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Thoughts on Noir City Chicago 2019

Someone asked me at work a few days ago whether I was planning to visit all the Noir City venues. That’s certainly a temptation and maybe it'll happen someday, but for now I’m content with my usual haunts (San Francisco and DC), and just possibly making Noir City Chicago a regular stop along the way. It certainly helps that we’ve got family in the area, and that their house is about a mile from the Music Box Theatre.


Celebrating its 90th year, the Music Box Theatre is certainly a worthy venue. Although its seating capacity doesn’t equal the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, it does have the feel of a theatre that probably screened several of the A and B pictures on the Noir City lineup during their original 1950s release dates. You also have to appreciate a working pipe organ, expertly played by Dennis Scott before each show.

All of this is great, but the best aspect of the Music Box Theatre is the management’s insistence to respect the films by keeping your cell phones turned off. Steve, the PR guy from the theatre, announced before each movie some variation of the following: “You know how to behave: turn your damn phone off! If you can’t leave your phone off for 75 minutes, you need more help than we can give you.”

He wasn’t kidding. During Trapped (1949), the first show I attended during the festival’s second day, either an employee (or perhaps a fan) saw a cell phone lit up and got right in the phone owner’s face until he turned it off. A few minutes after that, another employee quickly approached a lady with an illuminated watch and told her to remove it until the movie was over. The staff are not playing around and I applaud them for it.

I could talk about the films themselves (which are great), but I’d rather try to give you a sense of the experience of the festival itself, which starts with the great people behind the scenes. The theatre staff kept everything running well, which is essential for a festival of this size. If there were any major problems, I didn’t notice them. But I must give a standing ovation to the Noir City volunteers who tirelessly worked the merchandise table, answered questions, and were superb ambassadors of Noir City: Deidre Egan and Chuck Pickerill. I had met Deidre at Noir City San Francisco back in January and it was a delight to see her again. Chuck I had met only through Twitter, but I quickly determined that he is a dedicated film noir fanatic and a super standup guy. Chuck and Deidra are the superstars of Noir City.

By the way, if you do attend a Noir City event and see some merchandise you want, get it when you see it. This table was practically decimated after the first couple of days.

Speaking of tireless, Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode must’ve been operating on coffee, adrenaline, or super-charged batteries; these guys never slowed down, not only introducing each film (Eddie the first three days, Alan the last four), but also talking to attendees and answering questions between shows. At one time years ago, you’d see Eddie at Noir City DC standing around talking with four or five people. Those days are gone. Now it’s more like a mob, with crowds so large the folks at the Music Box had to give Eddie a microphone. Since Eddie usually spoke to people informally from between the merchandise table and the bar, his placement was perfect as he launched into tales about the movies, stars, and creators that were, shall we say, not quite appropriate for general audiences (but absolutely fascinating).

The same goes for Alan. His knowledge of film history (as well as film history shenanigans) is both vast and entertaining. You could stand there listening to him for hours, only you’d both miss the next movie and, well, that’s why we’re here, right? Both of these guys do tremendous work.

Several topics came up during these conversations, but I’ll only share one with you. Early in the week, Eddie was talking about Joan Crawford’s performance in Sudden Fear (1952), particularly how one fan (at a different Noir City venue, I believe) spoke urgently to him. This fan was crushed that too many people in the audience were laughing at the film and implored Eddie to “Make them stop!” Muller reminded her that not all laughing at older films is inappropriate. Audiences in the 1950s had a sense of humor too, he told her. What’s funny now was probably also funny then. Probably what unnerved this fan was the fact that people were laughing in inappropriate places, perhaps at certain aspects of the acting.

I witnessed the same thing on Wednesday night watching The Lineup (1958), the Don Siegel film about two hit men (Eli Wallach and Robert Keith) searching for smuggled heroin placed in the luggage and carry-ons of unsuspecting travelers coming into San Francisco from abroad. The film does contain several comedic moments (several of them darkly comedic), but a group of younger viewers (Hard to tell in the dark, but probably in their early-to-mid 20s) laughed louder and harder as the film reached its final 20 minutes.

Some people simply react this way. I see it all the time at screenings of horror movies and intense thrillers. It’s the way some audiences process such films. Sure, maybe these particular people thought The Lineup was primitive compared to the movies they normally watch, but maybe they laugh at those, too. On the positive side, at least these people had come to the theater to watch the movie. Maybe they’ll watch more film noir (or other older films) and begin to develop an understanding for the context, the time, the style. Maybe they’ll ask questions. It’s never easy when people laugh or make fun of something you love and cherish. Maybe they’ll eventually get it, but maybe they won’t. Whatever they do (or don’t do), you can’t let someone else’s reaction ruin something you truly love.

Speaking of things you love, one of the highlights of the past couple of years has been writing essays, reviews, and a New Releases column for The Dark Pages: The Newsletter for Film Noir Lovers. It was wonderful to finally meet the Editor-in Chief of The Dark Pages, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry at Noir City Chicago. Karen also brought along several sample issues of The Dark Pages which vanished in no time. If you’d like to read a sample issue (which will not vanish), you can do so here.

I’ve said almost nothing about the films themselves, but that’s why we’re here, to watch these movies we love so much and to talk about them afterward. If you attend a Noir City festival, don’t be shy; mingle with others, talk about movies. These are your people and I’ll bet they’re here for the same reason you are: they love film noir. I hope you’ll consider attending the next Noir City Chicago festival or one close to where you live. Until then, keep watching.

Photos (other than mine): Film Noir Foundation, Chuck Pickerill

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