Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
From out of the past and in a lonely place comes Noir City: Chicago 7. The traveling festival, presented by the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation, returns Aug. 28 through Sept. 3 for its seventh annual run at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, with 18 gems of the genre—some receiving their first-ever Chicago screenings.
Curated by noir experts Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode, the event offers a triple focus this year, with tributes to pulp-fiction authors Cornell Woolrich and Dorothy B. Hughes, and genre greats Dan Duryea, Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck, and a salute to what Muller and Rode have dubbed “Edwardian Noir.” The lineup also features four restorations, with three financed by the non-profit Film Noir Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting “the cultural, historical and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement.”
“All sorts of things are in play for this year’s lineup,” said Muller, the FNF’s president and founder, as well as an author, filmmaker, film historian and TV personality (he hosted Turner Classic Movies’ annual Summer of Darkness noir festival again this year). “Obviously, we want to showcase our restorations, and also what works and what are the really good prints [at the Music Box, all of the Noir City titles are scheduled to be screened in 35mm]. “But in the end, practicality and availability are the main drivers.”
Another factor is uniqueness. “We definitely like to program films you can’t see anywhere else, films that haven’t made it to DVD, such as ‘The Guilty’ and ‘Woman on the Run’ [both screening at the Music Box],” said Rode, the FNF’s treasurer and board member, and also an author, film historian and impresario (he produces and hosts the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, Calif.). “It’s getting harder to say that about many titles. We try to be mindful that there are lots of noir fans who don’t live close to the West Coast [and thus can’t attend the foundation’s annual home festival in San Francisco or the Lyons event in Palm Springs]. So we’re trying to make our films available to the largest possible audience.”
“Woman on the Run” (1950), which opens Noir City 7, is the foundation’s latest rescue effort. Shot largely in San Francisco by director Norman Foster, and starring genre stalwarts Dennis O’Keefe and Ann Sheridan, it’s “one of the great unsung noirs,” according to Muller and Rode. Universal had a print but not the rights to it, and that print was destroyed in a 2007 fire at the studio. Fortunately, a digital scan existed elsewhere, and the foundation put the title on its restoration list. With additional funding from the Hollywood Press Association’s Charitable Trust, and detective work by the FNF to clear film rights, “Woman on the Run” was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Though “Woman on the Run” hasn’t been seen on the big screen in years, two Noir City 7 films have never been screened before in the States. Continuing an “Argentine noir” theme introduced at last year’s event, Muller and Rode have programmed two Spanish-language films, both based on Woolrich works, “No Abras Nunca Esa Puerta”/”Si Muero Antes de Despertar” (“Don’t Ever Open That Door”/“If Die Before I Awake”). This double bill will be screened in a newly struck 35mm print. “We didn’t have the funds yet to do a full restoration,” Muller said. “So we decided to preserve the films with English subtitles. Often you have to preserve before you can restore.”
For noir die-hards, however, the festival’s focus on pulp masters Woolrich and Hughes, who wrote the novels and short stories behind several noir greats, might be the biggest draw. Woolrich, whose works provided the basis for “Phantom Lady” (1946), “No Man of Her Own” (1950) and “Rear Window” (1954), “lived the most noir life imaginable,” Muller said. “He toiled in obscurity, and in his later years, never left his apartment [he was wheelchair-bound after losing a leg to diabetes-induced gangrene]. That was grist for the whole genre.” Hughes, whose writings spawned the noir touchstone “In a Lonely Place” (1950) and “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943) — the latter screening at Noir City 7 — influenced many other noir writers and producers. “Her works are so hard-boiled that many are surprised to find out that a woman wrote them,” Muller said.
Joining Muller and Rode, who will introduce films and conduct Q&As afterward at the Music Box, will be Chicago Reader film critic J.R. Jones, whose biography The Lives of Robert Ryan, was published earlier this year. (Ryan grew up in Chicago and still has relatives here.) Jones will help moderate the Ryan screenings on Sept. 1.
Muller and Rode regard Chicago as “a great market for noir.” The turnout is so strong that “we can do a whole week, which allows us to be more eclectic in our programming,” Muller said. “Like offering the day of Edwardian noir this year, that’s not possible in other cities where the festival travels.”
“Chicago is definitely one of the top audiences in terms of appreciation,” Rode said. “People drive in from all over the Midwest, and you develop friendships with them. As dark as noir is supposed to be, it actually brings people together. Coming back to Chicago at the end of summer is like coming home.”
TICKETS: $12 per double bill; $75 for a festival pass (for admittance to every Noir City 7 film. Details at http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/festivals/noir-city-chicago-7
Friday, Aug. 28: Opening Night
“Woman on the Run" (1950), 7 p.m.: This once obscure crime drama returns to screen life, thanks to a Film Noir Foundation restoration. The twisty plot centers on a reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and the wife (Ann Sheridan) of a man on the lam. Director Norman Foster “definitely had some Wellesian influence in his career,” Rode said, “and this film is outstanding.”
“Abandoned" (1949), 9 p.m.: Dennis O’Keefe — again as a reporter — stumbles on a black-market baby racket in what Rode describes as “an unsung noir, shot all over L.A. by [B-movie helmer] Joseph Newman, complete with smarmy dialogue.” Muller and Rode paired this title with “Woman on the Run,” since both star the now mostly forgotten O’Keefe, whom Rode calls “a very underappreciated actor, especially in noir.” Screening in a 35mm archival print provided by Universal.
Saturday, Aug. 29: The World According to Cornell Woolrich
"The Guilty" (1947), 2:15 and 9:50 p.m.: The Film Noir Foundation has restored this Poverty Row film, directed by John Reinhardt, with Bonita (“Nancy Drew”) Granville as twins, one evil, the other an easy mark (she’s dead by the third reel), opposite Don Castle, “the Clark Gable of Monogram Pictures,” Rode said with a chuckle. “It’s the typical post-war noir, with no sets but lots of terse exchanges.”
"The Chase" (1946), 4:15 p.m.: In this flashback noir, based on Woolrich’s novel The Black Path of Fear, a Navy vet (Robert Cummings) falls in with a gangster (Steve Cochran) and then falls for his sultry wife (Michele Morgan). “Any film with Steve Cochran and Peter Lorre [as Cochran’s sidekick], you know it’s got to be good,” Rode observed. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, along with the Franco-American Cultural Fund, financed the 35mm restoration.
“No Abras Nunca Esa Puerta”/“Si Muero Antes de Despertar” (1952), 6:30 p.m.: Argentine noir, based on the gospel according to Woolrich, and screened in a preserved print courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation. Conceived as an anthology, the films were released separately in Latin America. For Noir City 7, they’re being shown back to back and for the first time with English subtitles.
Sunday, Aug. 30: Edwardian Noir
"ivy" (1947), 2:30 p.m.: A blonde Venus (Joan Fontaine) wants to move up in society by snaring a rich patsy (Herbert Marshall), but first she must eliminate her husband — and lover. Playing against type, Fontaine floats in a cloud of white costumes (by Orry-Kelly) and backdrops (William Cameron Menzies co-produced but most likely also put his touch on the set design, according to Muller and Rode). Muller had wanted to add “Ivy” to the Noir City lineup for years, but it wasn’t available. “Universal finally came through a 35mm archival print,” he said, “and so we have it at last.”
"Hangover Square" (1945), 5 p.m.: The ultimate ’40s “heavy,” Laird Cregar triumphs in his last role as a composer-pianist beset by madness and a maddening music-hall manipulator (Linda Darnell). “This is one of the greats of the ’40s, with an incredible score by Bernard Herrmann,” Muller said. “His ‘Concerto Macabre’ becomes like another character in the film, especially in the way that it illustrates the action.”
"Ladies in Retirement" (1941), 7 p.m.: Based on a Broadway play, this “underappreciated noir,” as Rode describes it, stars Ida Lupino as a housekeeper beset by two mentally imbalanced sisters of an aged actress.
"The Suspect" (1944), 9:15 p.m.: Charles Laughton gives what Muller considers one of his best-ever performances as a tobacconist "of a few peculiarities" trying to escape a shrewish wife. “It’s the greatest Hitchcock film that Hitchcock didn’t make, with [director Robert] Siodmak at his best,” Rode added.
Monday, Aug. 31: Dorothy Hughes Double Bill
"Ride the Pink Horse" (1947), 4:30 and 9:15 p.m.: A mysterious stranger (Robert Montgomery, who also directed), bent on revenge, rides into town. “It’s really like a samurai film,” Muller said. “It’s unique, there’s no other film made in that era quite like it.” Hughes set her story, which was brought to the screen by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, in Santa Fe, N.M., where she lived most of her adult life. “She was concerned with issues of race and ethnicity, and that really comes through in the film,” Muller said. “The whole point is that it’s a commentary on how badly the white guys treat the natives.”
"The Fallen Sparrow" (1943), 7 p.m.: A veteran of the Spanish Civil (John Garfield) teeters on the brink of madness in this film based on Hughes’ novel and directed by Richard Wallace, “who is epitomized by the word journeyman,” Rode said. “Still, Garfield is at his best here; he shows how he could take material like this and make you take notice.”
Tuesday, Sept. 1: Robert Ryan x 2
"House of Bamboo" (1955), 4:30 and 9:20 p.m.: “Only Sam Fuller could pull off a tale of American gangsters trying to muscle in on the Yakuza in Japan,” Rode said. Daring for its time, the film has a gay slant, with Ryan as a sexually ambiguous crook; “it also has an interracial marriage that ends happily.”
"The Racket" (1951), 7 p.m.: A crime boss (Robert Ryan) squares off against a police officer (Robert Mitchum), with inevitable results. “Ryan had an incandescent kind of rage that makes you stand up and take notice,” Rode said. “It’s an old-style film, based on a 1928 play. It’s worth watching if only for Ryan and Robert Mitchum, who hated this film. He didn’t like authority in general, and you can tell he wasn’t happy making this movie.”
Wednesday, Sept. 2: Stanwyck Squared
"Crime of Passion" (1956), 5 and 9 p.m.: Muller loves this movie because “it’s right smack-dab in the heart of the ’50s America,” with Barbara Stanwyck (as a newspaper columnist turned avenging housewife) “great in her last noir role.”
"Witness to Murder" (1954), 7 p.m.: Four months before Hitchcock opened the sash of his “Rear Window,” this amazingly similar thriller hit the theaters. After a career woman (Barbara Stanwyck) accidentally spies a murder in the building next door, the Nazi-sympathizing strangler (“George Sanders at his malevolent best,” notes Rode) decides she’s next on his hit list.
Thursday, Sept. 3: Dan Duryea Double-Header
"Criss Cross" (1949), 5 and 9:15 p.m.: “Saving the best for last, here’s one of my all-time favorite noirs and the epitome of what noir should,” Rode said. With Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea plotting a heist as a dame (Yvonne DeCarlo) runs interference, it’s the best-known title in this year’s lineup. “Burt Lancaster stars in his last go-round as a noir chump. It’s my favorite Siodmak movie, and he’s the greatest of all noir directors, so that’s saying something.”
"The Underworld Story" (1950), 7 p.m.: From director Cy Endfield, a Noir City favorite, here’s a noir with a cause, with a crusading reporter (Dan Duryea) trying to expose the misdeeds of his bosses. “It was released before [the similarly themed] ‘Ace in the Hole,’ and addresses themes that are even more serious,” Rode said, such as racism and the abuse of press power. Screening in a 35mm print preserved by the Film Noir Foundation.
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