My 10 Favorite Noirs at Noir City Chicago

From August twenty-sixth through September first, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago hosted the Noir City Chicago film festival. The festival is an iteration of the traveling Noir City festival that the Film Noir Foundation began in San Francisco in 2003 and has since expanded to include cities across the country. This year's Chicago iteration of the festival included 21 films starting with two in honor of James Caan before diving into the classic era.

I was lucky enough to see all of the films, each introduced by either “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller or (newly dubbed by Music Box organist Dennis Scott) “Sultan of the Shadows” Alan K. Rode. Here I'd like to celebrate the ten that made the most impression on me, though, to be clear, I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The films are different degrees of “noir.” Some even include a supernatural element, but they all came out during the classic noir period between 1940 and 1960 and offer a look at the darker side of humanity.


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Image Credit: Universal Pictures Group, 1954.

Playgirl follows wide-eyed country girl Phyllis (Colleen Miller) as she arrives in New York City from Nebraska. Phyllis lives with her old friend Fran (Shelley Winters), who has been in the city for some time, has made a name for herself as a nightclub singer, and even has a man (even if he is married).

The film follows Phyllis's meteoric rise and its impact on Fran and her love life. It's a movie centered on the relationship between two women that explores various ways men prey on women, which is a lovely surprise given its 1954 release. Both women are great in the film, but Shelley Winters is especially phenomenal as Fran, a woman who refuses to be pushed around.

Playgirl is a rise and fall story, but the fall is genuinely unexpected, and the places the film goes after the fall are truly shocking.

Flesh and Fantasy

Image Credit: Universal Pictures Group, 1943.

Flesh and Fantasy is an anthology film that tells three short stories with a humorous wrap-around (which I enjoyed despite Muller's distaste for it). Each of the short segments tells a story about something strange and otherworldly.

The first is surprisingly sweet as it follows a young woman who is given a beautiful mask that allows her to win the heart of her beloved during Mardi Gras celebrations. The second centers on a man who is told by a psychic that he will commit murder, and despite his best efforts to forget about it, his reflection continues to bring it up until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the final section tells a somewhat tragic love story of a high-wire walker who sees a woman in a dream where he dies, only to encounter her in real life.

Each section offers a distinct and beautiful atmosphere, and the conversations the man has with his literal shadow and mirror self in the second segment are genuinely frightening. Of course, it certainly also helps that the film stars Charles Boyer, Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck (who Muller repeatedly highlighted as the best actress ever).

Smooth as Silk

Image Credit: Universal Pictures Group, 1946

While many B noir films pack an incredible amount of plot into their short runtimes, Smooth as Silk may be the most densely plotted one I've ever seen. The film follows several characters, including a formidable defense lawyer who's willing to do the wrong thing for the right price, an ambitious actress willing to do whatever it takes to forward her career, a wealthy and amorous stage producer, and the producer's alcoholic nephew.

The many romantic couplings and uncouplings and the ever-shifting schemes enacted by ambitious actress Paula (Virginia Gray) keep things moving exceptionally quickly. She's by far the best part of the movie, and while it's certainly an ensemble piece, Smooth as Silk gives her the time to shine.

The only complaint I have about Smooth as Silk is that it isn't longer and ends somewhat abruptly. That said, I don't know that anything could maintain the energy and the twists per minute rate this thing offers for more than an hour and ten minutes.

The Face Behind the Mask

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures, 1941

The Face Behind the Mask is surprisingly devastating for a B film noir, a tragic immigration story with the one and only Peter Lorre at its center. When Janos (Lorre) first arrives in New York from Hungary, he's filled with optimism, finds an apartment, and soon works as a dishwasher with hopes of finding a position as a watchmaker.

But a fire strikes the apartment where he is staying and severely burns his face. He struggles to get a new job as everyone is horrified by his face. He's considering suicide when he meets a low-level thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Dinky doesn't care about Janos's burns. The two become friends and soon are making it big as master thieves with the help of a team and Janos's mechanical knowledge.

Of course, things can't be so simple. When Dinky's old friend escapes prison, he wants his team back, and everything changes. It's a beautifully shot film that Lorre fills with pathos, and it's the only film at the festival that made me cry.

Dr. Broadway

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures Corporation, 1942

Dr. Broadway was supposed to be the first in an ongoing series of films about the lovable titular doctor, actually named Tim Kane (Macdonald Carey), and his many friends in Times Square. Sadly the movie series didn't get picked up, but Dr. Broadway is still an important first film: it's the first film by director Anthony Mann who directed many western and noir classics.

And already in this film, we can see Mann's great sense of control over mood and atmosphere. Especially as the film sometimes flits between lighthearted comedy and brutally tense suspense sequences. There are some incredible shots in the movie. Two, in particular, stand out: one extreme close-up of a desperate man's face, and one in which a woman enters a warehouse and the audience sees a goon's silhouette in the foreground behind a door.

Dr. Broadway is a bit of a tonal mishmash as some of the film's darkness is played as comedy, and there's a regrettable joke about our hero hitting a woman for her own good. But overwhelmingly, the film is a delight, and I would have loved to see more in the series that could have been.

All the King's Men

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures, 1949

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, All The King's Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture and has been entered into the Library of Congress. Suffice it to say: it's a big deal.

The film follows the rise of politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a populist with strong left-wing politics willing to play dirty to get results. The film's message is somewhat ambiguous because it's never clear whether Willie was corrupted by power or always sought to amass power, Crawford's performance beautifully gives hints towards both.

No matter your politics, the film is an incredible ride as we see Willie rise through the ranks of local and state politics. The film begins slowly, introducing its ensemble cast before introducing the high-risk/high-reward moves Willie is willing to make to get things done.

Sorry, Wrong Number

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, 1948

Eddie Muller made his love for Barbara Stanwyck known, so I feel I should also. She's been my favorite classic-era actress since I saw her in Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve in the same year. And with every subsequent film of hers I see, that love only grows.

And Sorry, Wrong Number fits the pattern. Stanwyck plays an invalid (the film's term) who cannot leave home and accidentally finds herself listening in on a conversation between two men about the murder of a woman. She desperately attempts to reach someone who can help and discovers a series of decade-spanning secrets.

It's incredible how the film takes its small-scale premise and builds out one of the best and most intriguing noir plots ever set to screen. A plot that touches on various noir subgenres, including gangster pictures and melodramatic noirs like Stanwyck's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Detective Story

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, 1951.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was also the first film appearance of one Kirk Douglas, the star of Detective Story, a nearly single-location film based on the play of the same name by Sidney Kingsley. The film expands the play a bit, from two locations to about five, but only one of those is outside of the police station where the majority of the film takes place.

It's a movie clearly based on a play, but unlike many other movies obviously based on plays, that doesn't hold the film back. The performances from Douglas and the rest of the cast are phenomenal, and the film moves quickly between several stories in and around the detective's shared office.

Detective Story also maintains momentum as the main story deals with the shocking for the time relationship between abortion and misogyny. Of course, this is covered in the dialogue about a “baby killer,” but it's clear enough, especially when the film calls into question whether the “baby killer” is evil or an aid to desperate women.

And yet, the film also includes a significant amount of humor. Mainly from a young woman, credited simply as “Shoplifter” and played by Lee Grant, who is brought in at the start of the film and is kind to all the people who come through the office.

Scandal Sheet

Image Credit: Motion Pictures Investors, 1952

None of writer/director Samuel Fuller's films were shown during the festival. However, he still appeared as the author of the novel The Dark Page, on which Scandal Sheet is based. And it's easy to see his mark on it even though he didn't participate in the adaptation. The film highlights the disposability of human life in a way Fuller mastered throughout his career.

The movie centers on the newspaper world and how focusing on violent crime sells. This setting means several scenes of crime reporters and photographers flippantly discussing how corpses look and laughing about murders. The plot follows two young reporters who follow the trail of a murderer the audience knows is their boss.

It's a taut film that beautifully weaves its message about sensationalism's dangers with thrills for the audience. Unlike many films of the era, Scandal Sheet never stops the action to lay out a lesson for its audience. Here the action is the lesson.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures, 1948.

Like The Face Behind the Mask, Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a powerfully tragic tale. Like Flesh and Fantasy, it includes significant supernatural elements. The film begins dramatically with a young woman being stopped from dying by suicide because a reliable source has told her that she will die.

That reliable source is John Triton (Edward G. Robinson), who we learn was once the star of a mentalist act but began to experience accurate premonitions. He could use these premonitions to play the stock market and become rich with his fellow performers, but he also saw danger and horror, including an image of his wife dying in childbirth, so he left to live a modest life. His ex-wife still died in childbirth, though; her child is the young woman whose death he now sees.

The film follows his attempts to battle fate and offers some thought-provoking questions about the nature of fate and the horror of knowing the future. But its emotional core is Robinson, who plays Triton with deep sadness and desperation to stop what he has seen from coming true. Of course, it's also an exciting murder mystery as his vision of the young woman's death is far from natural. So the movie is a fast-paced, thrilling noir that packs an emotional punch and leaves you thinking once the credits have rolled.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.