What happens when an escaped San Quentin prisoner unwittingly finds himself in possession of a container of deadly, radioactive Cobalt-60? Find out in director Irving Lerner’s ‘City of Fear,’ screening at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27 at the Portage Theater.
Lerner is another in a series of little-known directors with dwindling reputations (such as Phil Karlson and John Cromwell) whom the Northwest Chicago Film Society has recently spotlighted in their long-running classic film series.
Lerner cut his teeth as a member of the Workers Film and Photo League, an activist collective of filmmakers with socialist undertones. He went on to make films for the Office of War Information during World War II, and the nuclear paranoia of “City of Fear’ takes on further weight given that Lerner was effectively blacklisted from filmmaking after he was caught trying to photograph a component of the Manhattan Project in 1944. Many of Lerner’s subsequent film credits are unofficial, as he was often brought on clandestinely to rehab troubled projects, such as Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (on which he served as an editor and second unit director.) Lerner’s career sputtered and fizzled throughout the fifties and sixties, and he ultimately left a scattered body of work, briefly taking various roles alongside such filmmakers as Anthony Mann and Robert Flaherty. He even directed Jack Nicholson in an early role (‘Studs Lonigan’.) Later in life, as a film professor at NYU, Lerner mentored Martin Scorsese.
Arriving at the tail-end of the classic noir period in 1959, a year after Orson Welles’ 'Touch of Evil,' ‘City of Fear’ has been released on DVD, but lest you consider relegating it to your queue, the addition of two of Lerner’s early short documentaries, recently restored by the Academy Film Archive, to the screening should seal the deal. (If you’d care for an appetizer, however, Lerner’s 'Edge of Fury' is available on Netflix Instant.)
The Northwest Chicago Film Society continues to present thoughtful and unique programming of a kind found nowhere else in Chicago, even as their home venue the Portage Theater has been fought over like a ragdoll in the mouths of Alderman John Arena and new owner Eddie Carranza (with NWCFS’s Rebecca Hall being now being dragged into the imbroglio.) The Portage’s importance as a screening venue has continued to grow as they regularly accommodate several of Chicago’s other shaggy dog film societies, such as the Chicago Cinema Society and MovieSide (who present the popular 24-hour Massacre and Sci-Fi Spectacular events.) With the future of the Portage seemingly in perpetual limbo, movie lovers should make haste to support the venue.