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British Noir Comes to the Gene Siskel Film Center

Most film buffs identify post-war British cinema with the “angry young man” and “kitchen sink” movies of the British New Wave. 

But another significant movement of this era was an offshoot of its American cousin, known for its dark themes and even darker imagery, as well as its sense of disillusionment and despair. That’s the premise behind the month-long, eight-film series “Brit Noir,” running November 5-30 at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center.

As for whether the highly American cinematic style actually once crossed the Atlantic, “Noir is in the eye of the beholder,” said Marty Rubin, the Film Center’s associate director of programming. “The boundaries of noir are very fluid. Filmmakers who made noir never knew they were making noir. It’s a label that was applied retroactively by scholars. Noir has much to do with mood. For instance, a film like ‘Blade Runner,’ which many consider a neo-noir, is as much noir as it is sci-fi. Noir is not a genre for strict constructionists.” 

Alan K. Rode, author, historian and board member of the Film Noir Foundation, agrees. “Noir might have been born in America but it was exported to the world, including Great Britain. Noir is not a genre; it’s a style. And it’s a worldly style. Look at what Jean-Pierre Melville did in France. His films were a tribute to that style. It’s a style he loved so much that he would drive around Paris in a Cadillac, wearing a Stetson.”

After World War II, the British noir movement blossomed and “came to full flower with post-war noir realism,” Rode said. “You see that sensibility seep into the movies both in Britain and America. Both had their noir eras—the consistency among visual attributes, the tropes, the plots are so striking, you can't deny it.”

Rubin classifies the fateful eight featured in “Brit Noir” as offbeat films deserving of rediscovery. Even the series’ two films by Carol Reed (“Odd Man Out” and “The Fallen Idol”) aren’t screened that often. This year, he noticed several titles “coming up in restorations or with new prints that fit into the British noir category, so it looked like a good time to pounce. We often program that way.” 

However, Rubin admits to a certain amount of opportunism. “Noir does well here,” he said. “It’s a brand name that attracts audiences. We’re always looking for opportunities to cook up a new noir series. So it’s to our advantage to label a series like this as noir.”

The amorphous definition of noir is what makes the style especially alluring to programmers, said Rode, who helps Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, and widely known as “The Czar of Noir,” curate the annual, traveling Noir City festivals. Rode pointed out that Muller once even showed the 1950 crime comedy “The Good Humor Man” at Noir City. “Though that film does have its roots in a noir-influenced short story,” Rode said, “it still was a bit of a stretch.”

But the underlying principle is that “you want to share what you think is good with your audience,” Rode said. “The Hammer films and the classic Reeds featured in this series are all worthy. The Brits have an impressive resume of noirs, and it’s great that they're being shown once again on the big screen.”

A rundown of the films featured in “Brit Noir”:

“These Are the Damned” (1962, pictured above) November 5, 3:00 p.m., November 9, 6:00 p.m.: A decade into his British exile, blacklisted American director Joseph Losey made his weirdest film ever, in a career checked with oddities (e.g., “Boom!” and “Modesty Blaise”) for Hammer Studios (primarily known of course as a horror-film house). In what many have termed a “sci-fi noir,” a gang of Teddy Boys on motorbikes, led by Oliver Reed (in one of his earliest star turns), rides into a resort seaside town, intent on raising havoc; meanwhile, an American tourist (Macdonald Carey) runs afoul of the bikers and a secret government mind-control plot directed at children.

“The film is image-laden and contemporary, and certainly timely now due to its theme of a government bureaucracy that’s running secret projects and surveillance,” Rode said. “But it’s more visually compelling than it is as a cohesive narrative.” Shot in HammerScope (the studio’s answer to CinemaScope), the film was Losey’s first in a wide-screen format. Its release was delayed a year in England, and it didn’t appear in the States until 1965, after Columbia, its U.S. distributor, had chopped it down to 78 (from 96) minutes. At the Film Center, the full 96-minute “These Are the Damned” will be screened in 35mm. [For more information on the two screenings of "These Are the Damned," and to purchase tickets, click here.] 

“Never Take Candy From a Stranger” (1960), November 5, 5:00 p.m.; November 7, 6:00 p.m.: Shortly after a British couple relocates to rural Canada, they discover that their nine-year-old daughter and other local children have been molested by the town’s patriarch (Felix Aylmer, in a wordless turn far removed from his usual righteous pillar-of-the community parts). “Never Take Candy From a Stranger,” another Hammer production, “offers a very sensitive treatment of a controversial subject, but it’s not just a preachy message film,” Rubin said. “It offers lots of suspense and atmosphere, due to the work of Freddie Francis, the great cinematographer.”

Rode, who recalls seeing the film as a child at a New York City second-run theater, describes it as a thoughtful thriller that treats child molestation as “a sickness rather than just an evil. It’s very suspenseful.” (Screening in a 35mm archival print) [For more information on the two screenings of "Never Take Candy From a Stranger," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

“Odd Man Out” (1947), November 12, 3:00 p.m.; November 16, 6:00 p.m.: The first of two thrillers by director Carol Reed featured in this series, “Odd Man Out” is “one of the great films of the ’40s,” Rode said. Shot on location in Belfast, it follows an Irish nationalist (James Mason) on the run from the police after a botched robbery. Mason’s stardom was born with this movie, though he had been on the screen since 1935. “The suspense builds throughout, as Reed takes a very minimalist perspective,” Rode said. “Also, it views Mason’s IRA-like group as a quasi-legitimate force, not like the terrorists the IRA became in the ’70s. That perspective really adds heft to the movie.” [For more information on the two screenings of "Odd Man Out," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

“Ninety Degrees in the Shade” (1965), November 12, 5:15 p.m.; November 14, 6:00 p.m.: This rarity, a British-Czech production, never received a full theatrical release and disappeared for 50 years. Rubin calls it “a dark spin” on “The Shop Around the Corner,” as a seductive store clerk (Anne Heywood) finds herself torn between two lovers, her married boss (James Booth) and a high-minded but adulterous auditor.

Filmed in Prague by Czech director Jiri Weiss, the English language “Ninety Degrees in the Shade” has all the hallmarks of noir: “a femme fatale, a sense of dread and a wide streak of fatalism,” Rode said. It also features two veteran British character actors, Ann Todd and Donald Wolfit (in one of his last roles before his death). [For more information on the two screenings of "Ninety Degrees in the Shade," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

“The Fallen Idol” (1948), November 18, 6:00 p.m.; November 19, 3:00 p.m.; Nov. 23, 6:00 p.m.: A precocious yet lonely child (Bobby Henrey), befriended by a butler (Ralph Richardson), witnesses a crime and then is drawn inexorably into an adult world of lies and moral ambiguity. Graham Greene, who adapted his own short story for the screenplay, considered Carol Reed’s film the best of the many versions of the author’s work. 

“The Fallen Idol” rests loosely in the noir canon, but Rubin thought it fits naturally into this series in part because “it is so dark.” Plus, the film recently underwent a digital restoration (screening here in a 2K DCP). “It’s equally good if not better than Reed’s more well-known films,” he said. “Also, it’s profound in the way that it views the world from a child’s perspective.” [For more information of the three screenings of "The Fallen Idol," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

“Wanted for Murder” (1946), November 19, 5:00 p.m.; November 21, 6:00 p.m.: Post-war London is besieged by a serial killer called “The Strangler,” who sends hints of his next targets scribbled on postcards to Scotland Yard. Directed by B-movie stalwart Lawrence Huntington, the film was co-scripted by Emeric Pressberger, on a busman’s holiday from his work with the Archers. (Screening in a DCP format) [For more information on the two screenings of "Wanted for Murder," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

“Gideon of Scotland Yard” (1958), November 26, 3:00 p.m.; November 30, 6:00 p.m.: This unusual police procedural—shot in England by John Ford, then the dean of American film directors—follows a Scotland Yard inspector (Jack Hawkins) through a “typical” day, as he contends with two murderers, three bank robbers, a rapist, a corrupt cop, and to top it off, a conflict on the home front (amid his work obligations, will he be able to make it to daughter’s recital?).

“Ford loved the book [by John Creasey], that's why he made the movie,” Rode said. “It’s not a classical Ford movie, it was shot in England in wide-screen and in color. Instead of Ford’s usual sentimental subjects, it shows the seamy side of life … It’s kind of an oddity in the Ford canon, but seeing it on big screen [in a 4K digital restoration] should be phenomenal.” [For more information on the two screenings of "Gideon of Scotland Yard," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

“Cash on Demand” (1961), November 26, 4:45 p.m.; November 28, 6:00 p.m.: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol goes noir as a con man (Andre Morrell) manipulates a Scrooge-like bank manager (Peter Cushing, best known for his Hammer horror roles) into robbing his own bank. “One of my co-workers told me that ‘Cash on Demand’ is his favorite Christmas film because of its Dickensian twists,” Rubin said. “The acting is fantastic, especially by Cushing. It’s really a two-hander with terrific actors playing off each other for the full effect.” (Showing in an archival 35mm print). [For more information on the two screenings of "Cash on Demand," and to purchase tickets, click here.]

The "Brit Noir" film series runs at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center from November 5-30. For more information, click here

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