Blinded by the Light
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It’s a noir, noir, noir, noir, noir world, and Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode, curators of the annual traveling Noir City festival, which stops at the Music Box Theatre for a weeklong run beginning August 19, believe they’ve only scratched the surface of this shadowy realm.
Now in its eighth year, Noir City: Chicago presents 18 infrequently screened examples of the genre, including several restored or newly struck prints. Though past editions of Noir City were programmed by theme (such as international noir and noir in color), this year’s event takes a slightly different tack: the focus is on the format—films shown in 35mm. With the move to digital projection, Muller and Rode worry that 35mm is becoming an endangered cinematic species.
The founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, which restores and preserves films in tandem with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Muller explains that the foundation’s original mission was preserving movies, along with promoting the artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement. “But now we’re also concentrating on preserving the movie-going experience as it was during the golden days of Hollywood,” said Muller, who’s also an author, filmmaker and historian. “We’re trying to expand the audience for these films and make sure new audiences can see these films in the proper context—on the big screen.”
Rode, an author and noir expert (as well as a director and treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation), added, “Digital [projection] is now affecting archival films to the point that studios are not making prints, and so getting vintage films to show theatrically is really difficult. Films that were previously available are suddenly not. The studios will say, ‘We have only one print, and we're not letting it out.’ There might be a film that was shown six months ago, but now it's not available.”
The exhibition of 35mm prints “has become a niche business,” Rode said. “Nowadays, a lot of projectionists don't even know how to run a 35mm-changeover system and troubleshoot it during the run. They're becoming the T-rexes of the movie-projection world. With Noir City, we’re showing films that are very difficult to see on the big screen, if ever. So see them while you can.”
Since its founding, the Film Noir Foundation has worked closely with studios and archives to preserve and even rescue titles. “For years, we’ve cultivated relationships with studios, to encourage them to strike new prints,” Muller said, “and for this year’s Noir City lineup, Universal Pictures made five new prints. How great is that? Universal is not a film archive, it's a business. If they spend the money, somebody better show these films. So this year’s 35mm focus is a great way to put a bow on it.”
Among the rarities and restorations to be featured at Noir City: Chicago 8 are “Hollow Triumph” (1948), restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive; “The Accused” (1949), restored by the Library of Congress; “Outside the Wall” (1950) and “Flesh and Fury” (1952), in new prints struck by Universal Pictures, and “Los Tallos Amargos” (1956), restored by UCLA, with funding provided by the Film Noir Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust.
“Los Tallos Amargos” (“The Bitter Stems,” pictured above) is the Film Noir Foundation’s latest find from Argentina. A hit at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, where it sold out two screenings, “Los Tallos Amargos” is a product of Muller’s ongoing work with Argentine film archivist Fernando Martín Peña, based in Buenos Aires. “I can't tell you how thrilled we were to be able to restore and preserve this film,” Muller said. “The greatest thrill that I can have is to unleash a completely unknown film on an unsuspecting audience. I'm fond of ‘Woman on the Run,’ [which the FNF also restored], but ‘Los Tallos Amargos’ is my proudest achievement.”
Martín Peña tracked down the family of one of the film’s producers, who had stored titles in a summer home 300 miles from Buenos Aires. “He found a deteriorating negative of that film there,” Muller said. “We made a deal that if we could find the elements, we would restore it. And it was a race against time to rescue this classic.”
Along with the restorations and new prints, Noir City also salutes director Joseph Pevney, with four of his films in this year’s lineup. “What makes him particularly interesting is that he started out as a character actor,” Muller said. “His films are overdue for re-evaluation, but that hasn't happened because no one has seen the films.”
In 1950, Pevney turned to direction, making his debut with “Shakedown” (showing August 22), and helmed dozens of Universal films during the ’50s. “He was one of the last of the studio-system directors before the whole thing crashed and burned,” Rode said. “In the ’60s, he went into TV, where he developed an incredible resume [including 14 episodes of the original “Star Trek” series].
“He was a feisty, tough New Yorker-kind of guy and a lot of fun,” said Rode, who met Pevney when he was in his mid-90s. “At that point, he had buried two wives and was on wife number three; she would wake him up every day and sing to him. He told me, ‘Alan, aren't a lucky guy?’ I got to know his kids, and his son showed me a letter that Joan Crawford had sent to his father, thanking him in her effusively polite style: ‘Joe, your glasses are wonderful, they're the best thing to drink vodka in.’ ”
Rode and Foster Hirsch, author, noir expert and FNF board member, will introduce each film at the Music Box (Muller had to bow out this year, because he’s being honored at a festival the same week in the Czech Republic).
This year’s Noir City: Chicago 8 lineup, with comments from Muller and Rode:
Friday, August 19
7 p.m., “Miller’s Crossing” (1990): In the Coen brothers’ gangster thriller, set in the pre-noir Prohibition era, a fixer (Gabriel Byrne) of a mob boss (Albert Finney) tries to keep rival factions under control. “It's my favorite Coen brothers film, and it’s a tribute to noir and pulp novels, which makes it a modern neo-noir,” Rode said. Jon Polito, who plays rival gangster Johnny Caspar in the movie, planned to attend the Music Box screening, but had to cancel due to illness. Instead, Rode will present an interview with Polito taped earlier this year at the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, California (for which Rode serves as executive producer and host).
10 p.m., “Armored Car Robbery” (1950): Richard Fleischer directs what Muller terms “the noir equivalent of ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’ ” as L.A. detective Jim Cordell (Charles McGraw, one of Rode’s favorites) faces off against criminal mastermind Dave Purvis (William Talman). When Purvis kills Cordell’s partner during the heist referenced in the film’s title, the cop becomes a man obsessed. Adele Jergens provides the eye candy as a two-timing burlesque queen. (35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Saturday, August 20
3 p.m., “The Narrow Margin” (1952): It’s danger on a train as a cop (Charles McGraw again) escorts a gangster moll (Marie Windsor, known for her film-noir femmes) to a trial. Muller calls the movie “the most inventive B of the classic noir era.” (35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros.)
4:45 p.m., “Deep Valley” (1947): A farm girl (Ida Lupino) falls for an escaped convict (Dane Clark); noir-style angst ensues. “It’s one of Ida's best films and seemingly forgotten,” Rode said. Jean Negulesco, best known for “women’s films,” directed it between the better-known “Humoresque” (1946) and “Johnny Belinda” (1948). (35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros.)
7 p.m., “Los Tallos Amargos” (“The Bitter Stems”) (1956): Directed by Fernando Ayala, this title won Argentina’s Silver Condor Award as the best film of 1956. When a reporter (Carlos Cores) agrees to participate in a confidence scheme, he finds himself ensnared in a web of crime. “It’s genuine noir, and it doesn’t cop out,” Muller said. “It’s noir straight down the line, to the bitter end.” In Spanish, with English subtitles. (Restored 35mm print from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with funding from the Film Noir Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association)
9 p.m., “Riff-Raff” (1947): A missing map leads to murder in South America, with Pat O’Brien trading snappy banter with Anne Jeffreys. Director Ted Tetzlaff (cinematographer on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious”) opens the movie with a five-minute silent sequence, Rode observes, that “effectively establishes the film’s sinister mood.” (35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Sunday, Aug. 21
2:15 p.m., “Hollow Triumph” (1948): Paul Henreid takes on a dual role as a fugitive convict and a psychiatrist. “It's the classic noir dilemma, totally far-fetched,” Muller said, “and you must suspend disbelief when watching it. As a fugitive crook, Henreid finds a doctor who's his identical twin—oh, sure.” Shot in downtown L.A. by the great noir cinematographer John Alton, the film was ostensibly directed by Steve Sekely, but Muller notes that Henreid “had more to do with its production and direction than Sekely did.” (Restored 35mm print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive)
4:15 p.m., “Side Street” (1949): With a baby on the way and no money in the bank, a young postman (Farley Granger) steals $30,000; he decides to surrender to the authorities but sinks deeper into a desperate plight. “It’s the definitive New York City noir,” Muller said. “Even more so ‘The Naked City’ [the 1948 film often given this title]. Anthony Mann shot on location in Manhattan, with stunning photography by Joseph Ruttenberg.” (35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros.)
7:15 p.m., “Flesh and Fantasy” (1943): Director Julien Duvivier’s anthology of three supernatural tales is “a noir ‘Twilight Zone,’ “ Muller said. “It’s beautifully photographed by Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano, masters of the noir style. And Duvivier conveys a romantic French sensibility in this dark material.” The all-star cast includes Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Cummings and Thomas Mitchell. (Archival print courtesy of Universal Pictures)
9:15 p.m., “Destiny” (1944): In a series of flashbacks, a bank robber (Alan Curtis) reflects on what triggered his life of crime. Originally planned as part of “Flesh and Fantasy,” “Destiny” was carved off and released as a stand-alone feature, with added footage shot by Reginald LeBorg. “Universal’s decision to chop up ‘Flesh and Fantasy’ is what caused Julien Duvivier to flee Hollywood and return to France,” Rode said. “Noir City offers a rare chance to see Duvivier’s anthology as it was originally intended.” (Archival print courtesy of Universal Pictures)
Monday, August 22
5, 9 p.m., “Shakedown” (1950): The Noir City tribute to Joseph Pevney begins with his directorial debut, which stars Howard Duff as a Weegee-style photographer on the streets of San Francisco. With a great supporting cast of noir tough guys Lawrence Tierney and Brian Donlevy; plus, cameos by Rock Hudson (in one of his first roles) and B-movie vamp Peggie Castle. (Archival print courtesy of Universal Pictures)
7 p.m., “Outside the Wall” (1950): Written and directed by Crane Wilbur, this forgotten noir gem stars Richard Basehart as an ex-con who can’t escape the past. “He wants to go straight, but noir being noir, things are worse on the outside,” Muller said. Joseph Pevney turns up in a supporting role, as “a character who’s so funny and so similar to his real-life persona,” Rode said. Joining Basehart and Pevney are “a motley crew of miscreants”: Lloyd Gough, Mickey Knox and Harry Morgan. Shot largely on location in Philadelphia, including the Eastern State Penitentiary, from which notorious bank robber Willie Sutton tunneled out in 1945. (Brand-new print courtesy of Universal)
Tuesday, August 23
5, 9:30 p.m., “Meet Danny Wilson” (1951): A double bill of “noir musicals” kicks off with the fourth of the five (!!!) films that Joseph Pevney directed in 1951. Frank Sinatra basically plays himself as an insecure, volatile nightclub singer menaced by a tough-guy impresario (Raymond Burr), who has designs on the vocalist’s dame (Shelley Winters). When Rode asked Pevney about working with the combustible duo of Sinatra and Winters, the director simply responded, “I’ve got two words for you: Oy and vey.” (Archival print courtesy of Universal Pictures)
7 p.m., “Young Man With a Horn” (1950): Inspired by the life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke, this biopic puts Kirk Douglas between the “horns” of a dilemma: choosing between Doris Day and Lauren Bacall. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the subject of Rode’s next book, due out later this year. (35mm print courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Wednesday, August. 24
5, 9:15 p.m., “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948): In director Anatole Litvak’s thriller, Barbara Stanwyck had one of her signature roles as a bed-ridden hypochondriac convinced that she’s the intended victim of a murder plot. Muller lauds Stanwyck, Oscar-nominated for this movie, as his favorite noir actress: “But then, she was the greatest actress in the history of Hollywood. Her range exceeded the scope of noir. She was dynamite in everything.”
7 p.m., “The Accused” (1949): After a spinster prof (Loretta Young) accidentally kills a student in self-defense, she disposes of the corpse; soon she discovers that a lawyer (Robert Cummings) and cop (Wendell Corey) are on her trail. “The movie is exceedingly well-written, and it has that veneer that [producer] Hal Wallis was known for,” Muller said. “And what could be better than seeing Sam Jaffe [famous for his role as the all-knowing Dr. Zorba in the “Ben Casey” series of the ’60s] as a coroner?” (Newly restored 35mm print courtesy of Library of Congress and Universal Pictures)
Thursday, August 25
5, 9:15 p.m., “The Harder They Fall” (1956): In his last role, Humphrey Bogart goes out in style as a sportswriter turned public-relations flack in director Mark Robson’s one-two punch at the corrupt world of boxing (scripted by Philip Yordan, based on Budd Schulberg’s novel). “Bogart is the quintessential male noir star,” Muller said. “Though directors and cinematographers might have given noir its look, Bogart provided the attitude.” With noir stalwarts Rod Steiger as a corrupt promoter and Jan Sterling, cracking her usual hard shell, in a change of pace as a supportive wife.
7:15 p.m., “Flesh and Fury” (1952): The second boxing-themed noir on this night’s card puts Tony Curtis in the ring as a deaf champ torn between two femmes, the fatale (Jan Sterling again) and a compassionate features columnist (Mona Freeman). Directed by Joseph Pevney, “the movie is an old story that's dressed up in new clothes,” Rode said. “For most of the movie, Curtis isn’t talking and is being menaced by Jan Sterling as a gold-digger who wields a mean champagne glass.” (New 35mm print struck exclusively for Noir City by Universal Pictures)
Passes and single tickets are available for Noir City: Chicago 8, with discounted rates for Music Box members. Noir City: Chicago 8 runs Friday, August 19 - Thursday, August 25. Click here for more information.
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