Monday, November 16, 2009

City That Never Sleeps

Last night we watched a fierce little B+ movie called City That Never Sleeps (1953). This was one of the films Herbert Yates hoped would convince Hollywood and distributors alike that Republic Pictures could produce more than programmers. The days when Gene Autry and Roy Rogers brought in millions were over. TV now gave away cowboys and old serials free.

After it was over I went to IMDB to see what some others thought of it. Thirty-one people posted opinions and nearly all of them mentioned two things--how "odd" the movie was and how wrong Chill Wills was for it.

Gig Young plays Johnny Kelly, a Chicago street cop who is cheating on his wife with Mala Powers. Their plan is to run away together. But Johnny's father, a detective on the force, senses something wrong and pleads with him to talk about it. But Johnny won't. Johnny needs money. He hates being broke all the time and he also hates the fact that his wife Paula makes more money than he does. He goes to a crooked lawyer Biddell played by Edward Arnold. Arnold offers him five grand to interrupt a robbery that will take place later that night, a robbery done by one of his most trusted men, Stewart, the actor William Tallman. But there's something about the set-up Johnny doesn't like and he starts to walk. Then Biddell coyly mentions that Johnny's young brother will be in on the heist, too. If Johnny wants to protect him he'd better be there. Everything is now set in motion.

The screenplay is generally excellent but because it's by Steve Fisher (a writer I like) it has to have a few mandatory moments of treacle and at least one weird narrative trick. The trick here is having Chill Wills (who in God's name cast him?) do the voice over as the soul of the city or somesuch. We're panning parts of old Chicago and Wills is intoning all the pulp cliches about cities (Tonight there will be death in the streets and birth in the hospitals etc) and then--Wills shows up as Johnny's squad car partner for the night where he continues to pontificate, mostly about what swell guys cops are.

The direction by John H. Auer and the cinematography John L. Russell are excellent. This is a noir in the classical sense. Mala Powers is very good and William Tallman, a cunning and convincing actor who never got his due, makes a unsettling villain. When he goes crazy you buy every second of it.

As I watched it I thought about Gig Young. Just about everything I've read about him noted that beneath the droll charm there was great anger and bitterness. He lived in the bottle. But in this role he got to drop all the bullshit. Here he is much closer to the Gig Young his biographers portrayed--bitter, self-pitying, confused, afraid.

By movie's end I realized that even though he'd won the Academy Award (best supporting) for his his too-flamboyant depiction of the dance marathon conductor, he'd been miscast. He should have played the lead. I've always thought that They Shoot Horses, Don't They was a miserable film. Jane Fonda was too slick and showy, Michael Sarrazin dull and useless. Young could still have done it back then. He would have brought real neurotic depth to the driter who takes up with Gloria. His performance in City Never Sleeps show that.

A fine little movie. Not perfect but passionate and memorable.

And by the way there was another piece of miscasting. Instead of Bonnie Bedelia being fourth billed, she should have had Jane Fonda's part. Bpnnie Bedelia has been there.


Rittster said...

Hi Ed,

My first post here. I also like The City That Never Sleeps. It was based on a novel called The Bloody Spur, by Charles Einstein, which I've never read. The probelm with Wills' character is that he isn't really a character, he's basically Gig's guardian angel, kind of like in It's A Wonderful Life, or like something out of a Twilight Zone episode. Introducing the Wills character as a guardian angel, or as "the city" that watches over lost souls like Young's character, is a weird blend that doesn't quite work, in my opinion. But other than that, it's a solid noir. Speaking of The Twilight Zone, my favorite all-time Gig Young performance is in "Walking Distance", where he wanders into his old home town and finds he's wandered into his past. And yeah, Young was a screwed-up guy. He killed his wife and himself in a murder-suicide.

Re They Shoot Horses: it's one of my favorite books, but the movie was completely forgettable.

Fred Blosser said...

Don't forget Young's compelling performances in Peckinpah's ALFREDO GARCIA and KILLER ELITE. In a just universe, they would have won him two more Oscars.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Amazing how poor Fonda's acting seems today. She could play shrill but not much else. Haven't thought of Bonnie Bedelia in years.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't William Talman the bad guy with the one good, seeing eye in Ida Lupino's The Hitch-hiker? He makes a good villain.

Ed Lynskey

Ed Gorman said...

Yes, Tallman was the bad guy. I happened to see that movie about a week before City That Never Sleeps. He was a damned good actor. And then of course he put in all those years on Perry Mason. As he was dying of lung cancer he did a stark series of anti-smoking tv commercials.

Rittster said...

Not that anyone's going to particularly care about my comment, much less read it, but the novel I previously mentioned, THE BLOODY SPUR was actually the basis for the similarly-named movie, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, not the movie reviewed here, CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS. My mistake.