Film Noir Review: Dark City (1950)

“Guys like you seldom get arrested. You get killed first.”

Dark City is a devious example of intermingled genres. It’s upfront in its blend of horror and noir, an agenda that’s hinted at within the film’s opening sequence. Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) confidently struts down a city street. Within moments, police sirens sound in the distance, and Haley’s moxie turns to paranoia — an emotion viewers will become well acquainted with for the majority of the film’s runtime. He doesn’t know it yet, but Haley is in for one of noir’s more unsettling underworld descents. Haley is a bookie who runs a crooked joint with Barney (Ed Begley), Augie (Jack Webb) and punchy janitor Soldier (Harry Morgan). Each of these men check out on the noir bingo board: the frazzled veteran, the masochist, the punchy simpleton, and Haley, the smart guy living below his potential. Everyone knows it too, from local policeman Capt. Garvey (Dean Jagger) to his nightclub squeeze Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott).

Dark City 1950 promotional poster.

The film’s promotional poster.

When she’s not pretending to sing torch songs (there’s plenty of lip-synching going on in classic noir, but, sadly, this one stands out as particularly noticeable), Fran is being coldly received by a lover who barely registers emotion. In this regard, Haley is a classic noir character type — no heart and even less class to back it up. It’s ironic that Heston would go on to define big screen integrity in the coming years with The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959), but here, with a babyface and a nasty demeanor, he’s terrific. Heston’s range was never especially vast, though he does get ample room to flex his acting when the inciting incident kicks in.

That kicker arrives in the form of Arthur Winant (Don DeFore), a businessman who comes into town looking for a good time. Taken by Garland’s feminine wiles, Winant gets thoroughly played in a backroom poker game by Haley and his associates. It’s a stellar scene in terms of style, driven by DeFore’s sweaty brow and Victor Milner’s corrosively lit high angles, which drives home the character’s anxiety. Winant offs himself later that night, leaving behind a family, a sizable debt, and a police investigation that puts Haley’s gang in hot water. Oh, and Winant’s brother Sidney Vincent (Mike Mazurki), is a boogeyman-type criminal who comes into town looking for revenge.

Haley and the boys pull a fast one on Arthur Winant.
Haley and the boys pull a fast one on Arthur Winant.

This is where the film begins to sow its horror oats. In a scene that maximizes both its actors and its fearful tone, Barney is murdered by an offscreen assailant — seen only in his outline and the shape of his massive hands. It calls to mind the finest works of Val Lewton, in that it provokes terror without showing a direct cause, and it spins Dark City into an unexpected direction. Suddenly, Haley’s world is one of chilling paranoia.

Director William Dieterle heightens this mood, as quick cuts contrast with camerawork that’s noticeably static, and the fear that Heston tries to suppress is contagious. It gets to the point where I find myself nervously scanning the docks for Winant when Haley and Fran take a pier-side stroll. The “River Of The Underworld” anecdote in this scene is another chilly touch, one which sums up the personal stakes before Haley and Augie hit the road in search of Arthur Winant’s widow (Viveca Lindfors).

"Don't you want to know what's going on in the world?"

“Don’t you want to know what’s going on in the world?”

It’s at this point that the film comes to a screeching halt for what always seems to be the kiss of death in noir: a romantic subplot. It’s all fine and dandy that Haley thaws his big city heart –he’s smitten by the widow, her son, and their small town paradise — but it comes at the expense of the rich mood that the film worked to establish. Scenes revolving around the two are pleasant enough, but one can’t shake the feeling that they’re merely filler to pad out the film’s runtime. I would’ve loved to see where film could have gone had it stayed in its main setting.

Thankfully, Bright Suburb does revert back to its Dark City mood for the final act. This is where the film reaches its stylistic apex, as Haley and Vincent brawl in a rundown motel. Darkened visuals come back into play as the boogeyman murderer creeps upon an armed Haley, and the resulting fistfight is extremely aggressive for the era. In the midst of this scuffle, Vincent’s face is exposed for the first — and only — time in the entire film. And though police arrive in time to plug a few holes in him, Vincent gets away – only the shattered glass of his window escape remains. In what feels like a possible precursor to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), it’s a chilling, ambiguous note that wasn’t often attempted by crime films of the era.

Sidney Vincent sneaking up on a scared Danny Haley.

Sidney Vincent sneaking up on a scared Danny Haley.

Haley acts as if Vincent choked some empathy into him for the final scene, where he romances a jilted Garland and they share a corny laugh to bring down the curtain. It’s an eye roll of a sendoff, honestly, betraying the bleak character that Heston worked so hard to shape — but worst comes to worst, you can just turn the film off after the Vincent fight and be none the wiser.

All in all, inconsistency is the silent killer of Dark City. It’s ironic that a film with such a tough title would fall victim to fluff, but the mid-point knicks are notable enough to lower the grade of this star-studded affair. Scott, Webb, Begley, and Morgan all bring their usual charisma to the table, while Heston, in his film debut, plants the seed that would later bloom into stardom. Still, the unsung hero of Dark City, and the guy who gives the film its distinct flavor, is Mike Mazurki. Though onscreen for barely a minute, his imposing presence casts a shadow of epic proportions, and Dieterle wisely milks it for all it’s worth. When The Boogeyman knocks on a hotel door to punch your ticket, ten-to-one says he’s the spitting image of Mazurki.

B- TRIVIA: Burt Lancaster was initially cast as Haley, but the actor didn’t want to work with Lizabeth Scott again, whom he had previously dated.


–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.

This entry was posted in Films, Posts by Danilo Castro. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Film Noir Review: Dark City (1950)

  1. A stylish Hollywood debut for Heston, whose image would certainly take that different turn. Rather like Douglas’ weakling in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Opportunities to stretch abound in noir.

  2. Shelia says:

    Some Classic Movies are so fun just for the juxtaposition to the modern ones!
    HaHa my CAPTCHA was: gang for sale

  3. Pam Traves says:

    I never saw this film, but I wold love to see it! It looks great and I love all the actors. Thank you !!

  4. Amy Condit says:

    I really have wanted to see “Dark City ” for the longest time! Charlton Heston was great in Noir’s “Touch of Evil”, and I’m eager to see him in his debut film. With Noir staples Lizabeth Scott & Don DeFore who worked so well together in “Too Late for Tears”, and “Dragnet” friends Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, I’m sure this film is gripping. Thank you, Danilo—I will have to make a point to catch this!

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