At the Music Box Theatre this week: Total darkness. Pitch-black morality tales. Sinister ethical swamps. Nights in the city, shadowy and foggy and chalk-outlined in tension.
For its fifth annual retrospective, "Noir City: Chicago," sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation of San Francisco, gathers 17 films made between 1942 and 1957 for an inky festival of cinematic bad karma. Some of the titles are Olympian in their fame and infamous narratives, such as Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" and John Stahl's "Leave Her to Heaven."
They're always worth a look and a listen, especially in 35-millimeter prints on a big screen.
But no film noir retrospective worth its salt can do without a wild card, a find or two. For example: the fascinating 1949 John Farrow noir fantasy "Alias Nick Beal," starring Ray Milland as Lucifer in a fedora, tempting an honest district attorney (Thomas Mitchell) into a starry political career.
Mitchell's character thrives at a cost: He's driven to bring his racketeering enemies to justice, and the second he utters the sentence, "You know, I'd give my soul to nail him," bingo, he finds himself down at a waterfront saloon meeting the Milland character for a fateful glass of ginger ale.
"Alias Nick Beal" unfolds at a confident pace and in a confidential key, and it's quite something to see venerable hambones such as Mitchell and the ace character man Fred Clark deliver such understated performances. It's as if they were trying to out-Milland Milland.
"Don't overplay it, sugar," this dapper devil says to his payroll vamp, Audrey Totter, as she applies lipstick for the kill and for the Mitchell character's near-destruction.
Another B-noir worth your time: the Southwest-set "Desert Fury" (1947), which contains "enough subterranean homosexuality for a dozen melodramas," as I wrote a few years back in a Tribune review. I said then: "In director Lewis Allen's conventionally made but ripely suggestive tale, Lizabeth Scott is the daughter of Mary Astor's casino owner, both of whom have a yen for John Hodiak's thuggish gambler. This mother/daughter duo acts more like a contentious pair of lovers; for that matter, Hodiak and his 'nursemaid' Wendell Corey act the same way."
The 17 films
The American and British noirs on display in "Noir City: Chicago" should stoke you with enough paranoia to hold you until early 2014. Get more information and a complete lineup at musicboxtheatre.com. Here are the films:
"Hell Drivers" (1957), 6 p.m. Friday
"Try and Get Me!" (1950), 8:30 p.m. Friday
"Niagara" (1953), 2:30 p.m. Saturday
"Desert Fury" (1947), 5 p.m. Saturday
"Leave Her to Heaven" (1946), 7:30 p.m. Saturday
"Violent Saturday" (1955), 9:30 p.m. Saturday
"Sunset Boulevard" (1950), 2:30, 9:15 p.m. Sunday
"The Other Woman" (1954), 5 p.m. Sunday
"Repeat Performance" (1947), 7:30 p.m. Sunday
"Chicago Calling" (1952), 5, 9:15 p.m. Monday
"High Tide" (1947), 7:30 p.m. Monday
"Night and the City" (1950), 5, 9:15 p.m. Tuesday
"It Always Rains on Sunday" (1947), 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
"Night Has a Thousand Eyes" (1948), 5, 9:15 p.m. Wednesday
"Alias Nick Beal" (1949), 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
"Street of Chance" (1942), 5, 9:15 p.m. Thursday
"Sleep, My Love" (1948), 7:30 p.m. Thursday