Sunday, September 06, 2009

City That Never Sleeps (1953)


There's a lot to like in 1953's City That Never Sleeps. Unfortunately there's plenty off unintentional laugh-out-loud scenes as well.

City That Never Sleeps is one of the last Noir documentaries - a noir film filled with newsreel-like location shooting and “voice of God” narrations - also known as semi-documentaries. The 1953 film is clearly modeled after the best noir doc The Naked City released five years earlier. Noir documentaries were popular for a short time during the classic noir period. Following World War II and the popularity of documentaries, film critics predicted that Hollywood films would become more “realistic” and “show the real truth” by shooting movies in a documentary style. The prediction came true - at least partly in 1945 with the release of The House on 92nd Street. Conservative film critic Bosley Crowther in 1949 praised the use of location shooting and naturalistic photography and wanted to see it become a lasting style in Hollywood. By that time the Noir documentary was already on it's way out. Lasting only until the early 1950s the style at the end was seen as more of a fad; and the most obvious elements were dropped from realistic films that followed. In particular the films' opening and closing “voice of God” voice overs - once done brilliantly and poetically by an obvious New Yorker Mark Hellinger in The Naked City- didn't play well in other films. Noir documentaries - unlike The Naked City with its simple murder plot - when seen today appear unbearably preachy (instead of the original intention to be “real” and “truthful”) when they focused on topics like Nazis/Communism (House on 92nd Street), problems with corruption (The Street with No Name), flaws in the legal system (Boomerang), bad cops and juvenile delinquency. Sometimes film studios had to backtrack on its supposed “truth” by tacking disclaimers onto films. One of the best examples is Richard Conte looking into the camera and praising New York's Bellevue Hospital at its doctors at the beginning of The Sleeping City after public outcry and industry reaction after seeing the film. The juvenile delinquent film City Across the River toned down the unflattering opening voice over and stripped any mention of Brooklyn in the film's advertising after citizens' groups protested the film's depiction of their neighborhood.

City That Never Sleeps is a film about a gloomy night in 1950s Chicago. After a laughable opening voice over by folksy cowboy actor Chill Willis the film kicks in. Willis - the spirit of the city who inexplicably becomes a "guardian angel" cop early in the movie that shatters any attempt at reality - introduces the viewers to a number of people in the city that are all trying to escape their own world and be something else. A cop who wants to quit and move to California; a failed actor working as a “mechanical man” in a night club that wants to run off with an uninterested burlesque dancer; a punk bell boy that wants to join the mob; a stripper who wanted to become a ballerina; a former pickpocket who once had dreams of becoming a magician; a famous lawyer who is more attracted to power and the criminal element in his city than justice; and his wife who wants his magician friend and all her husband's money - all are interconnected and play a part in the story. Come to Chicago: where your dreams are never fulfilled!


The best film noir focus on “a struggle with powerful inner forces” like the characters in Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number. Noir documentaries instead give us lots of characters and a external voice to tell us what's happening and what's wrong. The main character in City That Never Sleeps is a cop (Gig Young) that wants to quit the force and his wife. He's nagged by his wife and mother in law. Even his stripper girlfriend is pressuring him to do something. His story - the main story - isn't all that interesting when compared to others in the film. It's the use of the documentary style, however, that makes the story even less engaging. I suspect that if the story was shot as a straight noir drama it would have been more successful.

So what's to like about City That Never Sleeps? Plenty. First of all, the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, in his list of the top 25 film noir, praises director John Auer for at least having the chutzpah to use the city as a narrator and hits the nail on the head when he says “Plus, it's got Marie Windsor and William Talman as lovers. That's noir.” Talman (the magician) and Windsor (wife to lawyer Penrod Biddel played by Edward Arnold) are absolutely great in the film. They're the only actors that show any spark in the film. Bug-eyed Talman - who got his ass handed to him by Raymond Burr every week on Perry Mason - is always good in film noir. Earlier that same year he had his best role as the unblinking killer in The Hitch-Hiker. Windsor - 5' 9” of sexy - was just too tall and intimidating to be a movie star. Instead she killed every time she played the untrustworthy and vicious black widow. Her part is too small in City That Never Sleeps but she's one of the best parts of it.

Psycho's cinematographer John L. Russell's night-for-night camerawork is amazing too. Sweaty nightclubs and back alleys never looked so nice in a noir. Gig Young chasing William Talman through the streets of Chicago is a wow too. Pickpocket Talman slipping between trains until the final confrontation on a raised rail is something every film noir fan should see.

City That Never Sleeps doesn't do for Chicago what The Naked City did for New York. The colorless leads are overshadowed by Talman and Windsor. The obvious production values that marred most Republic Pictures does the same here at times. While the cheap studio sets and some performances are stale film noir fans, however, should be able to overlook these flaws and appreciate some of the supporting cast and amazing on-location camerawork. City That Never Sleeps is worth a look.

Written by Steve-O


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1 comment:

  1. The mystique of Chicago is so closely associated with the gangster picture that the attempt to do a film noir take on the city (especially one that deals with rank-and-file cops) seemed doomed from the outset -- not to mention confusing. While it's a bad movie, it's still a very interesting one, if only for the cast and the bizarre pastiche of story lines. Bingo on the camera work. I have the Republic VHS which is really washed out, and never appreciated it until saw it at a screening. Great stuff.

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