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.
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.
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.