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January 24-30, 2007

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'Hell's Half Acre'

Keyes to the Kingdom: Evelyn Keyes turns every head in Waikiki in 'Hell's Half Acre.'

Dark Screen

Stool pigeons and gutter rats scuttle through Noir City 5 film festival in San Francisco

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE many fans today of what critic Manny Farber used to call "itch-house" material. These were dark films served up in flea-ridden movie houses back in the 1940s and 1950s. They provided a banquet of violence laid out to the usual suspects: alkies, muscleheads, ex-GIs, lone men on the prowl and the leather-clad, oiled-haired junior felons who bear the same relation to John Travolta in Grease as a north Richmond gangbanger does to TV's Urkel. Film noir has gone uptown these days. The problem is that genuine noir, with its atmosphere of emotional threat, doesn't have enough violence to engage the fans of Jigsaw and his ilk. The menace is all in the words, as well as the black-and-white starkness of the images.

One way to discover the real thing is to camp out at the film noir festival known as Noir City 5, which runs Jan. 26-Feb. 4 in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre. Eddie Muller, host and head of the nonprofit Film Noir Foundation, and programmer Anita Monga have 20 movies on tap, 14 of which are not available on home video or DVD. Visiting this year's fest is actress Marsha Hunt, last seen retrieving Dennis O'Keefe from the claws of Claire Trevor in Raw Deal (which is co-billed with the obscure Kid Glove Killer, 1942, showing Jan. 26). Hell's Half Acre (1954, shows Jan. 28) has Evelyn Keyes posing as a Hawaiian bar girl to find her husband Wendell Corey, currently DBA as the crime tsar of Waikiki.

Muller and Monga have also programmed one-day retrospective of the movies of Charles McGraw: best known from The Narrow Margin, though he was also the large-fisted gladiator trainer in Spartacus). The Threat (Jan. 29) is a 66-minute shocker from 1949—"a minor-league White Heat," one critic calls it—featuring McGraw as a jail-breaking convict who goes on a rampage. Screenwriter William Bowers gets his day in the shadows, too; Bowers was the screenwriter of 1951's Cry Danger and the uncredited writer behind the "rare as they come" 1949 picture Abandoned (Jan. 27). Cry Danger (Jan. 27), from 1951, stars Dick Powell showing his Philip Marlowe side as a framed man tracking down the persons responsible. Abandoned chronicles a black-market baby racket, in which we can presume Raymond Burr (as a corrupt private eye) and Mike Mazurski (as a hooligan, as ever) play small but key parts.

This matchless noir fest unfolds at the Castro, the grandest theater in San Francisco. This means 35mm projection for a number of films that aren't commonly seen in that best of all formats. One such is the Library of Congress' archival print of 1953's Scarlet Street (Feb. 1). This once public-domain classic has been exhibited in prints that looked as if they'd been blighted with the moral algae of its protagonist, Edgar G. Robinson. This deathless noir is Fritz Lang's superb evocation of the city as a rat trap in which a sad rodent of a Sunday painter gets caught. The bait is Joan Bennett, one of the most lush and cruel of film noir temptresses. For purposes of comparison, Scarlet Street is double-billed with Beverly Michaels' similar girl-rampage, The Wicked Woman (1953), wherein she helps herself to a barkeep and various other credulous menfolk in a small California town. Other cinematic crimes and misdemeanors flesh out the fest.

Movie Times Noir City 5 screens 20 films, Jan. 26-Feb. 4, at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco. See for details.

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