It’s been a few years since Noir City: Chicago emerged from dark alleyways celebrating film noir, movies that embody the seedier side of everyday life. The pandemic paused the festival, an event that showcases a slate of films where the lines of good and bad are stylishly blurred in postwar America, but this year it’s back at the Music Box Theatre.
Noir City: Chicago returns on August 26 with amiable Film Noir Foundation (FNF) founder Eddie Muller (of Turner Classic Movies’s Noir Alley) hosting an opening-night tribute to the late James Caan (Thief from 1981, 1993’s Flesh and Bone). After the weekend, film historian Alan Rode takes over presenting a week of movies, including several rarely seen noirs. Fans have welcomed the event’s return with open arms this year in Boston, Hollywood, Seattle, and the Bay Area.
“It’s very gratifying. A lot of people tell me that the Noir City shows are the first thing that they’re going back to a theater to see,” Muller says, adding the appeal of noir serves as a “gateway” to classic movies for people who don’t typically watch black-and-white films.
“They’re sexy and sinister,” Muller says. “They’re hard-edged and witty without being dopey.”
Anne Hockens, director of communications for the FNF, says female characters in noir films attract people as well, because the women aren’t ornaments or in need of rescuing.
“I think people tend to say they are either the femme fatale or the good girl, and they go way beyond that [in noir films],” says Hockens. “They’re not just there in relation to the male characters. They have a purpose and a story arc. And there’s a lot of film noir where women are the central characters.”
Noir City: Chicago
August 26-September 1
Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport
Full schedule and pricing at musicboxtheatre.com/events/noir-city-chicago-2022
According to Rode, it’s easy to appreciate movies serving as a time capsule for midcentury aesthetics and themes we’re all familiar with.
“The stories are basically about the human condition. Lust, larceny, people who know what they’re doing is wrong. And they do it anyway,” Rode says.
This year’s films include political corruption (All the King’s Men, 1949), mob-rigged gambling operations (711 Ocean Drive, 1950), a paranoid invalid no one believes (1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number), an angry cop frustrating everyone (Detective Story, 1951), a newspaper with shady reader-baiting practices (Scandal Sheet, 1952), and of course, murder.
Although the FNF team loves showcasing noir films at screenings and events, their real mission is preservation; they’re dedicated to rescuing, restoring, and presenting Hollywood’s lesser-known noirs. To date, the FNF has restored 14 movies, funded the striking of 15 new 35mm prints, and fostered the return of seven more. The Argyle Secrets, a recent restoration project, will be screened in a B-movie marathon on Saturday, August 27.
“We’re preserving the communal experience of being together in the dark watching these films on the big screen,” Rode says, “the way that they were intended.”
Muller says creating the FNF came out of necessity, when he was first asked to program festivals decades ago.
“I would say, ‘Wow, here’s a great movie that people don’t know about. We’ve got to show this,’” Muller says. “And then there wouldn’t be a print of that film.”
He thought asking the studios would make them available, but that wasn’t the case.
“Then it became, ‘Why are we not using the profits from our film festival to find these films and restore them, so they don’t vanish?’”
While the FNF focuses on film noir, Muller hopes others can create a space for films facing obscurity.
“I kind of wish somebody [would do] this for westerns and screwball comedies and 50s science fiction movies, because the same thing is going to happen with those movies as well,” laments Muller.
He’s introducing a double bill on Sunday the 28th, Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Destiny (1944), as an example of an altered movie, now on the big screen in its intended form.
“It’s an anthology. Flesh and Fantasy has three chapters, and there was a fourth chapter, but the studio removed the fourth chapter and released it a year later as a standalone movie. And so this is the only way you can see all four chapters together,” Muller says.
Along with the festivals, the FNF draws people into the noir experience with a quarterly digital and print magazine, a website highlighting noirs on TV, interviews with Muller, and other noir-soaked stories.
In June 2020, when COVID closed theaters everywhere, Hockens and Muller started a bimonthly “Ask Eddie and Anne” Facebook Live conversation that continues today.
“It’s supposed to be sort of just a way to keep in touch with people, since we weren’t doing the festivals. Then it sort of snowballed,” Hockens says.
“We don’t approach it like scholars, know-it-alls trying to impress each other,” adds Muller. “I love hearing the weird questions that people come up with. It’s just fun.”
But the live events are special for Muller, where he holds court with fans between movies.
“When I got into all this stuff back in the early 70s, if somebody did what I do now, they would have had him arrested. Right? People would go to the manager and say, ‘There’s some nut up here talking all about this movie. Can you have him removed from the theater, please?’”