Recently re-released obscure late '60s sci-fi comedy showcases Chicago architecture

March 23, 2011

If I didn't have proof, you'd think I made this up: a 1969 science fiction satire...filmed in Chicago...made by Second City...with a soundtrack that included the great Odetta...complete with amazing Chicago architectural cinematography, a riot at Sandburg Village and cameos by Illinois U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen and bandleader Xavier Cugat.

The movie, called The Monitors is an obscure black comedy co-produced by Second City and Bell & Howell, the then Skokie-based camera and projector company that hoped this cinematic effort would spark moviemaking in Chicago. In the movie, Earth is taken over by outer-space folk called "The Monitors" who use technology and a force of dark-coated men in bowlers to keep earthlings away from sex, politics, violence and vice. Mankind rebels. I found the movie streaming on Netflix a few nights ago.

It's filmed in that zany, hippy-dippy, bet-your-sweet-bippy style of the late 1960s, with zooming shots, funny edits and a splash of psychedelica. The tagline--"If you don't like air pollution, war, body odor, hard pizza rolls, exercise, hairy musicians, sexy blonds, tooth decay, smiling heroes, population explosion... you'll love The Monitors"--shows The Monitors is very much of movie of its time.

But there's a reason to check out the film: the jaw-dropping, wide-angle photography that depicts Chicago---which I don't believe is actually named--and its modernist architecture as an otherworldly place. The modern Meigs Field terminal  makes a couple of apperances. Even the Thornton Quarry gets into the act as the setting for a chase and a car explosion. The film's director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond would go on to shoot classics such as The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the more-recent Woody Allen flick You'll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, according to the Internet Movie Database. His colors are lush and crisp in this new print that just popped out of nowhere on Netflix.

The above screen-grab shows a training center for would-be Monitors. Chicagoans will recognize it as the geodesic dome that covers the swimming pool at 400 E. Randolph. The westward view outside the window still shows the old Illinois Central train yards that would be soon obscured by both Illinois Center and the Aon Building.

From the opening sequence, this shots looks north on Michigan Avenue with the unfinished John Hancock Center unobscured by Water Tower Place--whch which wasn't built yet:

Today that scene--courtesy of Google Streetview--looks like this:

 

The Monitors' headquarters is University Hall at UIC, built in 1965 and designed by SOM. The camera looks down the face of the building to the ramp system that once stood in front of the tower.

 

And we end with a shot of a Monitor in a helicopter above the city. To the right of the photo, the sloped-facade Chase Tower--then First National Bank of Chicago--is under construction:

 

The Monitors starred a grab bag of actors, including Guy Stockwell, Susan Oliver, Ed Begley, Sr., Keenan Wynn, Larry Storch and Chicago-born comic Avery Schreiber. Second City alum Alan Arkin makes an appearance as does his son, Adam.

And a bonus, check this out: Some kind soul put the first few minutes of the movie on YouTube. The score is pretty good. And the guy with the glasses on TV is Senator Dirksen who died in 1969 just before the movie's October release.