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'City of Fear': A nuclear-age noir to savor ★★★ 1/2

Michael Phillips

4:41 PM EDT, March 22, 2013

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There's an antidote for this bizarre March cold spell we're having: an equally bizarre warm front known as Cobalt 60 — the radioactive time bomb in a canister coveted by the killer played by Vince Edwards in the 1959 Columbia Pictures noir "City of Fear."

Like the glowing atomic whatzit in "Kiss Me Deadly" four years earlier, the Thermos fulla trouble in director Irving Lerner's sweaty LA story can cause serious damage. At one point in "City of Fear," a grim pollution control expert (Steven Ritch) calmly runs through the symptoms experienced by those who come into contact with Cobalt 60. "Hoarse coughing, heavy sweat ... horrible retching ... finally you hemorrhage internally ..." The list goes on. The air quality in postwar Los Angeles wasn't much better, of course, but director Lerner's pungent little wonder sets the Geiger counters ticking like mad, even on the comparatively clear days we see in Lerner's picture.

Screening Wednesday in a 35 mm vault print, "City of Fear" is the next offering of the invaluable big-screen resource known as the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Edwards starred in Lerner's "Murder by Contract" the year before; not long afterward, the actor became known to millions on TV's "Ben Casey."

He and Lerner brought out the best in each other: The work here is tough, intimate, no frills. After stabbing his way out of San Quentin, the desperate character played by Edwards heads south for the City of Angels, carrying a pound of what he thinks is pure, uncut, million-dollar heroin. In fact, the canister holds a more sinister substance: raw, radioactive junk the prisoners were being fed in experimental drug trials. In LA, Edwards' character reconnects with his moll (Patricia Blair), and before long he's contaminating everyone and everything he touches. The police close in, panicked about this "cylinder of death that could wipe out a city."

Lerner had an odd career, as the Northwest Chicago Film Society folks note in their program materials: government propaganda films, sex education shorts, features as diverse as "Robot Monster" and "The Royal Hunt of the Sun." Martin Scorsese admired Lerner's "Murder by Contract" in particular and hired the filmmaker to edit the ambitious Scorsese valentine to '40s and '50s melodramas, "New York, New York." The film is dedicated to Lerner; he died before it was finished.

"City of Fear" has another stealth talent to its name: cinematographer Lucien Ballard, whose career went back as far as Joseph von Sternberg's "Morocco" (on which he worked uncredited) and, nearly 40 years later, to Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." In "City of Fear," check out the composition and the lighting in the shot of Edwards and Blair in a clinch, framed by a doorway at nighttime. It's a perfect and perfectly gorgeous image of noir troublemakers clinging to one another, heedless of how much (or how little) time is left on their clocks.

"City of Fear" screens with two restored Lerner shorts: "A Place to Live" (1941), a documentary commissioned by the Philadelphia Housing Association, and "Muscle Beach" (1948), which promises more beefcake than "A Place to Live." "City of Fear" runs a trim 75 minutes, so don't worry: You'll be back into the Chicago cold in no time.

'City of Fear' -- 3 1/2 stars
7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $5; northwestchicagofilmsociety.org

mjphillips@tribune.com