I’ve been casually adjusting my entertainment options as the new Chicago project ramps up. Interesting, for example, that the really great releases on Chess Records were coming out at the same time as the classic postwar skyscrapers were going up. So my background music while I’m pulling notes together has occasionally tended toward Muddy Waters, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, and Koko Taylor–no great leap there.
Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm was a touchstone for postwar literary culture in Chicago, and while he largely disowned its 1955 film adaptation, this seemed like required viewing. It’s the story of the evocatively named Frankie Machine, a recovering heroin addict who tries to turn himself around after a prison stint by returning to Chicago, learning drums, and trying to sign on with a jazz band. It’s a pretty typical noir-ish drama, and it certainly plays into the stereotype of Chicago as a haven for vice and crime. But it has a lot going for it–Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak as the leads, Otto Preminger directing, and the first of Saul Bass’ iconic animated title sequences. Despite (or, maybe, because of) being condemned for its depiction of drug use, it was a popular and critical hit. Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar, and the art direction and soundtrack were nominated as well.
But it’s a brief, five-second cameo that caught my eye, especially as someone who’s slightly obsessive about architectural cameos. Thirty minutes into the film, Frankie Machine gets dressed up in a suit and bow tie and interviews with Harry Lane, a musical agent. And where is Lane’s agency based? Why, in the well-known Lane Building, which I’m guessing is located in the 800 block of North Lake Shore Drive:
My first thought, of course, was that Preminger made a huge continuity error here–that font is not regulation Allzweck. But, more to the point, this is literally the one establishment shot in the entire movie–the rest of the film is clearly shot on soundstages that are deliberately devoid of any Chicago landmarks. There’s the standard police car with “Chicago” clearly written on its side, of course, but otherwise Preminger didn’t use any landmarks or skyline shots to set the location.
In 1955, he could have used the newly-completed Prudential Building, or any number of 1920s towers that would have been instantly recognizable as Chicagoan. Clearly, he was after a modern aesthetic, though–witness the Saul Bass title sequence. Given that, he could have used Lever House, or Manufacturers Hanover, two New York buildings that were more recent than 860-880. But he seems to have intentionally picked Mies’ 1952 apartment towers as a statement of particular Chicago modernity, as a statement of Lane’s success and sophistication.
Once inside? Ehhh, OK, here all bets are off. Lane’s office has chintz draperies, a brick fireplace, and a furniture palette that can best be described as Levittown modern instead of Miesian. Too much to ask for Barcelona chairs, I suppose, and there’s plenty of other visual sophistication around for the eyeballs to settle upon…finding Chicago landmarks in recent action films has become an architect’s version of trainspotting, but Preminger’s film shows that there’s plenty of untapped potential for this in classic cinema, too…