There are few things more exhilarating than being introduced to hidden gems and wonderful treasures located throughout our city. At the same time, being introduced to these things can make one wonder aloud, “How the hell did I not know about this?” Such is the case with the Heights Theater, located in Columbia Heights, a northern suburb of Minneapolis. Moe introduced me to this theater last week after he attended a screening of Casablanca, a film that resides in my list of top ten all-time favorites. He called me the next day, raving about this vintage theater, restored to look just like it did back in the silent era, and to tell me that I simply had to go check it out. Further enticing me was the news that they are holding a seven movie film festival celebrating some of the great noir films from Universal Pictures. Sold!

So a bit about the theater. From their site:

The theatre was originally constructed in 1926 by Gluek Brewery heir Arthur Gluek as a prohibition real estate venture.

Built in the Beaux Arts style of the last century, the Heights Theatre building was a simple neighborhood movie house showcasing local talent in stage plays and “High Class Amateur Vaudeville Acts.” The Heights has survived at least three fires, one bombing and “The Big Blow of 1949” when a Fridley tornado twisted the tower sign.

Owner Tom Letness specializes in first-run family films, classics, foreign releases, live entertainment and organ concerts Friday and Saturday nights.

Letness and Dave Holmgren bought the Heights Theatre in November 1998, and restored the original glory. At first sight, the interior was a shiny turquoise box. Today, a scarlet motorized grande drape and second-act drape cover the 16 x 26 foot proscenium stage. Gilded grills conceal the pipework for the mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ.

Antique chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling restored with 2600 Egyptian lead crystals. Hand-painted reproduction Edison Mazda bulbs in four colors on separate circuits allow a multitude of effects from 152 lights above four hundred seats. The orchestra pit, 8-feet X 26-feet, was discovered under the floor where the organ now rises for Friday and Saturday night concerts.

Yes, that’s right, an organ. About twenty minutes before Monday night’s show, a gentleman walked to the front of the theater, climbed down into the pit, and moments later he arose from the pit riding a vintage movie organ and proceeded to play classic movie tunes for the next thirty minutes. It was spectacular!

On to the movie…

“Why don’t you go to the police?” “I’m my own police.”

This Gun for Hire is a film I hadn’t heard of until we ordered our tickets. Released in 1942, the movie starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake as a pair of strangers trying to take down the same man for different reasons. Ladd’s character, Raven, is a hitman hired by Willard Gates to eliminate a blackmailer. When Gates pays Raven in stolen cash, Raven heads to Los Angeles to seek his revenge. Lake’s character, Ellen Graham, is a lounge singer/magician who is hired by the government to get evidence that William Gates is selling biological weapons to Japan. On the way to Los Angeles, she and Raven accidentally meet and the story really takes off from there.

Filled with all the great noir hallmarks (and cliches), This Gun for Hire works on a number of different levels. Even its corniest moments (of which there are many) work for today’s audience as comical gags. Case in point:

Ellen Graham: You’re a funny guy. You like my doing that, but you won’t admit it.
Philip Raven: That’s sucker talk.

When delivered sincerely, that shit is funny.

But even aside from the dated dialog and somewhat stilted acting, the movie entertains as a thriller, a crime flick, and most unusually an example of a WWII era patriotic piece. After all, Ellen tries to get the cold-hearted, selfish killer to turn in the traitor for God and country, rather than kill him out of revenge.

Noir fans: This Gun for Hire is available on Netflix and Amazon. Check it out. Perhaps the movie won’t translate as well on your living room couch as well as it did in a theater environment that perfectly suited its flavor. With that in mind, next time you’re in the Twin Cities area, put the Heights Theater on your must-visit list.

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