Sinners in the shadows at film noir fest
By BILL STAMETS August 22, 2013 7:54PM
Gene Tierney in ‘Leave Her to Heaven’
NOIR CITY 5
When: Friday through Thursday
Where: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport
Tickets: $10 (double feature $15, festival pass $75)
Updated: September 24, 2013 6:13AM
For the fifth year in a row, the Film Noir Foundation brings a retrospective sampler of film noir features to Chicago from California. Alongside the classic “Sunset Boulevard” by Billy Wilder, Noir City 5 offers obscure B-pictures with deep shadows, night streets, lost souls, hard hearts, bad choices and perilous females.
The weeklong series of 17 titles — made between 1941 and 1955 — includes two Technicolor dramas and two newly struck black-and-white 35mm prints from Universal Pictures.
Noir connoisseurs Eddie Muller from San Francisco and Alan K. Rode from Los Angeles will introduce screenings and lead Q&A sessions afterward. They have heard it all. “Who lived in the house next to the building where the guy walks down the street?” a fan once asked Rode after a screening.
Another year, recalls Muller, an audience member tipped him that a screen name was a codeword among cognoscenti in an underground scene of New Age healers.
“Film noirs were distress flares launched into America’s movie screens by artists working the midnight shift at the Dream Factory,” writes Muller in his 1998 book “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.” Rode terms film noir “post-WWII realism when America came of age.”
For an international angle, Noir City 5 is showing “Hell Drivers” (1957), set and shot in England by blacklisted Cy Endfield, better known for “Zulu” (1964). A key character is a former POW from Italy.
Muller spots “cautionary tales of karma” in film noir characters: “They’re doomed because they’ve done the wrong thing.” One thing Muller and Rode do right at the Film Noir Foundation is promote restoration of celluloid from studio vaults. They get new audiences into movie theaters for a noir-era experience of watching stories on the big screen with a crowd.
Selected capsules follow.
‘TRY AND GET ME!’ (8:30 p.m.) Cy Endfield lobs a bombshell in his 1950 lens on uncivil California. An unemployed husband and dad finds work as the wheelman for a slick crook. The local newspaper sensationalizes their crime spree that culminates in a kidnapping and killing. Rabid townsfolk break into the jail and hang the two suspects, though offscreen. On Nov. 26, 1933, a lynching like this did occur at the Santa Clara County jail. A San Francisco judge opined the mob did “a damned good job.” A public health officer urged “more and better hangings. We need ’em.” The film counters with the sober counsel of a visiting Italian intellectual played by Renzo Cesana.
‘NIAGARA’ (2:30 p.m.) “In this picture, we have two great stars: Marilyn Monroe and the mightiest waterfall on earth,” wrote screenwriter Charles Brackett to studio head Darryl Zanuck in 1952. A year later, the trailer for this Technicolor noir touted: “Niagara Falls and Marilyn Monroe — The Two Most Electrifying Sights in the World!” Henry Hathaway (“Call Northside 777”) directs Joseph Cotten as a shell-shocked Korean War vet who is tortured with justifiable jealousy. Monroe is his evil spouse. Yes, someone goes over the edge and over the falls.
‘LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN’ (7:30 p.m.) Yet another Technicolor look into pathological jealousy, this classic directed by John Stahl stars Gene Tierney as poison personified. The atypical settings for noir are the wilds of Maine and New Mexico. Tierney threatens her novelist husband: “I’ll never let you go ... never, never, never.” She earns this rebuke: “You know, if you lived in Salem a hundred years ago, they’d have burned you.”
‘CHICAGO CALLING’ (5 p.m.) In sunny 1951 Los Angeles, Dan Duryea plays a failed photographer who drinks too much. His wife and daughter get a ride to a better life without him. Somewhere “outside of Chicago” they suffer a car accident. He gets word a call is coming the next morning. But he owes $53 and the phone company is disconnecting his line. Director John Reinhardt beautifully depicts a chance sequence of kindness that leads the dispirited family man to stand on his own two feet. (Also, 9:15 p.m. Monday.)
‘NIGHT AND THE CITY’ (5 p.m.) “I just want to be somebody,” pleads pathetic Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), looking for angles in the Greco-Roman wrestling underworld of nocturnal London. Noir crime auteur Jules Dassin (“Rififi,” “Thieves’ Highway,” “The Naked City”) observes this doomed rat on the run. Mutz Greenbaum’s chiaroscuro cinematography is exquisite. Gene Tierney plays his wife, a part that was reportedly arranged to remedy her suicidal heartbreak at the time. (Also, 9:15 p.m. Tuesday.)
Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and reviewer.