Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dark City (1950)

Dark City (1950) is commonly listed by film experts as an important film in the noir canon. I have a feeling it may be because of the title. Dark City (directed by William Dieterle), The Dark Corner, The Dark Mirror, Dark Passage and Dark Waters all are consider noir and share a similar monikers. They all certainly have the right “look.” But only The Dark Corner and Dark Passage are shady and dim enough while the rest are just handsome melodramas.

After rewatching Dark City again (recently released on DVD - and looking great-- by Olive Films) I find myself agreeing with Jon Tuska's opinions in his book on noir (Dark Cinema - see the pattern here?) who calls the film “a fine example of film noir malgr矇.”

The story starts out just right (well, after Charlton Heston does his walk down the city street behind credits. Carrying a wrapped box - later revealed to be a stuffed bunny for his girl for Easter. Seriously, I could invalidate the movie as noir in the first 30 seconds.) But after that. Heston's workplace - a bookie joint --is shut down by the cops for the third time in as many months and the mugs working there are beginning to show signs of the pressure getting to them. Their payoffs aren't getting them anything. (The gang of professional gamblers could be an earlier generation of the gang in Mamet's House of Games.)

Later at the nightclub, Heston chats with an out-of-towner that's flashing a check for 5 grand. Gears move in his head and a poker game is set up. The gamblers let Arthur Winant (a perfectly cast Don DeFore [Too Late for Tears also with Liz Scott]) win the first night only to clean him out the second night forcing him to sign over the check to them. Upset that he lost his company's money, Winant goes back to his hotel and hangs himself. With the check uncashed and now “dynamite” if the cops find it, the gamblers hold on to it. Then one by one the card sharks begin to get killed off - hanged after being strangled by Winant's crazy brother. The cops, lead by Dean Jagger, are suspicious but have no proof the gamblers were involved.

Dark City then leaves that noir “city” and heads to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Danny Haley goes looking for Winant's wife - to get a photo of the man who is out to kill him. He quickly bonds with Winant's son and, surprisingly, Winat's widow. Once he finally reveals to the grieving wife that he's not from an insurance company but instead is one of the gamblers that fleeced him, Victoria (a wasted Viveca Lindfors) kicks him out and then legs it to Vegas to meet up with Augie (Jack Webb). There he finds another one of his gambling partners, Soldier (Harry Morgan - playing the limping, simple-minded war vet.) He, despite being the “punchy” one, gets Haley and later his lingering lounge-singing girlfriend Fran (Lizabeth Scott) jobs. Haley deals cards at a casino - every day looking around wondering if the man who wants to kill him is getting closer.

After this long, drawn-out middle, he's finally tracked down and the final confrontation happens. It doesn't hurt that the killer turns out to be Moose Malloy. But man, it takes a long time to get there.

The problems with Dark City are a combination of things. First veteran director Dieterle hasn't been dealt much of a hand by his scriptwriters (he did, however, have the moody camerawork of Victor Milner and the appropriately disconsolate score by Franz Waxman that fits noir like a glove). Second, the lead actors. Charlton Heston is soon to be a cinematic monumental hero thanks to Cecil B. DeMille. In Dark City, he actually starts to resemble that familiar hero quite closely after first playing the heel. Haley saves everyone and rehabilitates himself by the time credits roll - hell, even the cops believe and help him in the end. That's a big no-no in noir. When I finshed watching I could feel the 50's patriotic celebration of values and family life which dominated 50's films and certainty tainted many noir films - but not all-- that followed.

Heston isn't helped by the dame. Lizabeth Scott stops the film in her tracks when she lip syncs torch songs at the club. She seems to only exist to be the love interest and to model swanky gowns. And although they try to play up Haley's problem with relationships he seems to be always doing the right thing by his woman. Scott played identical roles in Dead Reckoning, The Racket, and I Walk Alone.

What works? As I mentioned previously, the score and camerawork. The dialog occasionally is perfect - but the noir-ish banter is in short supply. A few of the lines are wonderfully memorable.

Add to that the excellent supporting cast. Ed Begley (Sr.) is given a rare meaty role as the worry-wart gambler with a painful ulcer. I'm not a fan of Jack Webb but he's very good as the trickster that always seems to go too far. DeFore is great when he's sweating at the poker table realizing that he's been suckered. Mike Mazurki presence in any crime film is a plus.

Finally little Harry Morgan (credited as Henry Morgan.) He will always be the characters he played in M*A*S*H and Dragnet but his movie roles - especially in noir - should not be overlooked. The Well, Red Light, Moonrise, and The Big Clock all showcase his talents. In Dark City he plays the “punchy” guy - a role he was suited for with his droopy eyes and small size. In Dark City, he turns out to be the only one with any sense.

Dark City is not an essential noir, despite the title and some critics labeling it so. I do, however, think there are enough positive reasons to see it. Even more so if you love noir and are willing to forgive the saggy middle.

Written by Steve-O


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