Noir City: Chicago 4
The Music Box’s annual film noir festival sprinkles in a few classics among the rarities.
Chemical formulas, locker-size nuclear bombs, mink coats and diamonds are among the objects of obsession in the Music Box’s fourth annual Noir City: Chicago program, which opens Friday 17. As usual, the lineup consists largely of lesser-knowns but sprinkles in a few classics: Robert Ryan plays an above-the-law cop who tends to blind Ida Lupino in Nicholas Ray’s poetic On Dangerous Ground (Tuesday 21), a 1952 feature that at times could pass for silent melodrama. And the festival closes in literally explosive fashion with Robert Aldrich’s Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly (Thursday 23)—according to some scholars, the last true noir.
Of the rarities, the find may be Max Ophüls’s 1949 Caught (Tuesday 21), a “women’s picture” that provides good evidence for the argument that noir is closer to a mood than a genre. Department-store model Barbara Bel Geddes thinks what she wants is a wealthy husband, but once she bags a control-freak millionaire (Ryan again) who monitors her every move, she goes running to the freedom of poverty, sans divorce. Taking work as a receptionist for a kindly pediatrician (James Mason—like Ryan, cast against type), she finds herself torn between passion and pragmatism. Ophüls’s trademark long takes acquire a uniquely stifling quality here, and the complexity of characterization is unusual: All three principals are seen as flawed and self-destructive.
The festival opens with 1946’s well-cast (if not well-paced) Three Strangers (Friday 17), written by Howard Koch and John Huston and reportedly conceived to reprise the success of Huston’s Maltese Falcon. Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald are the eponymous trio who gather in London to make a wish on a bronze Chinese statue. Once the three separate, they’re revealed to be respectively on the precipice of financial ruin, arrest for murder, and desperate romantic deceptions. The finale, working an ingenious twist on the group’s decision to split the money it sought, is a doozy.
Likewise cramming an absurd amount of plot into a tight narrative, Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street (Sunday 19) from 1953 centers on aging boxer turned cab driver Ernie (John Payne), whose manhood—already under fire now that he’s no longer a fighter—is again threatened after he discovers his wife’s infidelity. That’s just the beginning: Her new paramour is a no-goodnik who frames Ernie for a murder. (The film is set over just one evening, yet the protagonist has an uncanny habit of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Payne makes a superb mook, and the use of boxing in the bookends is splendid. What is noir, after all, but an exploration of violent urges lurking beneath a placid surface?—Ben Kenigsberg
Noir City: Chicago 4 runs Friday 17 through Thursday 23 at the Music Box.