“Dark City” is the quintessential cinema noir title, though the most notable aspect of the 1950 movie is the “Introducing Charlton Heston” in the opening credits. The already wooden Heston looked disgusted both as and by his character, a resentment-filled former WWII pilot traumatized either by killing his best friend or by his best friend having been carrying on with his wife. At the start of the movie, Heston’s character, Danny Healey, works for a venal bookie and clip-joint owner, Barney (Ed Begley, who would later win an Oscar in “Sweet Bird of Youth”) with Augie (Jack Webb on the wrong side of the law, but already trying to man a dragnet). Both his associated are very greedy. Barney has an ulcer, Augie that lean and hungry look,
The three of them leach onto a sucker, former lieutenant Billy Winant (Mark Keuning) and relieve him of all his money and a cashier’s check made out to him with which he was in whatever city to purchase sports equipment. Both Danny’s moll, nightclub singer Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott at her least femme fatalish), and the punch-drunk hanger-on, sweeper-up Soldier (Henry Morgan) are dismayed by this, but their dismay is nothing compared to the fury of Billy’s psychopathic brother Sidney (hulking Mike Mazurki). They do not know what their stalker looks like, and the viewer only sees his hand with a large ring through most of the movie.
After the first srangling, local police Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger, who won an Oscar for “12 O’clock High”) suggests the surviving gamblers leave town. So the two survivors set off for LA, and the climax occurs in Las Vegas. There are nightclubs, the clip joint, casinos, and a nocturnal wharf. Set against the world of nocturnal menace is white-picket fence parenthood, represented by Viveca Lindfors, who is affecting… which is beyond Scott’s range.
Far too much of the movie is Scott’s torch singing. Some of the action is well done, but the climactic fight looks quite fake. And there is a lot of back-projection (process shots). The interlocking manhunts (police, psychopath, fleecers) are remarkably uninterestingly played and shot.
Amorality is redeemed in the last scene, as the Production Code insisted upon (though viewers may guess the specifics wrong). The supporting players (Begley, Jagger, Lindfors, and maybe even Morgan and Webb) fared better than the leads, though some of that must be attributed to the script, some to their not managing to bring anything to the parts.
Cecil B. de Mille’s cinematographer Victor Milner (who also shot “The Furies” for Anthony Mann that year, and IMO did his best work on Lewis Mileston’s 1936 “The General Died at Dawn” and three of the best Preston Sturges comedies) did all right, but did not shoot from odd angles with heavy shadows and other noir effects.
Franz Waxman, who won an Oscar for “Sunset Blvd.” the same year, and for “A PLACE in the Sun” the next, supplied florid music -dark flowers of sound to heighten suspense. ( A decade earlier, he had written the music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and “Suspicion”.)
German-born director William Dieterle (who came to Hollywood in 1930, before Hitler) is best remembered for Warner Brothers’ biopics, “prestige” products starring Paul Muni in the title roles of “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), and “Juarez” (1939). The last of these has an expressionist, proto-noir look much more than “Dark City” does. So did “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Dieterle had been an actor in Germany for, among others, Max Reinhardt and F. W. Murnau, but is not one of the émigré directors who carried expressionist look to Hollywood, even in “Satan Met a Lady” (1936), a version of The Maltese Falcon. (The last Dieterle-directed movie I’ve seen was the campy 1954 “Elephant Walk” with Peter Finch and Elizabeth Taylor on a Sri Lanka plantation.)
Heston went on to play more rigid characters, including the lead in what some distinguish as the “last noir,” Orson Welles’s 1958 “Touch of Evil,” won an undeserved Oscar as “Ben Hur” (1959), and became the spokesman for the NRA. IMO, Heston was best as “Will Penny” and as the sly Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s 1970s musketeer movies (in which he did not get to clutch a musket).
The DVD image is not very good. For a while I thought the plasma in my tv screen was melting down, but it was only the wobbling in the source video. The DVD contains no bonus features, not even a trailer.