“There are no heroes,” Stephen Reginald warned. “People aren’t entirely good or bad.”
In the cold, shadowy South Loop night, it was a fitting introduction to the focus of the evening: a screening of “This Gun for Hire,” a sinister story of crime and an early example from 1942 of the genre now known as film noir. Reginald has put together a monthly series to shed some light on six of these classically dark films. The series, titled “High Heels and Fedoras,” will be held at the Daystar Center in the South Loop on the second Tuesday of every month, through July.
The series is Reginald’s second at Daystar. He first featured films about Chicago, which sounds like a self-evident choice. But he keeps his decision to go with film noir something of a mystery: “It’s a very interesting genre,” he explained simply. “There’s just a lot going on in these films.”
“So many modern films are rooted in film noir,” he explained in a brief lecture before the film. He pointed to the distinct “peekaboo” hairstyle of Veronica Lake, the leading actress in “This Gun for Hire”, which covers one ear with prominently flowing curls; in the 1997 noir-inspired “L.A. Confidential”, Kim Bassinger’s character sports the very same look. Reginald also described how “This Gun for Hire” came to be adapted from Graham Greene’s 1936 novel “A Gun for Sale”, and how film noir “just sort of evolved as a genre” during World War II. The genre got its name several years later from the French.
Reginald himself would be poorly cast in a film noir. Donning a baseball cap and thin-framed glasses, he lets off a friendly demeanor, an unintimidating presence, and an evident desire to share his cinematic knowledge–that is to say, distinctly lacking the deceit and unfriendly street grit embodied in the genera’s leading roles. Reginald teaches non-credit adult classes on film at the Facets Film School, and he runs his series in much the same way. He sees it as an opportunity for people to learn about and enjoy masterpiece films. Each night features a pre-film lecture and a post-film discussion. The six films on offer in the current series run in chronological order, from 1942 to 1947, allowing audiences to appreciate the emergence of familiar film noir tropes like the femme fatale.
Lake’s character, the nightclub entertainer Ellen Graham, is not quite a femme fatale. She shows a formidable streak of independent power, but ultimately serves to pry some emotion from the film’s callous protagonist, the hit man Philip Raven (Alan Ladd). Yet Raven’s waffling humanity, and the tendency of his quest for revenge to sprout vicious moments of melodrama, smack of the genre “This Gun for Hire” helped to launch.
These are the moments Reginald relishes. If you want to better understand films made today, he says, “You need to study the old masters.” He adds, “It helps to take a step back and look at where it all started.”
For Reginald, it all started in junior high, when he began burying himself in the literature of film. And he still digs deep on occasion. He quoted from the favorable review “This Gun for Hire” initially received from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, and then noted it was surprising given Crowther’s other reviews.
There were only five of us in attendance to benefit from Reginald’s know-how–fewer than the crowd in the Overflow Coffee Bar in the room next door–but he didn’t seem to care. “I just love films in general,” he told me, before cracking a joke about the size of his audience. You really can’t swipe the smile from his face.
But as Reginald hopes to show, you can–and Â should–wipe off the blithe nostalgia that’s often associated with the ‘40s. Film noir illuminates the “rougher, darker side of life,” he said. “It’s more realistic.”