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TV Noir Festival: Atomic-Age Paranoia Par Excellence at Roxie 

Wednesday, Sep 28 2011
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This Saturday night, you can catch Lee Marvin in a Schlitz Playhouse production of a crime story called "Fistful of Love." That is not a MadLib. Then, on Monday, you can see Vincent Price as a missionary in China who gets arrested and accused of anti-party agitation, but despite weeks of softening up in solitary confinement, still manages to speechify with such grace and fire that some of the presiding Reds at his military tribunal get all rah-rah for democracy.

Either best or worst of all, this Friday night, Jon Newland, the host of 1960s anthology-show One Step Beyond, muses over the strange tale of Pippo the Clown (Mickey Shaughnessy), a figure of greasepaint and nightmare. "Usually his only function is to make us laugh," Newland says, after the clown has materialized, again and again, to stalk a victim. "It is certainly not to disturb the secure curtain of reality."

Yet disturb it Pippo does, with his twin smiles — one painted, one toothsome — and his casual manipulation of space and time in order that he might murder. Also disturbing it is Elliot Lavine, the curator/mad chemist behind the Roxie Theatre's TV Noir Festival, which demonstrates all week long that TV — and your grandparents — used to be into some freaky shit. Lavine has gathered and is screening stellar episodes of tough-minded crime, science fiction, and playhouse shows like Suspicion, Tales of Tomorrow, and even Dragnet, which, in three ace episodes running Thursday, Oct. 6, proves harder-edged than you might expect.

Of course, Jack Webb's dustups with penny-ante pornographers are hardly as scary as Pippo's story, "The Haunted Clown." That screens Friday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m., and is followed by The Plot Thickens, a bizarre game show wherein Groucho Marx watches a murder mystery with a cat named Lucifer and a leotarded bailiff — and then competes to finger the killer.

The Plot Thickens exemplifies our ambivalence with noirish death in entertainment. Sometimes, it's just a good laugh; at other times, it's deadly serious, as at Sunday's Rod Serling screenings. Three bravura Serling teleplays — "Nightmare at Ground Zero," "The Arena," and the almost-lost 85-minute "A Town Has Turned to Dust," directed by John Frankenheimer — offer big ideas, go-for-broke acting, and the most expressionistic shadows TV producers could afford. All three are tense, overwrought, and wonderful.

Just as good is Tuesday night's bill of Cold War space noir. First, at 8, "Strange Lodger" is first-rate science fiction, so sharply written and acted you hardly notice that the TV budget keeps anything major from actually happening onscreen. Better still is "Now is Tomorrow," at 9:30. Written by Richard Mattheson, and directed by Irvin Kershner, who helmed The Empire Strikes Back, this high-concept nail-biter is probably responsible for a billion dollars' worth of boomer therapy. Robert Culp stars as an American with the world's most horrifying job: sitting in an isolation chamber, listening to military chatter, in charge of flipping a switch from "Peace" to "War."

We also recommend this Saturday's great-director noir lineup: The two-bit gambler who thinks he's got things figured out, in Sidney Lumet's excellent "The System;" more clown-centric terror from Robert Mulligan's "The Funmaster;" a Mike Hammer story from Blake Edwards; and surprising TV work from Robert Altman and Hitchcock himself. If we told you that Wednesday features Eddie Albert and Lorne Greene in 1984, and a robot that visits Coit Tower, you would probably think the great nuclear-age pop-culture Cuisinart that is the Roxie had finally gotten to us, but, no, seriously: It exists.

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Alan Scherstuhl

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