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January 11-17, 2006

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Noir City Film Fest

Keep Your Eyes on the Road: Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt make a desperate dash for it in 'The Man Who Cheated Himself.'

Rain Men

The Noir City Film Fest washes the scum off the street and onto the screen, where they belong

By Richard von Busack

ALTHOUGH THE glitterati are out freezing their liposuctioned kiesters off at Sundance, it could be argued that the crucial cinematic event in January is Noir City. San Francisco's annual festival of film noir expands to the bigger screens of the Palace of the Legion of Honor this year. One of the many unsung figures of alley-cat fiction is A.I. Bezzerides, the Fresno-bred writer remembered in an as-yet-unreleased documentary, The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides. "Buzz" Bezzerides was the source author for Jules Dassin's 1949 Thieves' Highway, which plays Jan. 18 on a double bill with the unscreened-for-50-years, filmed-in-San Francisco The Man Who Cheated Himself.

Tough as it is, Dassin's film is soft-core compared to Bezzerides' acid-washed novel Thieves' Market. Still, Dassin loads the film with stomach-wringing pre-Wages of Fear episodes, climaxing in a fearful crash on the old Altamont Pass Road. The film co-stars Richard Conte and Millard Mitchell, the latter so hardboiled as to make a pink powder puff of William Demerest. Valentina Cortese is fascinating as a waterfront tramp who redeems herself. The sleaze factor is sinister former comedian Jack Oakie, one of a pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-style profiteers who follow Mitchell's breakdown-prone truck like buzzards tailing a staggering steer. Thieves' Highway is particularly irreplaceable for extensive locations of the old San Francisco produce district, now entombed beneath the ugly concrete of the Embarcadero Center.

Speaking of local contributions to film noir, the fest opens Jan. 13 with a personal appearance by San Jose's own Farley Granger. The actor hosts They Live by Night—Nicholas Ray's debut about a small-time crook enveloped by stone-cold killers. Also showing that day will be Alfred Hitchcock's celebrated Strangers on a Train, where Granger plays a good guy bewildered almost into homicide by a charismatic psycho (the Bill Murrayish Robert Walker). On Jan. 15, novelist James Ellroy talks about Split Second (1953), a hostage drama at an A-bomb testing range. Actress Coleen Gray hosts a matinee of two of her dark classics—Nightmare Alley and Kiss of Death—on Jan. 16. On Jan. 21, guest star Sean Penn revives his 2001 neo-noir The Pledge, with Jack Nicholson as a homicide detective caught in an ultimate case of "retirony": a fatal last assignment taken on mere hours before he is due to leave the Reno PD. In a related event, Noirquake, co-sponsored by the San Francisco literary festival Litquake, local authors will read from the Western canon: David Goodis, W.R. Burnett and Cornell Woolrich.

In addition to reviving rarities by the score, fest-founder Eddie Mueller's Film Noir Foundation has financed new 35mm prints of The Window (showing Jan. 22) and the Jean Negulesco/John Garfield drama Nobody Lives Forever. The latter is billed on Jan. 19 with the ultrarare Garfield version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, titled The Breaking Point. Wrapping it all up Jan. 23-26: a series of eight made-in-1946 noirs screening at the Balboa Theater, surrounded by the easy parking of the Outer Richmond. The rest of the lineup can be found at fog, rain, dark streets and bad women with big shoulders. Viewers who don't know how to take a punch are directed to head down the street to a theater showing Rumor Has It ...

Noir City takes place Jan. 13-26 at the Palace of the Fine Arts and the Balboa Theater in San Francisco. See for details.

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