Film noir festival finds darkness from afar
By LAURA EMERICK For Sun-Times Media August 28, 2014 5:50PM
NOIR CITY 6
When: Friday through Sept. 4
Where: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport
Tickets: $12 per double bill; $75 for festival pass
Info: noircitychicago.com; musicboxtheatre.com
Updated: September 30, 2014 6:10AM
Noir knows no boundaries.
That’s the theme of Noir City 6, the touring film festival opening Friday and running through Sept. 4 at the Music Box. Curated and co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation, this year’s lineup goes international, with titles from Argentina, France, Japan, Italy and Spain, alongside American classics starring noir stalwarts such as Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw, Robert Ryan, Lizabeth Scott and Audrey Totter.
Though regarded as a distinctly American cinema style, noir had a global impact, insist film historians and Noir City programmers Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode. After all, French critics in the late ’40s first identified this American, largely postwar phenomenon of fatalistic crime dramas as “noir” — black film.
“It’s amazing to realize that all these foreign films are contemporary with what we consider American film noir,” said Muller, the founder and president of the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation, which also hosts an annual 10-day festival in its home city every winter. “These films weren’t necessarily a response to anything.”
Muller and Rode, who will appear at the Music Box as hosts and moderators of Noir City 6, worried that noir fans might not accept the global concept. “Though we’ve found there is a rich vein of untapped film noir all over the world, we hesitated initially to program these titles,” said Rode, a Film Noir Foundation director and treasurer.
“This is something we’ve wanted to do for years, and we always knew that we’d have to try it first at our home festival,” Muller said. “I was stunned at how well-received it was. But I might have let the genie out of the bottle, because we might have to set up a satellite festival of foreign film noir.”
This year’s lineup attests to the variety and depth of foreign noir, with films by international auteurs such as Henri-Georges Clouzot (“Quai des Orfevres”), Jules Dassin (“Rififi”), Julien Duvivier (“Pepe Le Moko”), Akira Kurosawa (“Drunken Angel” and “Stray Dog”), Jean-Pierre Melville (“Two Men in Manhattan”) and Luchino Visconti (“Ossessione”). “All of which prove that when it comes to noir, this cinema style crosses all boundaries,” Rode said.
Also represented are the lesser-known Latin noirists Hugo Fregonese and Roman Vinoly Barreto. Born in Argentina, Fregonese did two tours of duty in Hollywood, in 1937-38 and 1949-56, making his U.S. directorial debut with “One Way Street” (1950), starring James Mason as a doctor turned thief on the lam in Mexico. It’s part of Noir City 6, along with Fregonese’s “Hardly a Criminal” (1949), which Muller first encountered during a research trip to Argentina.
“Fregonese had a very cross-cultural career,” Muller said. “In ‘Hardly a Criminal,’ you can definitely see the influence of Hollywood noir. It’s very reminiscent of ‘The Naked City,’ ” Dassin’s landmark noir made for Universal in 1948.
Even more of a rarity is Vinoly Barreto’s “The Black Vampire” (1953), which Muller describes as a feminist reworking of Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931). Muller was introduced to the film by Fernando Martin Peña, the archivist responsible for the rediscovery of the complete “Metropolis” (1927). Virtually unseen outside Argentina, “The Black Vampire” is making its U.S. debut at the Music Box with a brand-new, subtitled 35mm print funded by the Film Noir Foundation.
“The Black Vampire” also points to the Film Noir Foundation’s primary mission: film preservation. Noir City proceeds underwrite the foundation’s efforts to restore neglected classics for future generations. “Fernando had the only print anywhere of ‘The Black Vampire,’ and through him, we found an original negative used for the restoration,” Muller said. “And there’s even more stuff in Argentina that we’re working on preserving and getting back into circulation.”
Another restored film serves as the showpiece of Noir City 6, “Too Late for Tears” (1949), which had fallen into public domain and thus had been seen only in inferior prints. The saga of how the foundation came to save “Too Late for Tears” might be worthy of its own documentary. Muller and Rode found a collector with a nitrate copy (which in the U.S. are illegal to own because they are unstable and highly flammable), but he died before the film’s fate could be determined. Eventually, they tracked down dupe negatives in France, and thus began “an amazing feat of restoration, which eventually took five years,” Rode said. “But any noir with greats such as Liz Scott, Dan Duryea and Arthur Kennedy is definitely worth preserving.”
Following is the festival lineup, with comments by Muller and Rode.
“Too Late for Tears” (1949), 7 p.m.
Rode: “Roy Huggins, the man who invented a lot of modern TV — ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘The Rockford Files’ — wrote the screenplay, based on his book, which hadn’t fallen into public domain. So we’re talking with his estate about the rights, and we’re hoping to bring out this restoration on DVD.”
“Roadblock” (1951), 9 p.m.
Rode regards this film as “near and dear to my heart” because of the biography he wrote on Charles McGraw, who plays the title role.
“Death of a Cyclist” (1955), 2, 9 p.m.
Muller: “It’s very melodramatic and yet so incredibly modern, with jump cuts and other hallmarks of the French New Wave.” Director Juan Antonio Bardem, uncle of Javier Bardem, was “a revolutionary character and a huge opponent” of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
“Born to Be Bad” (1949), 4:30 p.m.
Nicholas Ray’s noir, starring Joan Fontaine as a scheming two-timer, will be shown with two endings, the studio version and Ray’s preferred take.
“Ossessione” (1943), 7 p.m.
Muller: “This one is crying out for restoration but the negatives are long gone.” Director Luchino Visconti saved the only copy after the Italian government tried to outlaw the film. Based on James M. Cain’s novella “The Postman Only Rings Twice,” it predates the famous U.S. film version by three years. “By transposing the action to rural Italy during the war, Visconti captures Cain’s mood much better than the 1946 American version.”
“Pepe Le Moko” (1937), 2 p.m.
Muller: Though made in the pre-noir late ’30s, “it looks more noir than any American film of the classic noir era. It has a different flavor, because French noir is much more romantic.”
“Quai des Orfevres” (1947), 4:30 p.m.
Rode: “Of this year’s lineup, this is the film that’s really a revelation to me. Directed by the great [Henri-Georges] Clouzot, it’s one of the greatest policiers of all time, and the characters are so well-acted. Just a superb film.”
“Rififi” (1955), 7 p.m.
Muller: “The ultimate heist film, made by [Jules] Dassin abroad during the blacklist.”
“Two Men in Manhattan” (1959), 9 p.m.
Shot in part on location in New York City, with writer-director [Jean-Pierre] Melville taking a rare acting turn.
“Caged” (1950), 3, 7 p.m.
Rode: “One of Eleanor Parker’s best performances and probably the best women-in-prison film ever.”
“Tension” (1949), 5 and 9 p.m.
Rode: “Audrey Totter once told me, ‘I played an absolute bitch in this movie [as femme fatale Claire Quimby], and I loved it!’
“One Way Street” (1950), 5, 9 p.m.
Rode: “You might think: ‘James Mason, what the hell is he doing in this movie?’ But settle back and enjoy the ride.”
“Hardly a Criminal” (1949), 7 p.m.
Rode: “You can really see the influence of American noir. There’s a little bit of ‘Brute Force’ in there.”
“Drunken Angel” (1948), 5, 9 p.m.
Muller: “Clearly a metaphor about Hiroshima. [Director Akira] Kurosawa shows us how toxic the devastation was. The vanquished of WWII are literally living in atomic fallout.”
“Stray Dog” (1949), 7 p.m.
Muller: “Again, another crime story set in postwar Japan, but the real story is about survival.”
“M” (1951), 5, 9 p.m.
Rode: “The conventional thought is that Joseph Losey’s film pales in comparison to Fritz Lang’s version, but that’s not true. It was all filmed in Bunker Hill [in downtown L.A.] with a hall of fame of noir actors, including Raymond Burr, Norman Lloyd, Steve Brodie.”
“The Black Vampire” (1953), 7 p.m.
Muller: “In Argentina, the cinema is all about women,“ so unlike Lang’s all-male “M,” “this is film is about the mothers of the victims. It’s a great movie.”