“Guys like you seldom get arrested. You get killed first.”
Dark City is an interesting addition to 1950s film noir. It stands out for a couple of reasons: firstly, it combines horror and noir elements in ways that were uncommon for the time, and secondly, it provided actor Charlton Heston, the future maestro of grand epics, with his first leading man role. Do both go over perfectly? Well, not exactly. But it’s an interesting journey nonetheless.
Let’s begin with the premise:
Heston plays Danny Haley, a smug bookie who runs a gambling joint with his crew. Each check out on the film noir bingo board of tropes: Barney (Ed Begley) the weary veteran, Augie (Jack Webb), the violent hothead, and Soldier (Harry Morgan), the decent simpleton. Haley is the brains of the operation, a cold, predatory sort who uses his girlfriend Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott) to ensnare potential marks. They appear to hit the jackpot with Arthur Winant (Don DeFore), a businessman who loses his bankroll in uncouth, spectacular fashion.
It all unfolds in predictably grim fashion. The gambling sequence is an visual standout, cutting between tight shots of Winant’s sweaty brow and the looming high angles of the crew, portrayed, accurately enough, as predators. They’re in control of the situation. That is, until Winant kills himself later that night, prompting the arrival of his mysterious brother Sidney (Mike Mazurki).
Sidney’s arrival pushes Dark City into less predictable territory. What he seeks is less the traditional revenge that we’ve come to see in these films, and more of a psychological game of cat-and-mouse. He breaks into Barney’s home, taunting him and teasing him to the point of hysterics. When he finally does go in for the kill, we see only his outline and his massive hands, suggesting something inhuman may be at work here.
The scene is very reminiscent of Val Lewton‘s film, in that evil is suggested rather than shown. Its a long-standing tradition in horror, but the way in which it deconstructs the film noir language is actually pretty inventive. Haley and his crew go from predators to prey, and the ways they bicker and blame each other make for some of the film’s best moments. When Haley takes Garland for a nighttime stroll, you can practically see him come undone– scanning his surroundings, afraid of his own shadow. It may be tough to think of Heston as anything but stiff and authoritative given his iconic works (The Ten Commandments , Ben Hur), but here, the baby-faced actor is surprisingly good at feigning terror.
I also enjoy Garland’s anecdote about The River of the Underworld. Though brief, it further teases the film’s supernatural element and finally gives Lizabeth Scott something to do (she’s terribly underused here).
Then, invariably, Dark City falls flat. The leak, in this case, originates from a single plot point, and that is when Haley leaves town to locate Winant’s widow Victoria (Viveca Lindfors). He hopes that by reasoning with her, she’ll be able to get Sidney off his back. Thin reasoning, but okay. The problem is, the writers not only feel the need to create a forced romance between Haley and Victoria, but they take up almost the entire second act fleshing it out. Given its lack of importance to the characters– aside from showing us that Haley is (*gasp*) a decent guy– its a faulty decision. We’re momentarily left watching a film that feels less Dark City and more “Bright Suburb.”
The film does manage to pull itself together with a strong closer. Haley heads back into town to face Sidney and the resulting fistfight, a series of quick cuts and violent hits, culminates with the lone reveal of the attacker’s face. The police arrive to open fire and send Sidney through a second-story window, but when they go to recover his body, he’s nowhere to be found. It’s a genuinely chilling twist for the period, and one that John Carpenter may or may not have lifted for his supernatural classic Halloween.
Sadly, there’s more. We’re given a final scene between Haley and Garland– he apologizes for being a jerk and they appear to live happily ever after (?). It’s all pretty strange and unnecessary. In the interest of preserving the film’s potency, it might not be a bad idea to turn it off after the motel fight.
It’s surprising that a film blending two different genres together would even have room for filler, but that’s the tricky balance that Dark City achieves. When the film does focus on blending its genres, however, its great fun. The atmosphere is creepy, the actors are all believably scared, and Mazurki, despite having to hide his face, transcends as film noir’s answer to the Boogeyman. C+
TRIVIA: Burt Lancaster was initially cast as Haley, but the actor didn’t want to work with Lizabeth Scott, whom he had previously dated.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist 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.