist Dashiell Hammett

The New York Times


San Francisco is well known for its transformations, the most recent one fueled 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.

Like the characters that populate it, 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 décor of a bygone era, actually home not just to the writer Dashiell Hammett but to his most famous creation, Sam Spade? Who was the enigmatic woman from the 1920s whose name adorns a nearby cocktail bar, lovingly made, speak-easy style, in an actual speak-easy? 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 — through the Tenderloin, neighboring Union Square and Nob Hill and up into North Beach — 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, when corrupted heroes lost out at the end of the tale. If noir, or at least the appreciation of it, is still alive in San Francisco, it’s largely due to them. And it turns out that, although it may have gone dormant for a time, there’s a broad sense of gratitude in the city for their efforts.

In Hammett’s footsteps

My guide through this urban landscape, in spirit and inspiration, was Hammett. Although he lived in San Francisco for less than a decade, his association with both the city and noir is unarguable; his early stories and novels are the urtexts of noir, and Spade its antiheroic face.

I met Don Herron, one of Hammett’s pre-eminent appreciators, in front of the Flood Building in Union Square. The structure used to house the San Francisco offices of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where Hammett was an operative during the early 1920s, and is one of the few landmarks to have survived the great earthquake of 1906. It has, however, undergone a transformation: It now is home to well-trafficked outlets of the Gap and Anthropologie.

Nevertheless, it is a regular stop on the noir tours that Herron, a genial man with a slightly disheveled look and a wild white beard, has conducted in San Francisco since 1977. But 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, which at the time was called hard-boiled or pulp, would come to encapsulate noir, a genre with a dizzying timeline: The term was coined and popularized in the late 1940s and early ’50s by French film critics who used it to describe U.S. films from that era (the 1941 John Huston adaptation of “Falcon” is generally considered the first major noir release), many of which were, in turn, based on books written in the ’20s and ’30s. Hence, proto-noir.

It was hard to imagine that the building in its current incarnation could have figured into the origin story of anything besides a modest credit card debt. But when Hammett was a Pinkerton operative, the experience informed and honed his writing in a way no other mystery writer could claim. He left the agency by early 1922, soon after his arrival in the city, and turned his efforts to fiction. By 1923, he had placed a few stories in Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine.

Remembering Sam Spade

Out of those stories came Hammett’s two greatest books, “Red Harvest,” which featured a nameless detective called the Continental Op, and “The Maltese Falcon,” which introduced the Op’s better-known successor, Sam Spade. Still, what first drew Herron to Hammett had more to do with the sheer power of his writing. In a staccato as direct as a passage out of early Hammett, he said: “I really like the stories. The fiction.”

Herron and I headed up from now-touristy Union Square into the Tenderloin, the notoriously seedy neighborhood where Hammett lived and set many of his stories. Of all of old San Francisco, it may be the neighborhood most intact. Many buildings date to the ’20s; notable Art Deco touches appear occasionally. Demographics have changed, but its sense of character remains. On Post Street we passed a Chinese coffee shop where locals of all races lined the sidewalk, a half-block from a homeless family decamped in a doorway. Crime is still a major presence in the Tenderloin, these days largely fueled by an active drug culture.

Herron stopped occasionally to point out intact spots from Hammett’s life and work. Still a stunner is the Geary Theater (now home to the American Conservatory Theater), where Joel Cairo, a “Falcon” villain, attends a performance of “The Merchant of Venice” — a tidbit, Herron noted, that turned out to be the forensic evidence necessary to place the exact time of the novel’s events: In the book, the British actor George Arliss is playing Shylock, a fact that dates the story to early December 1928.

We continued up through the Tenderloin, Herron pointing out probable hotel stand-ins from “Falcon” — and 891 Post St., where Hammett lived and wrote.

The young author must have cut a striking figure walking into that building. He was tall and rail-thin; tuberculosis contracted stateside while in the Army during World War I made his weight a constant struggle. He had a long, handsome face topped by a gray pompadour.

In his writing, Hammett was obsessive, almost comically so, about San Francisco geography. Locations pile up like elements in a chemical equation: “Pine Street, between Leavenworth and Jones”; “the Garfield Apartments on Bush Street”; “walking over to California Street.”

“Maltese Falcon” location

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. (Twenty-five years ago, Herron told me, he talked the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, tasked with naming streets after prominent area literary figures, out of renaming Burritt for Hammett. He redirected him to a different alley across the street, where Hammett had lived briefly.)

A plaque does decorate Burritt, though, rather delightfully not mentioning the book by name: “On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”

As we approached the alley, Herron became more animated, narrating the pivotal scene from the book. Like Spade in the book, he “went to the parapet, and, resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street.” He noted that the fog that damps the parapet — “thin, clammy, and penetrant,” Hammett wrote — wasn’t added just for atmosphere. “It was wintertime, remember,” he said. “Everything is intentional.”

We descended onto Stockton. Herron had noted a door at the end of Burritt and said he had always wondered where it led — and thought he had it figured out. 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 speak-easy-style bar fronting a tavern room in a space that was indeed once a speak-easy. 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. I would later find out that denizens of the speak-easy would enter through that door. One mystery explained.

Back at the bar, Herron and I sat down over a beer (him) and a glass of rye (me). We discussed, among dozens of other topics, what defines noir. He began by listing some essential ingredients from “The Maltese Falcon.”

“The femme fatale, the murder, the city — a lot of it at night,” he said. “They coalesce into this perfect thing.”

The key ingredient, though, was an unhappy ending.

“Sam Spade kind of loses,” he said. “There’s a sense of failure.”

Speakeasy mood

On our way out, a bartender, setting up for the evening rush, asked about the Hammett connection, about which he knew little. “He wrote about that alley, right?” he asked. The Burritt Room is just one of seemingly endless spots around town housed in former speak-easy spaces. In just the first day of my trip, I hit three places that, at least in theory, Hammett could have visited during his San Francisco days.

The House of Shields is a charming spot in the Financial District that opened in 1908; during Prohibition, the drinking moved down to the basement. I made an early visit, and the crowd seemed to be a mix of after-work imbibers, cocktail enthusiasts and tourists. The bar was renovated a few years ago, but plenty remains intact. A soaring but narrow interior features a substantial bar rail, gorgeous carved lighting fixtures and the namesake shields, which surround a huge mirror — all original, except the mirror. I ordered a Green Point, a brooding variation on the Manhattan with yellow chartreuse; it was a modern concoction but it felt about right.

Hammett was an alcoholic and almost certainly spent his share of time in speak-easies. Mentions of liquors of all sorts are peppered throughout his stories and letters — but mostly straight stuff, and he apparently wasn’t too picky. The rare cocktail references are as simple as could be; in “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade imbibes from an apparently pre-mixed bottle of “Manhattan cocktail” he stores in an office desk drawer.

I wandered across the street to the Palace Hotel and its stunningly elegant Garden Court restaurant, where Sam Spade stopped for lunch (“he ate hungrily without haste”), then headed up in the lovely early-evening light to North Beach, best known as home to San Francisco’s Italian-American community and as the heart of the Beat culture that dominated the area in the ’50s.

On Columbus Avenue, across from City Lights Bookstore, where many of those Beat writers congregated, is Tosca Cafe. Tosca was brand-new when Hammett came to town, having opened in 1919, and over the years became a destination dive bar, host to local regulars and celebrities alike. After it faced eviction last year, the chef April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, her business partner, took over the space and renovated it — but with careful attention to maintaining its period feel.

The banquettes may no longer be torn, but they are intact (and generally full — the place has become one of the city’s hottest spots since its renovation). The House Cappuccino, a booze-infused take born during Prohibition, has been updated to include Armagnac, bourbon, artisanal chocolate and organic milk (and, by the way, no coffee). I instead sampled a pleasantly fruity Zamboanga cocktail and dishes like the chicken liver spiedini, one of a few that are indicative of Bloomfield’s nose-to-tail approach. (It’s possible Sam Spade would have approved; in “The Maltese Falcon,” Hammett has him snacking on pickled pigs’ feet.)

I headed behind Tosca into the warren of alleys that blankets North Beach. They afford great views of the city but also a what’s-around-the-corner nervousness. If you are looking for the shadowy atmospheric side of noir, this spot might capture it best. (The area also makes a cameo as the site of a rooftop chase scene in Hammett’s Continental Op story “The Big Knockover.”)

Back down Columbus is Comstock Saloon. The space dates to 1907 and has been continuously operating as a bar ever since. In 2010, new owners reopened it as Comstock, including the original bar, complete with a tiled urinal at its base — a not-uncommon sight in the men-only saloons of the pre-Prohibition era. The menu is peppered with classics, including my selection: a boozy ’20s-era cocktail called Twelve-Mile Limit, its name a reference to the seafaring parameters of the Volstead Act.

Hammett’s home

I found myself back at 891 Post St., Hammett’s home, and was led into the building and up a creaky antique elevator by Eddie Muller, a San Francisco native, author and self-proclaimed “noirchaeologist.” We headed to the fourth floor and entered Apartment 401; I was immediately struck by a sensation of having traveled through time.

The apartment has been restored to be a simulacrum of what it might have looked like in the ’20s, outfitted with all things vintage: a gramophone, a frosted-glass door and a desk topped with a typewriter and lamp — and yet another replica falcon.

As we sat down to chat over a bottle of bourbon, Muller, a pleasantly gregarious man clad in a checkered beige suit, blue tie and pocket square, began to explain the story of the apartment’s revival. (The apartment is not open to the public; I got lucky in that Muller is one of only a couple of people with access. “It is more like a shrine than a museum,” he told me, with evident pride.)

Hammett had sent letters from 891 Post St., where he wrote three of his five novels, but the apartment’s exact location had to be teased out of clues, ones embedded in “The Maltese Falcon,” by the apartment’s one-time resident, Bill Arney, who had taken Herron’s tour years before. Spade, too, lived on Post Street, and a few further details — it’s a fourth-floor apartment in proximity to the elevator; there’s an unusual bend in the hallway — left only one suspect: Apartment 401.

After Arney gave up the apartment, Muller contacted a friend, Robert Mailer Anderson, an acclaimed writer and philanthropist, who had the resources to make the restoration happen. The idea, Muller said, was “so that it looks like Hammett just went out for a pack of cigarettes.”

Part of Muller’s take on noir is that, in the end, it’s not about solving mysteries. The Maltese Falcon is — spoiler alert — not the Maltese Falcon. It’s a fake. As I headed down Post back toward Union Square, I realized 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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