This is the thirteenth post in the “The Best Films Set In…” series. The setting can be a place (like Tokyo), a location (like the beach), or a time (like Winter). In these posts I’m going to pick my 5 favourite films that are set in that particular place/location/time and explain why I like them.
For this edition, I’ve handed over the reigns to Sydney film enthusiast and critic, Lisa Malouf. Lisa has picked an American city for the setting of her list. It’s a city that can be both beautiful and gritty, and is the setting of a large number of excellent crime genre films. Thanks for sharing your list with us Lisa. [Ed]
The city of Chicago conjures up many associations for different people: it could be historical figures Al Capone and Eliot Ness, its nickname ‘the windy city’, or the famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company, or maybe as the one-time home of the Obama family, and the long-time home of both Oprah Winfrey and the late great Roger Ebert. For me, the first thing I reflect upon when thinking about Chicago is just how many terrific films were set (and often filmed) in this city.
Given the wealth of choice, it’s been difficult narrowing my list down to five top picks. I’ve decided to go with five great films that are entirely (or principally) set in Chicago, rather than those only partially set in the city.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)
John Hughes was the quintessential teen film director, and all of his eight directorial features were set in Chicago (well, strictly speaking, one of them –Planes, Trains and Automobiles – was about the journey to Chicago). I had the pleasure of first seeing Ferris Beuller’s Day Off in its original theatrical release, and remember being blown away at the time. I’ve re-visited it countless times since, and it never fails to make an impact. Like Hughes’ The Breakfast Club the year before, Ferris helped define the 80s teen film. Matthew Broderick, in the titular role, was a charming, magnetic, cheeky, smart-arse high school senior who ‘wagged school’ and took his girlfriend and his best friend on a fantastic day of adventures. Hughes’ beloved Chicago features highly, with locations including the Art Institute of Chicago, Sears Tower, the Wrigley Field sports stadium and the city’s streets (for the parade that Ferris famously performs in). The film is also full of so many fabulous quotable lines. Who could forget ‘Bueller? … Bueller? …. Buelller?’, ‘Abe Froman? …. The Sausage King of Chicago?’ and ‘…. Let my Cameron Go’?
Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross was a hit in the West End and on Broadway in the early 80s. At the time, it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Mamet also wrote the screenplay for it’s 1992 film adaptation. The film, set in a Chicago real estate office, has a stellar cast including Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey (who delivers the famous ‘Will you go to lunch!’ line), Alan Arkin ,Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin. Lemmon is particularly striking, in a beautifully nuanced performance as veteran salesman Shelly Levene. Mamet gifts all of his Glengarry Glen Ross characters with such superb dialogue. Watching the series of powerful monologues by such fine actors is like viewing an acting master class. The film’s non-office locations include a local Chinese restaurant on a dark night, and rainy/shadowy Chicago streets. These locations have a film noir feel about them: perhaps a nod to dark and scandalous earlier times in the city’s history?
The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)
1973’s The Sting was nominated for ten Academy Awards. As the awards ceremony (held in April, 1974) was coming to an end, the film had already won six Oscars. The only award left was Best Picture, for which it was also nominated. Before David Niven could introduce Elizabeth Taylor to present the award (which would go to The Sting), a streaker ran behind Niven and across the stage. The sight of the naked man on national television, along with Niven’s without-missing-a-beat quip about the man’s ‘shortcomings’, is now one of the most famous moments in Oscar history. There was another more important Oscars first that night: Julia Phillips – who was nominated along with her producing colleagues Tony Bill and Michael Phillips – was not only the first woman in the then 46-year history of the awards to be nominated (as Producer) for Best Picture, but also the first to win.
And now to the film: Set in Chicago in 1936, The Sting stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as uber-charismatic con men who pull one over on a mob boss. The film is a perfect mix of drama, crime and delightful comedy. One of the funniest scenes involves the mens’ accomplices taking over an office for a temporary ‘loan’ – by disguising themselves as painters. They appropriate the office to make it look like they run a legitimate business, and they even add the little touch of adding in their own ‘family photos’ as props. Another thing about the film that I find funny (though possibly not intentionally) is that Redford’s character Hooker undergoes the world’s least dramatic makeover. Basically he goes from ridiculously handsome with slightly messy hair to ridiculously handsome with slicked-back hair and a nicer suit!
Newman and Redford have a great rapport, and make for terrific acting partners in this highly entertaining caper film (as evidenced four years earlier in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also directed by The Sting’s George Roy Hill).
Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
[A note to readers: If you haven’t seen Little Caesar, you may wish to skip this section – as spoilers follow]
One of the most iconic gangster films of all time, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar was a breakout hit for its star: the then 38-year-old Edward G. Robinson. Robinson plays Little Caesar (A.K.A. ‘Rico’), a small-time hoodlum who rises up through the ranks of organised crime. Robinson’s performance is magnificent. As Rico, his expressive face says even more than his dialogue does. Whenever Robinson is on-screen (which is most of the film), it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
And it’s in his eyes that so much of the story is told. Rico’s rise and eventual fall takes him down a tough road, and many of his problems are of his own making. It’s his own hubris that brings him down.
The streets of prohibition-era Chicago, with its gangsters and wise guys, are portrayed here in beautiful atmospheric dark shadows. When Rico is at the top, we also see gorgeous luxury high-ceilinged hotels and glamorous nightclubs. The film’s most poignant moment come at the end, as a bleeding, dying Rico utters the now-famous closing line ‘Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?’
The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)
The Man with the Golden Arm begins with a perfect title sequence from the extraordinary Saul Bass (who also designed the film’s iconic poster), accompanied by glorious jazz music. Such music would underscore much of the film and it heightened some wonderfully tense moments. Frank Sinatra is outstanding as the strung-out ex-heroin addict Frankie Machine (for which he received an Oscar nomination). It’s heart breaking to see Frankie try to get clean while he’s being hounded by his suave (in a three-piece suit, no less!) ex-dealer. Frankie’s tough journey in search of sobriety takes place in Chicago’s bars, streets, gambling clubs and cramped apartments. Shot in blank-and-white, the film is stunning in its imagery of visual decay, and the dark underside of the streets. I’m so glad the film wasn’t shot in colour, as it is so beautifully suited to black-and-white. As colour had been in common usage for around two decades, it wasn’t the norm for a high-profile film to be shot in black-and-white (in 1955, ten of the dozen top-grossing films were shot in colour).
Top 5 Honourable mentions:
These wonderful films aren’t entirely set in Chicago, but have at least one key scene set in the city: Inside Llewyn Davis, North by Northwest, When Harry Met Sally, Some Like it Hot, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
By Lisa Malouf