Why films about Chicago are almost always crime stories

Spike Lee's upcoming tale about a black Chicago neighbourhood adds another violent chapter to the story of the Windy City

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm


As the camera pans over the Chicago skyline in the opening frames of the 1953 noir City That Never Sleeps, a voice-over contemplates the nuances of "this giant, sprawling, sordid and beautiful, poor and magnificent city".

All these decades later, that description still rings true. The story follows a jaded beat cop who wants out of both the job and his marriage, with an eye on sexier doings with the stripper he keeps on the side. She's called Angel Face. Of course.

"When I first came to this town," she says, "I was gonna be ... oh, there were a lot of things I was gonna do. Become famous. But Chicago's the big melting pot, and I got melted but good."

Felonious doings in the Windy City have long been a Hollywood obsession, and plans are under way now for filmmaker Spike Lee's next project. Chiraq - which may be a permanent title, or just a place holder? - is to begin filming in Chicago this summer. Little else has been revealed. For now, we know this much: it will focus on black-on-black crime in the Englewood neighbourhood.

It is the latest entry in a tradition of movies about a violent Chicago. There is a marked consistency to entries in this cinematic history, nearly all of which are gangster stories that are directly about (or adjacent to) the era of Al Capone.

Even if Capone isn't a character in the movie by name, his shadow looms large. You can draw a straight line from 1927's silent Underworld, written by Ben Hecht, a former Chicago newspaperman, to those of a more recent vintage, including 1987's The Untouchables, 2002's Road to Perdition and Chicago, and 2009's Public Enemies.

They are stories that centre on white characters to the exclusion of others. Judging by studio interest, Chicago's crime story may as well be trapped in amber, of a bygone era of tommy guns, Prohibition and mobsters in suits. In this respect, Lee's film - which will put a black community front and centre - has the potential to be unique.

"The allure of Chicago has always been recognised by Hollywood, but only up to a point," film historian Kyle Westphal says. "The city is often used as a shorthand for grimy authenticity, but in name only."

The one that really kicked it off was 1932's Scarface (also by Hecht), about a gangster who brutally eliminates the competition. Loosely based on Capone's reign, it is a battle for dominance between the North Side and South Side criminal elements.

Whatever pushback Chiraq has faced regarding its title so far, it's nothing compared with what Scarface directors Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson (and producer Howard Hughes) encountered.

Amid pressure from the Hays Office, which governed movie standards, a subtitle was grudgingly added (The Shame of the Nation) along with a scolding foreword stating that "This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America" - damning words meant to de-glamorise the film's portrayal of crime. And yet, according to this titbit on Britannica.com: "Among its top admirers was Capone, who was rumoured to have thrown Hawks a party to celebrate the movie, and was said to have had his own private print of the film." Capone was in prison by that point, but it's a good story.

A period of Chicago noirs followed, including 1955's The Man With the Golden Arm (based on the Nelson Algren novel), 1950's Union Station and City That Never Sleeps (after years of being impossible to obtain legally, it is now available on DVD). The latter two were filmed on location.

The allure of Chicago has always been recognised by Hollywood, but only up to a point. The city is often used as a shorthand for grimy authenticity

So was, rather famously, the 1948 true crime noir Call Northside 777 starring Jimmy Stewart as a reporter working on the story of a man wrongly convicted for the murder of a cop - in a town, the movie notes, with a "history of violence beating in its pulse".

The movie is based on an actual case: a few years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote about the real man behind the story, Joe Majczek, who was exonerated and released from prison three years before the film's release. He died in 1973. When Zorn spoke with his son, "[he] told me that his parents never cared for the movie".

Roger Touhy, Gangster, made in 1944, is another one. It is loosely based on the real-life mob boss and bootlegger who operated in the Chicago suburbs. He was later framed by Capone for the kidnapping of "Jake the Barber" Factor (brother of cosmetics tycoon Max Factor) and sentenced to 99 years in prison. The kidnapping was later revealed to be a hoax, and Touhy was released in 1959, after spending 25 years inside (which included one short-lived escape).

The prison scenes were filmed on location - while Touhy was incarcerated there, which is both amazing and deeply weird - with a cameo from the actual warden, Joseph Ragen. He appears on screen with a warning: "I wish that every man, woman and child in America could see for themselves just how a person who has lived outside the law lives behind prison bars."

The back story might be more interesting than the film itself. Like Scarface before it, there were impediments, some of which came from Touhy himself, who was granted a temporary restraining order blocking the movie's release ("temporary" being the operative word). He also filed a libel suit against the studio; 20th Century Fox eventually settled for US$15,000.

Then there's 1949's The Undercover Man. The movie was based on a series of reports published in Collier's magazine called "Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone". In the words of film scholar John Greco on his blog twentyfourframes.wordpress.com, the "gritty, dark-lit cinematography is filled with murky, overcrowded streets, dark movie theatres and seedy hotel rooms not fit for a two-dollar hooker, but good enough for federal law enforcement officers to shack up in during the investigation".

When I ask Greco about Chicago crime films that stand out, he cites 1959's Al Capone. "It's all about Rod Steiger's performance. He scared the hell out of me. He was loud, brash and violent. Steiger was a stocky actor, and he looked a bit like Capone," he says. "It's a low-budget film, and there are plenty of fictional aspects to it, but the film, and especially Steiger's performance, resonated with me in a way that other actors who portrayed the gangster do not."

From a period roughly spanning the 1970s through the '90s, you start to see escapist fare creep in: 1973's The Sting, 1981's Thief and 1986's Running Scared. But by the turn of the 21st century, filmmakers were reverting to form, embracing Chicago's crime stories as retro curiosities. But I don't think you can fully access the cinematic history of violence in Chicago without including 1973's The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It is by far the most political of all the movies I listed (minus the documentaries), and it so clearly freaked out the powers that be.

Black radicalism is at the story's core, adapted from the novel by Chicago writer Sam Greenlee (who died last May) and directed by Ivan Dixon, who made his reputation as an actor on the TV comedy Hogan's Heroes. In The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a former CIA man - the agency's only black employee - gets fed up with tokenism and hypocrisy, and returns home to Chicago, where he trains young black men in the guerilla tactics he learned on the job, which the group then uses as leverage in the fight for civil rights.

Ironically, most of the film was shot in Gary, Indiana. (A movie about the Black Power movement getting Mayor Richard Daley's OK to film? Not a chance.) There is just one scene that the filmmakers were able to snatch on-the-fly in Chicago, on the "L", the city's rapid transit elevated train system.

It wasn't until 2004 that the movie became available on DVD. It's still something of an obscurity. And worth checking out.

Tribune News Service