Monday, August 15, 2016

Normal Theater Starts Bill McBride's "Six Week Film School" with Film Noir

The Normal Theater will be launching a new kind of film series this fall, with a more academic component added to a slate of classic movies. There's no homework or tests or tuition, but you can definitely learn some things about the movies if you're so inclined. In what they're calling "The Six Week Film School," the Normal Theater will screen a group of films that exemplify a particular film genre, topic or filmmaker. In this case, the dark and deadly detectives of Film Noir get the spotlight in the fall, while the oeuvre of director Alfred Hitchcock will be the topic in the spring.

William McBride, Associate Professor of Film and Drama at Illinois State University, will be the guide for this series, offering insight and information on both themes and the six films chosen to fit those themes. As part of that undertaking, McBride will provide background information so that movie-goers can read ahead on the movies and the issues they spark and then lead discussions after the films.

Everything in this series -- the movies, the readings and the discussions -- is free of charge. It's all scheduled for a series of Wednesday nights (not consecutive weeks this fall, as you can see from the list below, but consecutive Wednesdays next spring), with the movies to start at 7 pm. I don't know how you find out about the readings for The Maltese Falcon, which is up first, but maybe info will appear on the event's Facebook page before September 21. Or maybe everyone knows The Maltese Falcon well enough that its salient points need no introduction.

"Film Noir: Visual Style and Fortune" is scheduled for select Wednesdays from September 21 to November 16, while "Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Style" will run on six Wednesdays in a row between February 1 and March 8.

As you can see, "Film Noir: Visual Style and Fortune" consists of six of the absolute best examples of Noir:

The Maltese Falcon (September 21)
In this 1941 classic directed by John Huston, Humphrey Bogart stars as hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade, hired by a duplicitous dame (Mary Astor) whose story changes more often than her handbags. In the end, Sam finds himself on the trail of a bejeweled bird statue that everybody seems to want, but he has to get past a parade of bad guys, played by the likes of Elisha Cook Jr., Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It's based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett and it's worth noting that most of these movies do derive from crime literature as classic as the film genre it spawned.

Double Indemnity (September 28)
The insurance biz has never seemed more diabolical than in this 1944 thriller, with Barbara Stanwyck as a femme fatale who'd like to off her husband and Fred MacMurray as her cat's paw. Edward G. Robinson plays his boss at the insurance agency, the one who smells something rotten. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler and based on a novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity was also directed by Wilder.

Murder, My Sweet  (October 12)
Dick Powell made the leap from a boyish tenor in Warner Brothers musicals to tough, sardonic PI Philip Marlowe in this twisty crime drama from 1944, based on Raymond Chandler's novel Farewell, My Lovely. It's got two murders, missing jewels, a meathead of an ex-con, an evil stepmother, and Marlowe getting repeatedly knocked around, beat up and shot at as he doggedly follows the clues.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (October 26)
Nobody ever looked as good in a turban as Lana Turner playing another married woman who wants her much-older husband dead in this 1946 take on a James M. Cain novel. John Garfield is the drifter who happens into her life and turns her on as they conspire to commit murder. Turner and Garfield create all kinds of sparks, making it about as sexy as you can get for a movie made during the Code era, and her array of white costumes make this black-and-white gem look really nifty.

Out of the Past (November 9)
Out of the Past may be the darkest, most cynical entry yet, fitting the postwar paranoia of 1947. The story surrounds a laconic tough guy played by Robert Mitchum, trying to forget his smoky past but choked by it just the same. Back then, he was hired by a crooked businessman (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend (Jane Greer), who supposedly shot him and absconded with a big pile of cash. He found her, but that's when things got really sticky. By the time it's all done, you'll understand why it was originally called Hang My Gallows High.

Chinatown (November 16)
The first five movies on the schedule were made between 1941 and 1947, but Chinatown vaults all the way to 1974, making it what some consider the very best example of Neo-Noir. It's set in Los Angeles in 1937, with private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) way over his head when an investigation runs afoul of a wealthy woman (Faye Dunaway), her evil father (John Huston), and a whole lot of water. Directed by Roman Polanski from a script by Robert Towne, Chinatown brings the Film Noir discussion into the jaded post-Vietnam era.

If you're keeping track, that's four hard-boiled private eyes, two drifters and one insurance agent as protagonists, two married women and one girlfriend trying to rub out their partners, five lying ladies, and a pair of messed-up daughters as the love interests, California and more California, and a metric ton of cigarette smoke.



  1. Terrific write up Julie! Contact me at for my chapter on Falcon.

  2. And I just sent an email to the wrong address... Will try again. (Sorry -- my comment moderation notices were going to spam. AARGH.)

  3. Nifty stuff! I love this, and once again I'm envious of what you have going on locally. It's a pretty great slate of classics of the genre, too. We movie-lovers love to quibble about other people's lists, but this one is hard to fault.

    I thought of The Big Sleep, but that's almost more of a true mystery and probably belongs in a different series. Or Lady in the Lake, with its famous point-of-view camera, but having finally seen it, I have to say it's just not that good. For a modern example, I have a soft spot for Body Heat in many ways, but I have to concede that Chinatown surpasses it.

  4. The problem with Body Heat as the modern example is that it's so similar to Double Indemnity in some ways. Although I will admit it amuses me no end that the Rule Against Perpetuities is a key to the plot. As for older ones that might edge these out, I might speak up for The Countess from Hong Kong or DOA or Gilda or even Sunset Boulevard, but I think those might take things in a different direction. I love that each of the movies has a different set of actors, so there's only one with Bogart, one with Dick Powell, one with Barbara Stanwyck...