The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - DARK CITY (1950) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - DARK CITY (1950)

dark city 1950 review
A hoodlum is targeted by the brother of the man he drove to suicide.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: William Dieterle

Starring: Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott, Viveca Lindfors, Dean Jagger, Don DeFore, Jack Webb, Ed Begley, Harry Morgan

dark city 1950 bluray

Charlton Heston is best known to movie lovers for his portrayals of stoic heroes, but he played his share of villains too. Heston's professional screen debut, in director William Dieterle's 1950 noir Dark City, saw him play a proper wrong 'un, though one in search of dubious redemption.

Heston was awarded the role of Danny Haley when Burt Lancaster pulled out, and so another chapter of Hollywood history was penned. Haley is a small time hoodlum eking out a living in New York as a member of a small gang of criminals led by the ulcer blighted Barney (Ed Begley). When Haley pays a visit to the club where his long-suffering girlfriend, Fran (Lizabeth Scott, afforded the opportunity to belt out a handful of numbers), is crooning on stage, he strikes up a conversation with Arthur (Don DeFore), a visitor from out of town who lets slip that he has a cheque for $5,000 on his person. Haley invites Arthur to take part in a poker game, which ends with Arthur cleaning out Haley and his mobster mates.

dark city 1950 review

Desperate to make their money back, and get their hands on that cheque, they arrange another game for the following night. This time the game is rigged, and ends with Arthur forced to part with his cheque. The following morning, the newspaper carries a story of how Arthur was found hanging from the chandelier of his hotel room (must have been a slow news day). When the members of the gang are killed off one by one, each left hanging as though they too took their own lives, Haley attempts to draw out the man he believes to be the killer - Arthur's psychotic older brother (Mike Mazurki).

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There's a growing school of thought that preaches that movies should only serve to lecture viewers on morality, and that movie protagonists should have unimpeachable ethics. Personally, I find this notion laughably ridiculous, and incredibly ignorant. I can't imagine limiting myself to only engaging with art that reflects the sort of values I want to see in the real world. Heaven help these people if they ever watch any Films Noir. What must they make of characters like Danny Haley, who are close to being devoid of any redeeming qualities? Could they endure Dark City, a film that asks us to root for a protagonist who played a part in driving a man to suicide?

All that said, if your lead character is this much of a scuzzball, you need to cast someone the audience can warm to more readily than Heston. The actor's cold screen demeanour makes him ideal for his roles in Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, where he represents all we have left of humanity, for better or worse, but not so much for Danny Haley. We need to believe that Haley is honestly on a quest to redeem himself - and a lengthy diversion sees him court the dead man's widow (Viveca Lindfors, a Nordic ice queen similarly miscast as a homely California housewife), who begins to fall for his not so obvious charms - but Heston's withdrawn nature makes this difficult to swallow. Does Haley really wish to make amends and do right by Arthur's widow, or is he simply attempting to save his own skin?

dark city 1950 review

Perhaps 1950 and Hollywood are the wrong time and place to examine such a grey area of morality, as evidenced by Dark City's insultingly unconvincing - and presumably studio imposed - 'happy ending'. Had Dark City been made a couple of decades later, free from the shackles of the Hays code, it could have doubled down on Haley's nastiness and afforded him the more psychologically complex denouement he truly deserves.

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The poor casting choices extend to Scott, who was always at her best when playing vampy femme fatales like Dead Reckoning's Coral or Too Late for Tears' Jane. That's not to say she couldn't play the innocent, as evidenced in her roles in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Desert Fury, but Dark City's Fran is such a naive, hopelessly infatuated waif that it's difficult to buy Scott in the role once you've seen her pull pistols on tough guys like Bogie and Dan Duryea. You keep expecting Fran to reveal a dark, streetwise side, and when it reaches the point where you're forced to accept that she's merely a one-dimensional love interest you want to pull her out of the screen, shake her and remind her that she's Lizabeth Scott goddammit, one of the toughest broads to ever grace the silver screen!

dark city 1950 review

Dark City suffers heavily from a drawn out narrative that would likely be better served as a 70 minute programmer than a 98 minute A-picture. It's occasionally enlivened by the odd suspenseful set-piece, like when Haley returns to his hotel and is informed that another man has already asked for his key, or a sequence where the paranoid Haley eyes up the shady patrons of Fran's nightclub, trying to figure out if one of them might be his potential killer, like sweaty Dennis Weaver in the truck stop diner in Spielberg's Duel.

What's most interesting about Dark City is how it serves as an early template for the de rigueur plotline of every other slasher movie of the '80s, an unidentified killer murdering those responsible for an earlier transgression. A sequence where one of the gang is strangled in their hotel room after being menaced by strange noises and billowing curtains suggests that Dieterle might have made a great horror director.

Feature commentary by writer, historian and film programmer Alan K. Rode; video appreciation by critic Philip Kemp; trailer; image gallery; booklet with writing by Barry Forshaw (first pressing only).

Dark City is on blu-ray now from Arrow Academy.