World Film Locations : Chicago
Edited by Scott Jordan Harris
Chicago, IL: Intellect Books, The University of Chicago Press, 2012 /
Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2013
Paperback, 128 pp. ISBN 978-1841507194. $18 / £9.95
Reviewed by Michael Coyne
This slim, handsomely illustrated volume is essentially a valentine to a city that has long enjoyed a robust mutual love affair with cinema. It not only details key movie scenes featuring famous Chicago locales and landmarks, but it chronicles the vibrant, astonishingly heterogeneous cinéphile culture which characterises the Windy City. Editor Scott Jordan Harris declares in his Introduction: ‘Hollywood is America’s capital of film-making, Chicago is its capital of film criticism’ . The book, subdivided into chronological sections, focuses on the settings for specific movie scenes; there are forty-six of these scene and location ‘snapshots’ in all, each featuring a photograph of the locale, a half-page discussion of the scene in question, and five to eight stills from these key sequences. The textual accompaniment is invariably informative, but too brief to qualify as analysis. This is a book which even the most casual reader could breeze through in an afternoon.
Yet these brief ‘scene-specific’ passages frequently highlight memorable facts, details and images. Thus we’re reintroduced to a ‘Panopticon’ penitentiary (based on a design by Jeremy Bentham), ‘F-House’, at the Stateville Correctional Center, which James Stewart visited in his quest to clear wrongly imprisoned Richard Conte in Henry Hathaway’s taut Call Northside 777 (1948). We learn that many scenes filmed for Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn’s surreal pre-Bonnie and Clyde collaboration Mickey One (1965) are on the site now known as Harpo Studios, owned by Oprah Winfrey. Elisabeth Rappe addresses the Iwo Jima flag-raising re-enactment at Soldier Field in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), declaring: ‘Jarringly contrasted with the reality of Suribachi, Soldier Field becomes an echo chamber of horror. Far from a blunt lesson, the scene presents harrowing scrutiny of veracity, myth and heroism’ . And who can now think of the dining-room in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel without recalling Robert De Niro’s vengeful Al Capone, raining blow after lethal blow on the head of a hapless subordinate with a baseball bat in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987)? – a still from which, featuring Costner, Connery and confrères, graces the cover.
However, this is far more than a location tour guide. Peppered throughout the book are concise yet bracing essays on various facets of Chicago’s interrelationship with cinematic culture. Omer M. Mozaffar’s ‘Chicago: City of the Imagination’ is poignant, pithy and poetic: ‘The titans have moved on, but they did not leave behind a ghost town. What remains is a city that again and again grows its phoenix from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire’ . Arnie Bernstein recounts the fascinating career of Oscar Micheaux, African-American author-cum-salesman-cum-film-maker of the silent era, whose ambitious and searing portrait of a white lynch mob targeting a Black family in Within Our Gates (1920) was evidently designed as a powerful counterweight to the heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Peter Sobczynski’s piece ‘Mobster City’ examines the symbiotic relationship between Chicago and the gangster movie, largely thanks to the exploits of Al Capone and John Dillinger, in films as disparate as Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). Sobczynski points out that, aside from Hathaway’s effective use of the city’s locations in Call Northside 777 in 1948, there was a long moratorium on use of Chicago for film shoots. The first Mayor Richard Daley was apparently angered by a scene from the 1957-1960 TV cop show M Squad, which featured one of Chicago’s finest accepting a bribe – and thereafter resolved to block movie crews from using the city for their purposes. How successful Daley was in this endeavour remains open to question. One of the films that did shoot in the Windy City in the late 1960s was Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), which used footage from the tumult outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to present not just baton-wielding cops but Mayor Daley himself in an extremely unflattering light. Wexler’s camera proved that sometimes you can fight City Hall.
In addition there are articles on Chicago’s cornucopia of film festivals, Chicago sports movies and the documentary production company Kartemquin Films. Yet most poignant of all is Omer M. Mozaffar’s reflection on ‘Chicago’s King of Critics’, Roger Ebert. He writes of Ebert’s enduring collaboration with the late Gene Siskel: ‘Theirs was one of the great partnerships in the history of film and television – dignified, passionate, entertaining. And they were arguing for us, the common viewers. Many critics seemed to be professors in print, while Siskel and Ebert were neighbors’ . It is an affectionate appreciation of a man in love with movies and generous-spirited toward practitioners of the profession, whether world-famous or just starting out. But it is heart-breaking because, so soon after publication of this tribute, Ebert died, aged 70, leaving in the world of film writing a huge void unlikely to be filled either in Chicago or anywhere else.
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