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Dark City: Chicago Noir

Daniel J. Kelley 30 July 2009 One Comment

Next weekend, hundreds of Chicagoans will gather together under dark and cloudy skies and they will pay for the privilege of doing so.

No one need fear inclement weather, however, as the auditorium of the Music Box Theater, a vintage neighborhood theater on North Southport Avenue that first opened its doors to the public in 1929, features twinkling stars and projected clouds on its ceiling. Next week its main screen will be illuminated in glorious black and white as the “Noir City“ film festival comes to Chicago.

Film noir is a unique American hybrid. It is a movie genre that has proven to be influential throughout the world. “Film noir” literally translates as “black film.” The term was coined by film critics who were inundated with low budget American crime dramas in the postwar period. After the Nazi occupation, French cinema patrons were treated to a large back catalogue of subtitled American murder mysteries and police procedurals. The movies proved to be immensely popular across Europe.

What exactly constitutes a “film noir” picture is always subject to lively debate, especially since the genre definition came into being years after the films were originally produced. Trademarks of the genre are expressionistic black and white photography, which emphasizes shadows, flashback sequences, voiceover narration, wet asphalt, poorly lit back alleys populated by despairing metropolitan denizens who are often alienated and cynical. Archetypal characters are avaricious femme fatales, corrupt cops and flawed protagonists who seem unable to escape from their poor choices and the cruel forces of unkind fate. Many of the directors specializing in such films were émigrés who fled from Nazi occupied Europe before taking refuge in Hollywood. Although a handful of film noir titles were big budget productions, many of the more creative titles were inexpensive second features.

One of the most prolific producers of film noir pictures was Bryan Foy, who graduated from Warner Brothers and then went to work for 20th Century Fox and Eagle-Lion studios. Foy specialized in successfully producing “B” programmers that returned profits, so much so that his industry nickname was “the Keeper of the B’s.” Working with such directors as Anthony Mann and Richard Fleischer, Foy specialized in low budget police procedural dramas. The radio and television series “Dragnet” traces its lineage from Foy’s production of “He Walked By Night,” which was based on an actual Los Angeles police case.

As a seven year old, Foy survived one of Chicago’s greatest tragedies. His father, Eddie Foy, a noted vaudeville performer, rescued his son from the disastrous fire that destroyed the Iroquois Theater in 1903. Sparks from a defective stage lamp started a blaze that claimed the lives of nearly six hundred theater patrons attending a matinee performance of “Mister Bluebeard“ during the Christmas holidays. Venal city building inspectors accepted bribes and permitted the new theater to open without proper fire extinguishers and safety equipment being installed on the premises. Emergency exits were not properly illuminated and many of these same doors were simply padlocked. Skylight windows above the stage that ought to have vented deadly smoke out through the roof were nailed shut. While some victims were burned or trampled to death, many more were asphyxiated. The refurbished Ford Oriental Theater occupies the same site today, near the intersection of Dearborn and Randolph Streets. It seems less than coincidental that several films produced by Foy, such as “House of Wax” and “Raw Deal,” feature spectacular fire sequences.

The Chicago festival will showcase nine individual films and will also include interviews and discussions. Eddie Muller, a novelist and a cultural historian, who is also the author of the bestselling “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir,” will serve as the host and moderator of “Noir City,” a retrospective film series running from July 31st until August 6th.  The complete program schedule is available here:

http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/collections/noir-city-chicago/

Previous film noir festivals have been staged in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Seattle, as well as San Francisco (Muller’s native city and headquarters), which is now preparing for its 8th annual retrospective series in January of 2010. Joining Muller in Chicago will be Foster Hirsch, another scholar who has written extensively on film noir. As an added bonus, Harry Belafonte has agreed to attend the special screening of “Odds Against Tomorrow.” Robert Wise directed this 1959 film which starred Belafonte opposite Robert Ryan, Ed Begley, Sr., Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame. The movie addresses subject of bigotry juxtaposed against the background of a carefully planned payroll robbery in a factory town.

Muller is also the founder of the Film Noir Foundation, a not for profit organization that seeks to preserve and restore film titles from the classic period. One of the movies scheduled to be screened at the festival is “The Prowler” with Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes. The 35mm print of this 1951 film directed by Joseph Losey was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive with funding from the Film Noir Foundation. Many other neglected film titles remain to be salvaged from the obscurity of the public domain. A portion of the proceeds from the festival will be used to support the foundation.

Other representative titles in the festival series include such genre favorites such as the seminal film “Double Indemnity.” This adaptation of the James M. Cain novel features an unusually literate script by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder that elided the censorship of the Production Code office. The “murder for profit” photoplay was a distinct improvement upon Cain’s pulp fiction prose in stark contradiction to the common complaint that most Hollywood screenwriters ruined the plots of well regarded books when adapting the same for the big screen. Other noteworthy festival titles include “The Lady from Shanghai,” a celebrated Orson Welles production that was severely edited by the studio to reduce its running time from two and a half hours to a more commercial length of eighty-six minutes. The resulting film has delighted and confused filmgoers for sixty years.

Two films in the series of nine are based upon the writings of Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway: “The Killers” is an adaptation of a short story about a worn out boxer patiently resigned to his fate when two contract killers discover his hiding place, but a more intriguing title is “The Breaking Point.” This John Garfield film is a more faithful adaptation of “To Have and Have Not,” which was previously filmed as a showcase vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Garfield’s leading lady is a Northwestern alumna, Patricia Neal.

Two Chicago related titles will also be screened: Dennis O’Keefe stars in a crime expose film, “The Chicago Syndicate” while James Stewart, Richard Conte and Lee J. Cobb appear in “Call Northside 777.” The latter is a documentary style film based upon an actual criminal case in which a skeptical newspaper reporter from the now defunct “Chicago Times” eventually comes to believe that a prison inmate at Stateville penitentiary has been wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Chicago policeman. Many of the actual sites depicted in the movie, which was filmed on location in Chicago, still exist: the exterior of Holy Trinity parish can be seen from the Kennedy expressway; “The Chicago Times” formerly occupied an office building immediately opposite the Chicago River from the Merchandise Mart on Wacker Drive. The current building owners removed the newspaper inscription  from the building (211 West Wacker Drive) a few years ago.  “The Times” was, of course, purchased by Marshall Field who merged the paper with his other newspaper, “The Chicago Sun” to form the new “ Chicago Sun-Times.” Author and historian Richard C. Lindberg, an occasional contributor to The Chicago Daily Observer,  will offer his observations on “Call Northside 777” on August 3rd.

The prologue of the 1947 release “Call Northside 777” features stock footage from an earlier Fox movie release, “In Old Chicago,” which depicted the Great Fire of 1871. The narrator continues to recount Chicago’s subsequent lawless reputation as the theater audience is regaled with glimpses of such notorious public enemies as Al Capone and John Dillinger. The optimistic introduction concludes with the narrator suggesting that those corrupt days are a thing of the past as Chicago looks forward to a bright and respectable future.

Don’t make me laugh! Chicago was not and still is not ready for reform! Consider the following facts: “The Chicago Syndicate,” released in 1955, was one a series of crime expose films that were released in the aftermath of Senate investigative hearings, conducted by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, a publicity seeking politician who hoped to someday run for the presidency. One of the most controversial and infamous hearings took place in Chicago during 1950.

The babbling testimony provided by the Democratic nominee for Cook County Sheriff, Dan “Tubbo” Gilbert, damaged the prospects of the entire county slate and hastened the end of Jacob Arvey’s tenure as chairman of the Democratic Central Committee. Gilbert, a long term ally of organized crime, was dubbed “the world’s richest cop” by newspapers. When asked to explain the source of his undocumented income, Gilbert boasted of his repeated success as a gambler who illicitly wagered on all types of sporting events. John Babb, the obscure Republican candidate, was elected sheriff over Gilbert that November.

The classic period of film noir movie making ended as the result of the rise of network television. Many weekly television programs such as “Dragnet,” “The Naked City,” “The Fugitive” and scores of other programs treated many of the same themes as did the movies. Many of the esteemed cast and crew members swiftly transitioned from the movies to television and “B” films and double feature bills quickly became a thing of the past.

Given the current economic uncertainty and the anxiety associated with the contemporary political climate, however, these films may be more popular now than they were following their initial theatrical release dates.

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Daniel J. Kelley is an avid film fan and a contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.”

One Comment »

  • Neil said:

    Sounds interesting. I would love to go see some of those old movies, they are classics.

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