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Mugs on Thugs: Victor Mature (left) and Richard Conte tangle in Robert Siodmak's 1948 drama 'Cry of the City,' which shows Jan. 19 with 'Criss Cross' at the festival.

Naked Cities

Ashcan poetry, men with guns: two weeks of Noir City at the Balboa Theater

By Richard von Busack

FILM NOIR is as much a mood as a style, which may be why Alameda's Eddie Muller calls his annual noir festival Noir City. There's something foreign, transatlantic, about film noir. The best talents in the field were either foreigners—photographers like Boris Kaufman and directors like Billy Wilder—or American artists on their way east across the Atlantic (like blacklisted directors John Berry, Jules Dassin or Joseph Losey). The name Noir City suggests a city that never changes no matter where it's located. An urban spirit of greed, murder and adultery crosses all borders. It's as if the rain in the streets in The Sweet Smell of Success drained into the gutters that Harry Lime prowls in Vienna in The Third Man.

This Noir City Muller has constructed is only a short drive away—at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco's easy-to-park-in Richmond district. The Jan. 14-27 program features some of the favorites of the genre. Let's list them fast. Sunset Boulevard (Jan. 15) and the ashcan poetry of Force of Evil (Jan. 21), in which knotted-up gangsters pursue a miserable profit in the numbers racket. Once again, the punk's punk Richard Widmark cackles his homicidal head off in Kiss of Death (Jan. 23); once again, Philip Marlowe fails to aid a pathetically lovelorn thug named Moose Malloy in the best film version of Farewell My Lovely, retitled Murder My Sweet (Jan. 22).

Actor Robert Ryan deserves to be called the soul of film noir, and it certainly looks as if Turner Movie Classics modeled Ryan's scowling, fedora-topped head for its cartoon logo. The sensitive but furious black-Irish actor stars as an ex-policeman turned robber in Odds Against Tomorrow (Jan. 27). The great double bill on Jan. 18 couples the rare Act of Violence, in which Ryan plays a pissed-off veteran with unfinished business, with 1952's On Dangerous Ground, the most fascinating psycho-cop movie I've ever seen. (It helps that the director was the human pressure-cooker Nicholas Ray—a man with plenty of issues of his own—and that Bernard Herrmann did the plaintive soundtrack.)

The rarities will lure even the laziest movie fans up to the dark deceitful streets of San Francisco. Check Andre de Toth's tough little picture Crime Wave, with its documentary-style bank heist (Jan. 23); Somewhere in the Night (1946) plays with San Jose's own Farley Granger in Anthony Mann's Side Street (Jan. 14). And speaking of San Jose: on one night only, Jan. 22 at 11:30pm, courtesy of its owner Martin Scorsese, the only-known print of blacklistee Cyril Endfield's 1950 Try and Get Me, a.k.a. The Sound of Fury. Pussy-whipped by his grasping wife, a World War II vet (Frank Lovejoy) is susceptible to a kidnapping scheme hatched by a half-crazed criminal (Lloyd Bridges: the nice guys always make the scariest perps). In his notes, Muller is tightlipped about this film's real-life "Bay Area" inspiration. South Bay's the actual word. The real-life case occurred in the Valley of Hart's—excuse me, Heart's—Delight, and the crime previously inspired Fritz Lang's Fury. Don't want to hang you up.

Noir City runs Jan. 14-27 at the Balboa Theater, 3630 Balboa St., San Francisco. See www.noircity.com or call 415.221.8184.

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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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