Film Festival Returns: Southport Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Noir City Chicago returns for its fourth year at the Music Box Theater. The festival series opens on Friday, August 17th, and runs for one week, concluding on August 23rd. Authors Alan K. Rode and Foster Hirsch, both representing the Film Noir Foundation, a not for profit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of vintage motion pictures, will introduce the fifteen feature films. Appropriately enough, many of the film titles selected for this year’s festival program have solid literary pedigrees. The films include screen adaptations of works by such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cornell Woolrich, Graham Greene and Mickey Spillane.
The opening night of the festival features two films with Peter Lorre: “Three Strangers” and “The Face Behind the Mask.” Geraldine Fitzgerald and Sydney “the Fatman” Greenstreet co-star with Lorre in “Three Strangers” which was directed by Jean Negulesco. “The Face Behind the Mask” is an economical “B” movie from Columbia Pictures in which Lorre is an immigrant driven to a life of crime after being disfigured in a fire.
One of the most prolific authors of the pulp fiction that lent itself so readily to film noir screen adaptations was the bitter and reclusive Cornell Woolrich, whose own biography rivals that of Edgar Allan Poe for its nightmarish strangeness. When his initial literary efforts to mimic F. Scott Fitzgerald failed, Woolrich’s fevered imagination churned out short stories that were produced for as little as a penny per word during the Great Depression. Woolrich has the unique distinction of being the crime author whose works, including titles issued under his pseudonyms of William Irish and George Hopley, were most frequently adapted for movies during Hollywood’s Golden Era. While many of his stories and novels were fodder for Poverty Row productions, talented directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur and Francois Truffaut, among others, also directed movies based upon Woolrich’s writings. On Saturday, there will be a marathon Woolrich triple feature!
Contemporary hipsters often associate film noir with smooth jazz. This music was, however, principally a late cycle addition to the film genre. Most of the feature films released during the Forties featured fully orchestrated musical scores. One notable exception is “The Phantom Lady” which features the frenetic drumming of Gene Krupa who dubbed the scenes featuring Elisha Cooke, Jr. on the drums. Highly regarded by noir aficionados, “The Phantom Lady” is another of those forgotten films that has not been released on DVD. Robert Siodmak directed the film.
Director and producer Roy William Neill is best remembered for his eleven wartime “Sherlock Holmes” pictures which starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. His final film “The Black Angel” is a stylish adaptation of Woolrich’s blackmail novel featuring Dan Duryea, Broderick Crawford, June Vincent, Wallace Ford, Peter Lorre and Constance Dowling with a script by Roy Chanselor. In a truly film noir turn of events, after finishing the picture, Neill, who had long intended to return to his native England and enjoy a life of luxury in retirement, promptly dropped dead upon his arrival in the United Kingdom. Neill had built a stately residence with his Hollywood earnings, but he collapsed and died after crossing the threshold of his newly completed dream house for the first time.
One of Woolrich’s best short stories (“The Boy Who Cried Murder”) was adapted for the truly frightening film “The Window.” The Aesop fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” was given an urban updating by Woolrich as a child with a propensity for lying is unable to convince his skeptical parents and neighbors that he witnessed an actual murder while climbing an apartment building fire escape on a sweltering summer night. The modestly budgeted R-K-O film was shelved for over a year by the mercurial Howard Hughes simply because he disliked it. Upon its delayed premiere, the movie exceeded expectations and proved to be a surprise hit. The child actor Bobby Driscoll, who was primarily known for his work on “The Song of the South” at Walt Disney studios, earned a special Academy Award for his work on both “The Window” and “So Dear to My Heart” as the best Juvenile performer of 1949. Tragically, like many a character in Woolrich’s fiction, Driscoll became a narcotics addict and he died of an overdose in an abandoned building not at all unlike the New York City tenement slums depicted in this motion picture. Driscoll was twenty-one at the time of his death and his unclaimed body was buried in a pauper’s grave.
“99 River Street” is a hard hitting noir directed by Phil Karlson in which John Payne plays a washed up boxer reduced to driving a taxi cab. The former contender is framed for murder when his unfaithful wife runs afoul of her current flame who is an unrepentant criminal. “Slaughter on the Tenth Avenue” is an expose’ of union corruption along the waterfront. Arnold Laven directed. These films will be shown on Sunday.
On Monday, August 20th, the tabloid press is examined in “Shakedown” with a cast that includes Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy and Lawrence Tierney. The second feature is “Undertow” which was filmed on location in Chicago and stars Tierney’s younger brother, Scott Brady.
Chicago native Robert Ryan (a graduate of Loyola Academy, when the Catholic high school was based in Rogers Park, Ryan was born and raised a few miles from the Music Box in Uptown) is the star attraction in two intense performances on August 21st. In Nicholas Ray’s “On Deadly Ground,” Ryan portrays a brutal cop whose loathing for criminals earns him a suspension after he beats up a suspect. His punishment is a reassignment to the sticks. Ida Lupino and Ward Bond co-star. In a delightful example of malice in which art imitates life, director Max Ophuls cast Ryan as a maniacal millionaire, “Smith Ohlrig,” whose obsessive behaviors compare most unfavorably with the actual owner of R-K-O Studios, Howard Hughes. Barbara Bel Geddes plays the department store model who agreed to marry the madman and James Mason is a sympathetic doctor who tries to help her escape the tyrannical control freak.
Alan Ladd achieved stardom in his breakout role as the contract assassin Raven in “This Gun for Hire.” The movie was adapted from Graham Greene’s novel. Ladd’s supporting performance stole the picture out from under the nominal leading actor Robert Preston and his successful playing opposite Veronica Lake resulted in the screen couple being reunited in several more Paramount releases. Ladd’s seldom seen 1949 version of “The Great Gatsby” has been revived on account of its darker take on the life and death of a bootlegger with a taste for the finer things in life. Both films will be screened on August 22nd.
The closing night of the festival, August 23rd, has an explosive double feature: James Cagney is in top form on “top of the world” as the sociopathic criminal, Cody Jarrett, a cold blooded killer with an unusually pronounced oedipal complex in Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat.” Mickey Spillane’s “Kiss Me Deadly” is given a particularly subversive twist by veteran screenwriter Buzz Bezzerides in the Robert Aldrich production of a most unusual Mike Hammer film. Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as private investigator looking to cash in by solving a Pandora’s box murder mystery in a truly apocalyptic film. Watch for Cloris Leachman, the beauty contest participant chosen as “Miss Chicago” in 1945, in an important supporting role.
Daniel J. Kelley is a contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.” His essay on the film noir roles of actor Hugh Beaumont is included in the most recent “Noir City” anthology issue which is now available in paperback.