This year's edition of Noir City: Chicago expands its focus | Bleader

This year's edition of Noir City: Chicago expands its focus

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Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which screens at Noir City on Sunday at 6:30 PM
  • Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which screens at Noir City on Sunday at 6:30 PM
One of the city's best annual film events, Noir City: Chicago (which begins tonight at the Music Box) has grown over the years from a showcase of classic American film noir to a celebration of all sorts of movies that feature crime and/or a fatalistic worldview. As such, the last several installments of the series have exhibited a range of compelling rarities, including Argentinian features from the 1940s and '50s, Julien Duvivier's whimsical Flesh and Fantasy (1943), and (one of my personal favorite discoveries) Jean Negulesco's naturalistic drama Deep Valley (1947). This year's Noir City contains fewer international titles than recent editions, but there are still plenty of deep cuts. (I'm particularly curious about Quiet Please: Murder [1942], a George Sanders vehicle that centers on a hostage crisis at the Los Angeles Public Library.) And as an added bonus, everything in Noir City will screen from 35-millimeter.

There are also more films from the postcensorship era than ever before—almost half of the titles in this year's Noir City were made after 1970. "This year's focus on hold-ups, heists, and schemes gone awry provides the perfect opportunity to venture beyond the 1940s and 50s to show how noir has expanded and transformed over the decades," the programmers write. The latter-day selections range from self-conscious tributes to classic noir—like L.A. Confidential (1997), which kicks off the series tonight at 7 PM (with author James Ellroy in attendance)—to movies that reflect wholly different styles and sensibilities, like Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and the Argentinian feature The Aura (2005). Some might argue that these last two titles aren't even noir at all, yet their inclusion in Noir City speaks to the programmers' curiosity and expansive scope.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is one of several New Hollywood selections in this year's festival, and it should be interesting to compare the casual pessimism of post-Vietnam cinema with the spiky cynicism of the 40s and 50s titles. On Wednesday night two Walter Matthau vehicles will screen, Don Siegel's Charley Varrick (1973) and Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). These films epitomize the attitude of 70s American crime pictures—they have a certain looseness that belies their sense of suspense. Matthau's gruff, sardonic demeanor made him an ideal hero for the era. Whether he was playing a cop (in Pelham) or a crook (in Charley), he brought an independent, anti-authoritarian vibe to his roles, and this made him an unlikely identification figure for young audiences at the time. (He would also star, of course, in one of the best youth pictures of the decade, Michael Ritchie's The Bad News Bears.)

The Brink's Job (1978) plays in the series on Tuesday at 5 and 9:15 PM.
  • The Brink's Job (1978) plays in the series on Tuesday at 5 and 9:15 PM.
While I'm glad to revisit these Matthau movies on a big screen, I'm even more excited to catch the rare 35-millimeter presentation of William Friedkin's The Brink’s Job (1978), which plays on Tuesday at 5 PM and 9:15 PM. More of a comedy than a suspense film, Brink's tells the true story of a heist on a New England armored car company in the 1950s. Peter Falk leads a stellar cast that includes Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Warren Oates, and Gena Rowlands; the ensemble strikes a balance between naturalism and cartoonishness that makes for a fascinating tone. When I wrote about Brink's a few years ago, I compared it to Italian comedies of the immediate postwar era, noting the blue-collar desperation that anchors the humor. I added:

Balancing out the broad humor is Norman Leigh’s downbeat, gray-heavy cinematography and Dean Tavoularis’s meticulous production design. A longtime collaborator of Francis Ford Coppola, Tavoularis creates here period environments as immersive as those he designed for The Godfather. The combination of old-school slapstick and realistic settings is as bold as the combination of New Hollywood improvisation and studio-era sets in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, which came out the year before Brink’s Job.

Another compelling rarity in this year's Noir City is the 1954 drama Drive a Crooked Road, which screens tomorrow at 4:45 PM. Written by a young Blake Edwards and directed by the underrated Richard Quine (Bell Book and Candle, Strangers When We Meet), the film stars Mickey Rooney as a mechanic who agrees to serve as a getaway driver in a robbery after he falls in love with a gangster's girlfriend. Rooney could bring to drama the same intensity he brought to musical comedies, as seen in Siegel's Baby Face Nelson (1957) and the great Playhouse 90 teleplay "The Comedian." I haven't seen Crooked Road, but I look forward to catching Rooney in another dramatic role. Edwards’s involvement is also a selling point—as he demonstrated in the TV series Peter Gunn and the 1962 feature Experiment in Terror, Edwards had as much of a knack for the crime genre as he did for comedy.

The schedule also contains a handful of classics that are worth seeing on celluloid regardless of whether you've seen them before. Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941), Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947), and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) are all exemplary heist films whose style and worldview were highly influential on the noir genre. In particular Asphalt Jungle marks a turning point from Huston's atmospheric crime movies of the 1940s (which were highly characteristic of that era) to the more austere works that would define his later career; it also features a stellar lead performance by Sterling Hayden.

And speaking of great performances, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978)—which stars Richard Pryor—plays in the series on Sunday night at 9 PM. While not necessarily a classic, Blue Collar looks better with every passing year. It's certainly Schrader's best film as director and a bold statement about the state of American unions in the late 1970s. Its pessimistic attitude, while in keeping with the noir tradition, is grounded in a sense of political realism, which makes the movie unique among this year's selections.


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