July 15, 2009

DARK CITY (1950)






Charlton Heston makes his big screen splash in Dark City, a rather ambiguously titled film noir from Paramount. Heston’s familiar screen persona is firmly in place in his first studio picture; he comes over almost as fully-fledged as Moses or Ben Hur. He plays Danny Haley, who marched off to war as a country club frat boy and returned angry, alienated, and full of self-loathing. In typical noir fashion Haley was a hero in combat who couldn’t quite get the hang of day-to-day life. His service career ended in disgrace after dodging a guilty verdict in a court-martial of the most serious kind: he killed an officer in a fight over a woman. Turns out the officer was his best friend and the woman was his wife. Now he lives a half-life on the fringes of the New York underworld, haunting nightclubs and card games, stringing along songbird Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott) and making a living from a “small piece” of a downtown bookie joint.


If ever a film could be described as having two distinctive halves this is it — but unfortunately the dividing factor is quality. The first half of Dark City crackles with a moody claustrophobic atmosphere, tense as can be — the second……well……doesn’t. So let’s talk about the good stuff, starting with the cast, which has the feel of something to be found in a David Mamet film — and Dark City is the sort of project that Mamet would salivate over if it had been made during his time. The picture opens with a raid on the bookie joint in which Heston has a stake. The raid only serves to get us into the place and familiarize us with Heston’s crew of misfit pals. The guy in charge is Barney, played marvelously by Ed Begley — who knew how to nuance his characters in a way that guaranteed plenty of stolen scenes. Begley could be a force of nature when he wanted, but he plays Barney on pins and needles. The guy is so nervous about police raids and lost profits that he worries himself into an ulcer. Most of his screen time in the film is embroidered with bellyaching, both real and imagined. If Heston’s performance lacks anything, it’s confidence; but viewers are not likely to notice with such a stellar supporting cast to hold him up. Barney’s right hand man is Augie, played by none other than Jack Webb, who will appear surprisingly loose to those who only know him a a television good guy. Augie is the proverbial two-bit hood and con man — Webb works hard to make the character sleazy, but he’s just too clean cut to put it over. His future sidekick on Dragnet, Harry Morgan, outdoes him as Soldier, a one-time stumblebum who cleans up around the betting parlor and answers the phones. Morgan was able to sink his teeth into such parts and he matches the other actors easily. Part of the film’s character dynamic is that Augie and Soldier aren’t friendly, and it’s fun to see the future Dragnet stars sparring in this film.


The character of Fran isn’t developed nearly to the same extent as the males, and considering Liz Scott’s ability it’s a shame. She’s just there to drive the plot: she gives Danny someone tell his inner thoughts to — which only shines a light on him. She’s the “good girl” that he has to choose or let go at the end of the picture, again giving us insight into him. Scott turns in a strong, professional performance, and though at the time she was a much brighter star than Heston, she plays up to him as if he were the king of the world. Scott mimes a few songs and makes it look real, and in one of the film’s more realistic details she appears in the same cheap sequined gown night after night.


The story revolves around a crooked poker game in which Barney and Augie play out of town schmuck Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) for a sucker. Winant is in the Big Apple to buy athletic equipment for employer back in L.A., and he gets taken for his five grand cashier’s check faster than Jack lost the magic beans. Humiliated, he returns to his hotel room promptly dangles himself from the ceiling.

The card game sequence is Dark City’s slickest — while we are clued in on the grift, Danny is not, and that's what makes it work. Winant insists that one of the crew sits out to deal in order to ensure a fair game, and he chooses Danny. Danny deals the game straight but Barney and Augie rake Winant over the coals anyway. Danny makes an insightful comment early in the film, “…playing cards with you two is like washing your feet with your socks on.” We see the sequence unfold from Fran’s point of view. As she circles the table we look over every shoulder at every hand in the game, and we see the con coming from a mile away.

DeFore’s part is small but he makes the most of it. Although he had a gift for comedy and was most often cast as the all-American boy-next-door type in breezier films, he brings much to Dark City. DeFore seems to understand how to play the born loser who just knows he’ll win the next hand, and his subtle shift from cocky small potatoes winner to frayed big time loser is award worthy. The entire sequence in filmed in close-up, with so much light on DeFore that it looks more like he’s getting the phone book treatment from the cops than losing his shirt in a card game. We are right there with him as the sweat glistens on his forehead and his marker goes down the drain.


DeFore's Winant has an ace up his sleeve though, in the form of a psychotic brother he was planning to meet the following day. All through the poker game DeFore chatters on and on about this brother, and all of the crazy things Sidney has done over the years to protect him. Barney, Augie, and Danny are so focused on that five large though that they fail to get the message. In the payoff to the foreshadowing Arthur leaves the Sidney a suicide note complete with the names of the men who fleeced him, and the brother spends the rest of the film hunting them down one-by-one, starting with Barney. We never actually see Sidney until the film’s climax — he’s just the boogeyman, though at each of the killings we see his hands, identified by the gaudy mood ring he wears.


It’s shortly after the card sequence and the film’s first killing that things head south. The second half of Dark City deals with the disintegration of Heston’s bunch as Sidney Winant gets one after the other in his big mitts. No one knows what Sid looks like, so Danny heads west and tries to woo a snapshot from Arthur’s widow. Instead he realizes what a heel he and the others were to take Arthur’s money and tries to get close to his family to not only get the dope on Sidney, but make amends for Arthur’s suicide. The movie veers unexpectedly towards melodrama as Danny catches himself falling for Winant’s widow, while he comes to see Fran, who loved him and set him free, in a new light. As the film pushes towards a climax, the unseen Sidney continues to polish off gangsters and eventually finds Danny shuffling cards in Vegas. Things come out as you might expect, but the over the top Hollywood ending seems very out of place, even considering that redemption rather than doom was always in the cards for Danny.


Dark City is a very uneven film that is primarily of interest as Charlton Heston’s screen breakthrough. (It isn’t quite his first film work, though he does get the “and introducing” treatment over his name in the opening titles.) It isn’t a definitive example of film noir in any way other than the alienated, inwardly neurotic state of Heston’s character. The first half of the picture is striking, and moves with determinism to the card game sequence and its subsequent fallout. The film loses its noirish sensibilities for most of the second half, when it stoops to melodrama peppered with elements more at home in conventional Hollywood thrillers. Dark City is certainly a film noir, though not an important example in any regard.




Dark City (1950)
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Director: William Dieterle
Cinematographer: Victor Milner
Screenplay: Larry Marcus, based on his own story “No Escape.”
Starring: Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott, Ed Begley, Dan DeFore, Dean Jagger, Jack Webb, and Harry Morgan.Released by: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 98 minutes

6 comments:

  1. Really interesting stuff. I've always wanted to see this film, partly because I'm a big fan of Lizabeth Scott but also because it's so rare, and always so fascinating, to see Heston out of historical costume and on modern streets in a suit - especially as this was his debut... You've certainly made me want to track it down now!
    Great post - Matthew

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  2. I just wanted to stop by and commend you on your blog. I look forward to your posts coming up on the reader and I love your new blog design. You've been writing about films that I've never even heard of so reading your blog has been really eye-opening for me. Keep up the good work!

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  3. Raquelle, thanks for the comments. Best birthday present I got all day!

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  4. The "loose" Jack Webb is always interesting whenever he turns up. I've seen him in Sunset Blvd., The Men and He Walked By Night, but I didn't know he played a criminal before your review. Accept my belated congratulations on your birthday!

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  5. Ha! I totally forgot Webb was in "The Men" -- I'm a big Zinneman fan, but I haven't seen that in ages, I believe it was on of the first discs I ever rented from Netflix back in the early 00s. You are right again though, same as with your comment about Burr. We get these actors who are television icons (even now), and it amazes to see them play against type in feature films. Harry Morgan, in this as well as "Red Light," is another great example. In my case, the movie that hooked me on classics was oddly "Swing High, Swing Low" with Carole Lombard and Freddie Mac. The idea of Chip and Ernie's dad playing a jazz horn got me watching a 30s picture, and all these years later I'm still at it.

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  6. I believe that you did brilliant decision when you selected this topic of the article of yours over here. Do you generally make your blog entries alone or maybe you work with a writing partner or an assistant?

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