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Noir City: Shadowy films in vibrant color

Chicago 5 brings classics, rarities, and even Technicolor examples of the genre to the Music Box.

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From Friday through Thursday, the Music Box Theatre will present "Noir City: Chicago," its the fifth in its annual series, coorganized by the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation. As usual, the selections range from classics to obscurities. From the first category, I'm excited to revisit Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and the Technicolor melodrama Leave Her to Heaven (1945), both of which should look fantastic on 35-millimeter. From the latter, I'm most intrigued by Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), which stars Edward G. Robinson as a phony psychic who gets cursed with the ability to see the future for real. (May the film offer a lesson to us all.) It's directed by John Farrow, the prolific journeyman filmmaker behind at least one major noir, the expressionistic Ray Milland vehicle The Big Clock (1948). Farrow is represented twice on this year's program; the other title is his Alias Nick Beal (1949), an update on the Faust legend starring Milland as the devil.

There are a few other trends in this year's series. In addition to the two Farrow movies, there are two directed by Cy Endfield, a blacklisted writer-director who worked in several other countries after fleeing the U.S. in 1951. Try and Get Me! (1950), one of Endfield's last U.S. productions, stars Lloyd Bridges as an out-of-work veteran who's persuaded to take part in a kidnapping and murder. Hell Drivers (1957), which he made in England, concerns an ex-con-turned-trucker who's drawn into a dangerous competition organized by his crooked bosses. (Coincidentally, Endfield worked uncredited on the screenplay for the Douglas Sirk-directed feature Sleep, My Love (1948), which is also playing in the series.) In a piece he wrote for the Reader in 1992, Jonathan Rosenbaum defended Endfield as a major figure, claiming his "work has an uncommon intelligence so radically critical of the world we live in that it's dangerous, threatening that world's perpetuation." The dark, foreboding style of the noir genre seems a perfect analogue for Endfield's worldview.

All the films screening Saturday belong to the small subgenre of noirs shot in Technicolor: the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara (1953), the highly sexualized Desert Fury (1947), Leave Her to Heaven, and Richard Fleischer's Violent Saturday (1955). The idea of shadowy stories in vibrant color may sound paradoxical, but the tension in these between form and content in these films in never less than fascinating. Violent Saturday exploits this tension brilliantly. Shot in CinemaScope as well as Technicolor, the film takes place in a well-to-do though eerily isolated mining town over a few days leading up to a bank heist. Fleischer juggles several principal story lines about the town's unhappy denizens and their dark secrets—and the panoramic narrative neatly parallels the expanded view of the 'Scope frame. As in the recently revived The Vikings (1958), Fleischer proves himself a master of the wide-screen format, using it to invert the typical film noir dynamic. Where the genre usually deals in confinement (both literal and metaphorical), Violent Saturday presents characters who feel desperately alienated in a land of plenty. If there's one movie in the series that needs to be seen on a big screen, it's this. Ben Sachs

Desert Fury The jury is still out on Lewis Allen, a contract director who made at least one solid film, The Uninvited (1944). This 1947 film noir (photographed, oddly, in Technicolor) finds him in Las Vegas with Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak, Mary Astor, and a young Burt Lancaster. Dave Kehr 95 min. Sat 8/24, 5 PM.

[Recommended] It Always Rains on Sunday Rooted in the film noir of the 40s but anticipating the kitchen sink realism of the 50s, this superlative British drama (1947) transpires in the dingy Bethnal Green neighborhood of east London, where it probably rains Monday through Saturday as well. A former barmaid (Googie Withers) grimly keeps up her end of a loveless working-class marriage, barely concealing her jealousy toward her attractive young stepdaughters. When her former lover (John McCallum) breaks out of Dartmoor Prison and shows up at her doorstep, she can't help but take him in. Robert Hamer, best known for directing Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), shows a fluency with noir's shadowy visual vocabulary, but what really links this to the genre is its sense of haunting regret and lost opportunity. J.R. Jones 92 min. Tue 8/27, 7:30 PM.

[Recommended] Leave Her to Heaven The American family melodrama at its most neurotic. Rich girl Gene Tierney decides that the only way she can corner the affections of her husband (Cornel Wilde) is to eliminate his beloved younger brother, so she drowns the boy in a lake on a beautiful Technicolor day. John Stahl's 1945 film is so lurid that it seems to exist on another plane of reality: it may be absurd, and even risible, but its single-minded concentration has its own kind of fascination and power. The great cinematographer Leon Shamroy shot it, and the artificial brightness of the 40s color adds yet another level of abstraction—the actors seem enameled against the backgrounds. With Vincent Price, Jeanne Crain, and Ray Collins. Dave Kehr 110 min. Sat 8/24, 7:30 PM.

Niagara Henry Hathaway's hypnotic contemplation of two American monuments, Niagara Falls and Marilyn Monroe. This fulsome 1953 melodrama gave Monroe her first major role, and Hathaway can't seem to turn his camera from her, even as the action shifts to the ostensible star, Joseph Cotten. An action director, Hathaway isn't quite at home with this claustrophobic, motel-bound story of adultery and murder, but he gives it his all, most famously in the Freudian rampage that climaxes the film. Joe MacDonald's Technicolor photography makes a key contribution to the general tone of hysteria. With Jean Peters and Don Wilson. Dave Kehr 92 min. Sat 8/24, 2:30 PM.

[Recommended] Night and the City Before he met Melina Mercouri and became an Artist, Jules Dassin made a number of worthwhile thrillers as a Hollywood contract director. This 1950 film noir, filmed in a London artfully relit to resemble the Lower East Side, stars Richard Widmark as an American lowlife on the lam from an anglicized mob. Dave Kehr 96 min. Tue 8/27, 5 and 9:15 PM.

Sleep, My Love A minor Douglas Sirk thriller, better in atmospherics than story logic (1948). Adapted from a Leo Rosten novel, it's about a man (Don Ameche) who's trying to drive his wife (Claudette Colbert) crazy and the man (Robert Cummings) who comes to her rescue. Aficionados of esoterica should note that Cy Endfield wrote the Chinatown wedding sequence. With Hazel Brooks, George Coulouris, and Raymond Burr. Jonathan Rosenbaum 97 min. Thu 8/29, 7:30 PM.

[Recommended] Sunset Boulevard Billy Wilder's searing, funny, morbid look at the real tinsel beneath the phony tinsel (1950). Aging silent-movie vamp Gloria Swanson takes up with William Holden, a two-bit screenwriter on the make, and virtually holds him captive in her Hollywood gothic mansion. Erich von Stroheim, once her director, now her butler, is the other figure in this menage-a-weird. A tour de force for Swanson and one of Wilder's better efforts. Don Druker 110 min. Sun 8/25, 2:30 and 9:15 PM.

[Recommended] Try and Get Me! Conceivably the most anti-American Hollywood picture ever made—I certainly can't think of any competitors—Cy Endfield's brilliant and shocking 1951 thriller (also known as The Sound of Fury) was adapted by Jo Pagano from his novel The Condemned, which was inspired by a lynching that occurred in California during the 30s. A frustrated and jobless veteran (Frank Lovejoy), tired of denying his wife and son luxuries, falls in with a slick petty criminal (Lloyd Bridges), and the two work their way up from small robberies to a kidnapping that ends in murder. Apart from a moralizing European character who isn't really necessary, this is a virtually flawless masterpiece, exposing class hatred and the abuses of the American press (represented here mainly by Richard Carlson) with rare lucidity and anger. At once subtle and unsparing, this may be the best noir you've never heard of: Endfield's American career was cut short by the blacklist the year it was released. With Kathleen Ryan, Katherine Locke, Adele Jergens, and Art Smith. Jonathan Rosenbaum 85 min. Fri 8/23, 8:30 PM.

[Recommended] Violent Saturday The underrated Richard Fleischer (The Vikings, Compulsion) directed this better-than-average 1955 bank robbery thriller in color and CinemaScope. Adapting a novel by William L. Heath, screenwriter Sydney Boehm complicates the crime story with a portmanteau plot about dirty little secrets in an Arizona copper-mining town. Victor Mature is the nominal hero, and the good cast includes Richard Egan, Stephen McNally, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, Lee Marvin, Margaret Hayes, Sylvia Sidney, J. Carroll Naish, and Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer. Jonathan Rosenbaum 90 min. Sat 8/24, 9:30 PM.

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