Lucky number 13. Talk about a stroke of film noir fate!
The 2023 edition of Noir City Chicago, the annual celebration of mean streets and what the French call “malchance,” gathers a week’s worth of cinematic crime, passion, punishment and extreme shadows for screenings of 18 films, mostly on 35mm film, at the Music Box Theatre.
But there’s some debate about the film noir genre, if it is a genre. Presented by the Music Box and the Film Noir Foundation, the 13th annual festival spans a category-defying range of work, including a singular noir Western (”Blood on the Moon,” 1948, with Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Preston), a seminal shot-in-Chicago example of Hollywood giving semi-documentary neorealism a shot (”Call Northside 777,” with James Stewart in 1948) and the lesser-known “Chicago Deadline” (also 1948, a very big noir year). That one stars Alan Ladd and Donna Reed in a drama, filmed partly in Chicago, about a newspaper reporter and a party girl whose downfall makes for tantalizing copy.
If you like film noir, you likely know and like Eddie Muller. His Noir City festivals, now in several cities, have become mainstays, and they work hand-in-glove with his hosting duties for the weekend “Noir Alley” programming on Turner Classic Movies. His Film Noir Foundation isn’t mere fandom; with the foundation’s curatorial guidance and advocacy, a considerable list of noirs, many in danger of extinction, have been restored and screened around the world.
Muller introduces nine screenings at the Music Box this weekend, including Bogart and Bacall in “Key Largo”; Orson Welles’ sense-defying thriller “The Lady From Shanghai,” starring Welles and Rita Hayworth; and “Call Northside 777.” Muller’s foundation cohort and fellow author Alan K. Rode handles the rest. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Eddie, I love your three-word definition of film noir: “suffering with style.” But is film noir a genre or isn’t it?
A: I’ve settled on defining it as Hollywood’s only organic artistic movement. That’s the way I look at it. There’s no reason for these movies to look and feel and sound the way they do, other than the artists themselves who made that happen. Just like Impressionism was a movement, and Expressionism was a movement, noir was a cinematic movement.
Q: You put it this way in one interview: “Give the (French film) critic Nino Frank credit for coining ‘film noir’ as early as 1946. But trust me, no one in 1940s Hollywood thought they were making films noirs.”
A: Nobody called it “film noir” in Hollywood at the time. Organically, all of a sudden in the early 1940s, crime movies, even some war movie and Westerns, so many different films worked in this particular visual style. It’s an artistic movement that pretty much rose in the early ‘40s and was fading out by the mid-1950s. By then, Hollywood needed to get audiences back in the theaters after the advent of television. Everything was widescreen and Technicolor; the whole noir look and feel was basically siphoned off movie screens and ended up, in a lot of cases, on ‘50s and early ‘60s television.
Q: With the shadows and silhouettes and striking compositions of so much noir, thanks to the noir masters of lighting like John Alton, would you say it’s largely a cinematographer-driven movement?
A: Well, I think its important to consider the contribution of all the artists involved. From a writing standpoint, by the 1940s you could actually create movies in which the protagonists were the bad guys, more or less. “Double Indemnity.” “The Suspect.” The protagonist is plotting to commit murder. We can’t discount the writers’ contribution; it’s the dialogue in film noir that people love, and the language of noir that keeps it popular — the particular hardboiled vernacular of this type of story.
Q: Can we talk about the two Chicago noirs in this year’s Noir City lineup?
A: “Call Northside 777″ was a big hit in its time. And “Chicago Deadline” wasn’t, even though it won the Mystery Writers of America award for best film that year. It’s largely forgotten, and I’m glad we’re able to resurrect it. We’re showing what might be the only 35mm print in existence. I’m always amazed Alan Ladd is an overlooked movie star of that era (best known for “Shane” today). The Alan Ladd version of “The Great Gatsby” in 1949 plays like a film noir, unlike any other version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel told on screen. It reeks of noir.
Q: What do you get in a Chicago noir you don’t get in a New York or Los Angeles noir?
A: Interesting question. I have a flip answer when someone asks about New York versus LA noirs: In New York noirs, the camera tilts up and down; in LA noirs, the cameras pan side to side. And in San Francisco, the noirs go all over the place because of the hills.
Chicago can’t really escape its image of the gangland world, and the shadow of Al Capone. Neither of these Chicago noirs we’re showing are gangland movies, per se. But “Call Northside 777″ flashes back to a crime committed at the height of Prohibition. And there are underworld forces dragging Donna Reed down in “Chicago Deadline.”
In Europe, at the height of noir, with any movie that was set in Chicago — if it didn’t have the word “Chicago” in the title, they put it there! So with “The Narrow Margin” (1952), which starts with a train leaving Chicago, the title became “The Path of the Chicago Express,” or something like that.
Q: I bet “Chicago Deadline” will be new to most people. This year’s Noir City lineup has a lot of better-known titles: “Key Largo,” “The Big Clock,” “The Lady From Shanghai.” There are so many this year that vie for “most film noir-sounding title.” For me it’s a tie between “He Walked By Night,” “I Walk Alone,” “Cry of the City” and “The Naked City.”
A: Over the years my programming strategy for “Noir City” has evolved. Once upon a time it was imperative to me to show off: Look at these rarities! Then after a while you realize: Huh, I guess that’s why the auditorium’s only a third full (laughs). So you have to balance things. It’s good strategy to show a well-known title. There are plenty of 25- and 30-year-olds who haven’t seen Rita Hayworth or Humphrey Bogart on a big screen.
Q: What was the first noir you saw as a kid?
A: The first one that really registered was “Thieves’ Highway,” 1949, Jules Dassin. It was set in San Francisco, which is where I grew up. I was so intrigued by seeing the city that didn’t exist in its 1949 form anymore, and I became fascinated by how movies become the artifact of their time, preserving what was once there. People respond to the anthropology of the moviegoing experience. In Chicago, I have diehard fans that, once they see the new lineup, and they realize there’s a Chicago movie in it, they’ll send me these fantastic lists of locations, of where they shot what scene.
Movies are the collective memory of the culture. It’s as close to time travel as we can get.
“Noir City Chicago” runs Aug. 25-31 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; $9-$12 for individual screenings, all-festival passes $85-$100, musicboxtheatre.com
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.