Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: City That Never Sleeps

This week we take a look at an obscure film noir that peers into the dark heart of a big city and the tangled lives of the people (and one rabbit) who live there.

I was not familiar with City That Never Sleeps. It never makes anyone's list of "Ten Best Noirs" with the likes of Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, or Chinatown, but in its own quirky way, it is pretty terrific.
The Plot In Brief: John Kelly (Gig Young) is a Chicago cop who is fed up—dissatisfied with his life, with his wife, and with the job. He plans to leave both the force and his wife and run away with Sally (Mala Powers), a showgirl at the slightly skeevy Silver Frolic nightclub. Both Kelly's wife and "Pops," his police Sergeant father, would rather he didn't.

Wealthy lawyer Penrod Biddel offers Johnny a bribe to take care of his associate Hayes Stewart (William Tallman) who has grown too big for his britches. Blackmail, betrayal, missed chances and mistaken identities then conspire to give Officer Kelly the worst night of his life.

All of the performances are impressive. Gig Young underplays his role in an appealing and calculated way. At the end of the film when he gets some really bad news, his tears are both out of fashion for the early 1950s and surprising for a character so guarded. William Tallman, who would show up the same year in Ida Lupino's terrific noir The Hitch-Hiker, also plays a bad guy here, completely immoral and easy to hate. (Tallman would go on to play perpetually stymied district attorney Berger on the old Perry Mason television show.)

The film also features Marie Windsor as two-timing wife Lydia in the role she was born to play. Readers might remember Windsor as the femme fatale in the film I wrote about last week, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Windsor is terrific here—cunning and desperate and sexy—and I am starting to take it as an article of faith that most film noirs will feature Marie Windsor. We'll see if she shows up next week... or in my dreams!
Most people assume that the "city that doesn't sleep" is New York because of that famous Frank Sinatra song. Surprise! THIS City That Doesn't Sleep is Chicago! Shot on the streets of Chicago—they even make the street names to work, to make actual literal sense, during a complicated chase scene.

John L. Russell's black and white cinematography is gorgeous, though only to audience members like me who think transforming the city of my birth into a dark, hollow hellscape is a work of genuine beauty. The visual miracles that Russell manages to accomplish on the obviously low budget are impressive. During the final chase scene, at least three city blocks appear to have been artificially lit by Russell and his crew. All of the night scenes were obviously shot "night-for-night," another rarity in the '50s.

Another reason to recommend City That Doesn't Sleep is its dialogue, which has a hard-bitten, "noiry-noir" energy that propels the story. Some choice examples:

When I first came to this town I was gonna be—oh, there were a lot of things
I was gonna do. But Chicago's the big melting pot, and I got melted, but good.


I've stolen a lot of things in my life but never someone's wife.


I feel like I'm in a cement mixer getting slowly chopped and pounded to death. I've seen all that I can stand to see.


Come over here.

Nah, I've been there before.


I'm stealing his wife; I don't want to rub his face in it.

(kissing him)
That's all I've been doing—rubbing your face in it!

Screenwriter Steven Fisher has given his characters great noiry-noir names (Johnny Kelly, Sally "Angel Face" Connors, Hayes Stewart, Penrod and Lydia Biddel, Stubby Kelly, Agnes DuBois, Fancy Dan) that instantly tell the audience exactly who these people are. As I have written before, I love the Universal monster films of the thirties, which create a unified world so real I wish sometimes that I could walk around in it. I kind of feel the same way about film noir. I would love to put on a trench coat and a fedora and walk around in the world that City That Never Sleeps creates so vividly... though I am scared that I would be shot.
City That Never Sleeps also adds two weird elements to the pantheon of film noir: one doesn't work and one works better than it has any right to. The film is narrated by Chill Wills as "the Voice of Chicago." This lays it on pretty thick as we hear, "Look at my streets... look at my many people." The City of Chicago sounds a little bit like Santa Claus. Later Chill Wills shows up playing Good Ol' Officer Joe, Johnny Kelly's temporary partner for the night, and the film suggests... well, let's just say it introduces a plot element that you will find nowhere else in film noir. This seems like a desperate attempt by the film's producers to lighten up what is, at its heart, a very dark and nasty exercise.

But the strained metaphor that winds up working beautifully is the mechanical man. Allow me to explain. Wally Cassell plays Gregg Warren, an aspiring actor who has hit on hard times. The only job he can find is standing in the front window of Sally's nightclub, wearing a cheap tuxedo and sporting silver greasepaint, pretending to be a mechanical man. So successful is Gregg at playing a robot that the club's owners use him to lure gawkers: "is he made of flesh and blood, or sawdust and gears?" the barker cries. It's a thankless, grueling job, and we suspect that the main reason Gregg stays is that he is hopelessly in love with Sally. He confides to her friend that, when his time in the window starts to seem endless, he "goes away" in his mind—to a sunny beach, a snowy mountain—places where he imagines being alone with Sally, happy and in love. The monologue is beautiful and desperate and sad. The "mechanical man" gives voice to many usually unspoken sentiments in film noir about powerless witnesses and the dehumanizing effect of a forfeited dream. I am not surprised that it is often the only thing people remember about City That Never Sleeps.
And once again my bleeding heart sense of social justice is sated; City That Never Sleeps becomes the latest in a countless string of film noirs to suggest (and not in a subtle way) that the rich control everything and ordinary people are mere puppets to them. It is wealthy Penrod Biddel who sets the whole nightmare universe spinning, and it is he who escapes (relatively) unscathed. It's easy to see why several of the members of The Hollywood Ten, the famous blacklisted writers and directors jailed by Joseph McCarthy, wrote the film noir scripts they did, which were critical of the "American Way" to an unprecedented degree.

While viewing the film the other night, my non-showgirl wife came up with a wonderful theory about the film's chief ideological conflict.  I must say that, after a lot of thought, I agree with her. Ideologically, the film dramatizes the choice all of us must eventually make between naïveté and cynicism. Johnny Kelly isn't just facing the decision to leave his wife and job and start a new life, he's facing the larger decision of how he wants to view the world. City That Never Sleeps features a large cast of characters, all of whom started out with hope and promise (Penrod Biddel was an up-and-coming lawyer, Sally Connors wanted to be a professional dancer, Hayes Stewart wanted to be a magician, Gregg Warren wanted to be an actor, and Johnny wanted to be "anything but a cop") and ended up settling for much less. Their frustration about the gulf between their dream and their reality has made all of them cynical—self-interested, suspicious, and sneering. The film begins with lines firmly drawn about how its various characters see the world: Pops, Officer Joe, Kathy, and Gregg all see the glass as more than half full. The corrupt (the Biddels, the Hayes Stewarts, the Sally Connors, and the Johnny Kellys of the world), the film argues, have let their disappointments lead them astray. The cynicism that pervades this film, and all of film noir, is seen as a destructive force that kills people and destroys lives. The film drives home that cynicism is a choice—a choice that can have unexpected and dire consequences.

City That Never Sleeps
is currently available on Blu-Ray disc from Olive Films.

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