Noir City: Chicago

The Noir City: Chicago film festival—which starts tonight, Friday, August 19, and continues through Thursday, August 25, at the Music Box—will feature new 35-millimeter prints of several rare and little-seen noir titles, including the Frank Sinatra musical Meet Danny Wilson (1952), the Tony Curtis boxing drama Flesh and Fury (1952), and Humphrey Bogart’s final film, The Harder They Fall (1956).

“And I have to tell you,” says Alan K. Rode, one of the festival’s founders and an effusive film-noir buff, “I don’t know if that’s going to be seen again.” He’s referring to how many major Hollywood studios are uninterested in making new prints of their classic films, due to the cost of such an endeavor.

“Film is going away,” says Rode. “And people need to understand that.”

Rode is the director and treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation, an Alameda, California-based nonprofit dedicated to finding and preserving films that “are in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged.” He also coprograms and cohosts several of the Noir City film festivals across the United States, which, in addition to Chicago, include San Francisco, Hollywood, Austin, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.

Meet Danny Wilson

As a writer and film historian, Rode has authored two books: Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, published in 2008, and Sit on the Camera and Fight Like a Tiger: The Life and Times of Michael Curtiz, which is set for publication in 2017.

I spoke to Rode about his colorful upbringing, Noir City’s roots, and why Chicago is an ideal place to watch film noir.

Leah Pickett: How did the Film Noir Foundation come to be?

Alan K. Rode: It basically came to be around Eddie Muller [the president of the Film Noir Foundation]’s kitchen table about 14 or 15 years ago. It came to be because back then we were finding that when we were screening these films—Eddie and I met at what used to be called the Annual Festival of Film Noir at the Egyptian Theatre; the first one was in 1999, and I met him there—that we were having trouble finding 35-millimeter prints of many of these movies that we wanted to show. And from that came the Film Noir Foundation. We started a 501(c) nonprofit and took the proceeds from our festival and from contributions and put that into restoring some of these films so we could show them. 

We have now restored nine different films, including our latest restoration, Los Tallos Amargos, which will be screened Saturday night, August 20th, at the Music Box. We’ve also funded 15 to 20 35-millimeter prints, and through the relationships we’ve developed have caused many of these prints to be struck by the studios.

Los Tallos Amargos

We’ve also just put out a couple of films that we restored, Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears. We’ve partnered with a DVD firm known as Flicker Alley in LA and we’ve put both of those movies out on Blu-Ray, and Eddie and I produce all of the extras on them.

We’re basically trying to keep noir—at first we thought it was an American art form, but now we’re finding out that it’s a worldwide art form—trying to keep this style of cinema alive so people can see it. And there are a lot of undiscovered gems, movies that haven’t been seen and enjoyed. We try to bring these movies to the forefront, through our festival, through DVDs, and through our rescue and restoration services, so another generation will be able to enjoy these movies.

The first Noir City film festival took place in San Francisco in 2003 as the centerpiece of the Film Noir Foundation’s public awareness campaign; the festival returned for its 14th year in January. What has been your involvement with Noir City from the start, and how have you seen it grow?

We started in San Francisco in 2003, and I would bring a lot of the guests that we would have, like the late Joan Leslie, Marsha Hunt, and Angie Dickinson. Eddie Muller and I would cohost the films, and we would rent out the Castro Theatre, which holds about 1400 people, and the response was just absolutely overwhelming. On a rainy night, I remember riding in a car with Joan Leslie to see Repeat Performance, and it was literally pouring. And she said, “Oh, I don’t think anyone’s going to come out for this. The weather’s so bad.” And I said, “Joan, don’t worry about the attendance.” We pulled up, and there was a line of umbrellas all the way down Castro Street. It almost looked like that scene from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, where all of these people are standing with umbrellas. And the place was sold out.

Now we’ve managed to grow the Noir City festivals to many different cities. Chicago was one of our early satellite festivals. We’re in year eight now, which is hard to believe. We really have a tradition in Chicago and we all look forward to coming back to the Music Box and seeing old friends.

Flesh and Fury

One of the neat things about this whole festival circuit is all of the relationships that one develops with different people over the years and the connections that are made. It’s good for the movies and it’s good for people.

August 19th marks Noir City’s eighth consecutive year at the Music Box. What, if anything do you find significant about holding the festival in Chicago and at the Music Box?

The Film Noir Foundation is really proud of the long association we’ve had—the Music Box is just a great venue. And Chicago, the city of big shoulders, is a noir city unto itself. I mean, if you look at the history of Chicago, what could be more noir? From stockyards to Al Capone to the Daleys and everything that’s gone on, the city is really a fount of noir, and has a rich historical background.

We’ve shown several films over the years in Chicago—like City That Never Sleeps and Chicago Deadline and a number of other films, Call Northside 777, those come to mind—that were actually filmed on location in Chicago. So there’s a rich history to be mined there, and the audience is very supportive. We have the same people coming back year after year. We have people that drive from other parts of the midwest, because, let’s face it, not everyone can get to San Francisco or LA or Washington, D.C. A lot of people travel to go to this festival [in Chicago]. You’ve got New York and you’ve got LA and you’ve got San Francisco; but those cities are on the east and west coasts. Chicago is the epicenter of cinema for the country. So, it’s important that the Film Noir Foundation has the Noir City footprint in Chicago, and we’re very pleased and proud to be continuing that with the Music Box.

I read on your website that your grandfather was a Hollywood musician, composer, and actor whom you write, “sold bootleg whiskey from his violin case during Prohibition.” Did hearing stories about him and the other show business professionals on your mother’s side of the family influence or rather further deepen your attraction to Hollywood’s Golden Age and, by extension, the emergence of film noir?

To answer the first part of your question, absolutely. I grew up with the Golden Age Hollywood DNA, because I sat around the dinner table listening to all of these stories. My mother was born in Hollywood Hospital in 1922, and all I heard were stories about movies. Or if there was a movie on TV, she would say, “Look, there’s so-and-so. Remember, he used to come over for cards?” And there’d be some guy, gliding through a scene in a movie as a waiter . . . my mother’s first husband was Yul Brenner’s cousin; she knew Yul. So there’s no doubt that growing up in that environment, even though I grew up in New Jersey, planted the film DNA.

The Harder They Fall

As far as film noir goes, that was a more incremental discovery, because I was watching all these movies on television. And this was, without trying to date myself too much, this was before cable, before DVDs and VHS, before any of that. We had something like ten local channels in the New York area, and they showed movies at night and in the afternoon. I was watching all these movies, but I really didn’t know what film noir was. In those days, when you saw a movie by Joseph Losey, like The Servant, you thought that Joe Losey was some English director, not a guy who grew up in Wisconsin and got blacklisted and had to leave the country. So my education with film was gradual. Of course, my older brother David was and is a great cineast, so we would watch movies together, and we actually wrote down the names of the movies and who were in them. So as life put me on a different path than that, I always had the movie thing in me, and as I started later in a career that encompassed being in the Navy and being an aerospace general manager, I eventually came full circle and came back to the movies and living in LA and writing and talking and then programming.

Speaking of programming, is there a theme to the schedule of films this year in Chicago?

The theme to this year’s Chicago festival is that all films are going to be presented in 35-millimeter. And I have to tell you that I don’t know if that’s going to be seen again. Because even with the work of many people, the studios are not making any more prints, with some exceptions, like Sony Columbia. The archive there is run by a man named Grover Crisp, who is one of my heroes and who is the dean of Hollywood Studio Archivists, and they have all their prints—they’ll make DCPs [Digital Cinema Packages], they’ll make prints—and Universal has done some great stuff for us. In fact we’re showing several Universal films during this festival, like Outside the Wall, that I’ve been talking to Universal for years about, and they made a print, and Meet Danny Wilson—can you imagine Frank Sinatra in a noir musical with Raymond Burr beating the crap out of him? There’s Flesh and Fury, which is a magnificent boxing film that my late friend Joe Pevney directed. And then there’s Flesh and Fantasy by [director] Julien Duvivier, which is an all-star production, and Destiny. A lot of these films haven’t been screened in many years. 

Outside the Wall

The fact remains that film is going away, and people need to understand that. The studios are not striking prints. When prints become worn out, someone has to come to the studio and pony up the $10,000 or $20,000 to strike a print—and that’s assuming that all of the materials are in good condition and don’t need restoration—because the studios aren’t going to do it. They’re not in the film business anymore, of making prints of old movies. So it’s either make DVDs or perhaps DCPs, but this is all based around money. And quite frankly if a studio can’t rationalize paying money to strike a print on a 1947 movie that a finite number of people care about, then they’re not going to do it.

In Chicago we put together a festival of all 35-millimeter movies at a venerable theatre. But the fact is it’s going to be very difficult as time goes on to assemble a program like this. It’s very unique, and it was very difficult to put together. Some of the films that we wanted to screen, that the Music Box wanted to screen, that Eddie Muller and I wanted to program, that we’ve even shown even recently, [studios] said, “Nope, we only have one print and we’re not renting it out.” So that’s the world we live in. We’re doing the best we can to continue preserving and restoring these films, and the support we get from the public has been very important and it’s great. But with a lot of these films, if they’re not out on DVD in the future, it’s going to be very difficult to screen some of them. That’s just the reality of it.

Right. It seems like film will keep getting more expensive, but in keeping it alive more people—young people, aspiring filmmakers— will have the chance to experience this art form and be inspired by it. As Martin Scorsese once said, “Why would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvasses because iPads are so much easier to carry?”

I couldn’t agree with you more. And if more people who ran the movie studios felt that way, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. But the point you just made, that’s part of what motivates me, motivates Eddie Muller, motivates the people involved with the Film Noir Foundation, and certainly the people at the Music Box, Stephanie Berlin and Ryan [Oestreich], and Buck [LePard] and the whole team there, that’s what motivates them to do this.

But with Noir City, I imagine that at least one person will attend who has never seen a film in 35-millimeter before. 

Exactly. And that’s another point about doing what we do at the Film Noir Foundation. Because, let’s face it, this can’t just be a nostalgia jam for older people or aging baby boomers like myself. The most rewarding thing is when young people come to these movies—and they come up to me and say, “I think this is really great because . . . ” and you can see how motivated they are—and when contemporary filmmakers come and talk about how these movies inspire them.