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Watch The Best Of Vintage Film Noir All Weekend At The Music Box

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 24, 2015 7:39PM

Barbara Stanwyck and George Sanders in 'Witness to Murder,' part of the Music Box's Noir City series

Film noir, of course, literally means "black film" in French. But to our minds what makes the genre so thrilling and addictive are the shades of gray. In the world of noir, everyone, to quote Jean Renoir, has his reasons. Thus the heroes are always conflicted, never quite pure of heart; and the villains, well, they're just doing what they have to do in order to survive. The difference between a happy ending and tragic ending is in the eye of the beholder.

As much as we love to binge on noir at home using Netflix, it always feels better to watch it on film in a darkened theater. Eddie Muller, Alan K. Rode, and the other folks behind the non-profit Film Noir Foundation are the guardian angels (fallen angels?) of crime cinema, committed to rescuing these treasures and restoring them, almost always on celluloid. The way they were designed to be seen. And they're bringing 17 vintage features to Chicago for the seventh edition of Noir City, running August 28 through September 3 at the Music Box.

The line-up includes the Chicago premieres of two new restorations: Woman on the Run and The Guilty. We'll confess that we haven't heard of either. But the excitement of discovery is exactly why Noir City is so much fun every year.

It's a safe bet that few Chicagoist readers are familiar with No Abras Nunca esa Puerta / Si Muero Antes di Despertar, a newly restored 1952 noir anthology from Argentina that's also part of the series. Based on a trio of stories by Cornell Woolrich, it sounds fantastic.

J.R. Jones, whom we interviewed recently about his new Robert Ryan biography, will be on hand to present two of the actor's best films on Sept. 1. Only Sam Fuller would dream up a Tokyo-set noir laced with homoeroticism in Technicolor CinemaScope, let alone make it work. House of Bamboo certainly delivers the goods, with Ryan turning in a typically magnetic performance as an ex-GI crime boss who's unusually attentive towards one of his underlings. However, in The Racket, the smouldering Ryan meets his match in Robert Mitchum, whose sense of cool detachment is a textbook illustration of scene stealing. While Ryan fairly snarls, Mitchum's so relaxed that butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

The ladies of noir haven't been left out. On Sept. 2 the great Barbara Stanwyck gets her own spotlight. Crime of Passion and Witness to Murder both demonstrate how compelling she could be despite less-than-stellar material. The first, in which she plays an independent woman whose sudden marriage to an unambitious police detective triggers a torrid extramarital affair, is probably the more solid of the two, with excellent supporting performances by Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr. If only the contrivances that pile up in the second half didn't lead to an "oh come on" moment. Witness to Murder features a plot that's remarkably similar to Rear Window (and was released first). Alas the script isn't so hot, and director Roy Rowland is no Hitchcock. Nevertheless, with George Sanders as a Nazi strangler, there's never a dull moment, and John Alton's dark and silky cinematography is tops.

Those are only a few highlights. There are plenty of other films on the schedule, ranging from Criss Cross with Burt Lancaster (a personal favorite of Chicagoist's Joel Wicklund) to Ladies in Retirement with Ida Lupino. And since each ticket qualifies as a double feature, satisfaction is guaranteed.

Individual tickets are $12. A Full Festival Pass is $75, which grants admittance for every film in the series.