Film Noir Review: Dark City (1950)

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

Dark City is a prime example of intermingling genres. It’s upfront in its blend of horror and film noir, an agenda that’s alluded to in the 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 — a feeling 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 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 veteran, the hothead, the simpleton, and Haley, the smart guy living below his potential. He’s constantly being reminded of this, whether it be from local policeman Capt. Garvey (Dean Jagger) or 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 bad), Fran is constantly trying to make an honest man out of Haley. As is to be expected from a noir protagonist, however, he’s content living his life with a scowl and a general hatred towards the finer things in life. It might seem silly to think of Heston, who would go on to define integrity in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959), as a scowling punk, but here, with a babyface and a nasty demeanor, he’s terrific.

The inciting incident 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 played in a backroom poker game set up by Haley and his associates. It’s a standout scene in terms of style, cutting between close-ups of Winant’s sweaty brow and looming high angles of the table. Winant offs himself later that night, leaving behind a family, a sizable debt, and a brother, Sidney Vincent (Mike Mazurki), 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 spill over into the horror genre. In a scene that maximizes both its actors and its eerie tone, Barney is murdered by an offscreen assailant — seen only in his outline and the shape of his massive hands. The scene calls to mind the works of horror master Val Lewton, in that the fear of the unknown is conveyed through shadows and suggestively-placed camera angles.

Director William Dieterle increases this style as the story progresses, 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 when Haley and Fran take a nightime 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 perfectly fine 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 had built up. Scenes involving the two are pleasant enough, but one can’t shake the feeling that they’re merely filler to pad out the film’s runtime. It would’ve been nice to see where the 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 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 to plug a few holes in him, Vincent gets away – only the shattered glass of his window escape remains. In what feels like a precursor to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), it’s a chilling, ambiguous note one didn’t often see in crime pictures.

Sidney Vincent sneaking up on a scared Danny Haley.

Sidney Vincent sneaking up on a scared Danny Haley.

Haley behaves as if Vincent choked some empathy into him for the final scene, where he romances Garland and they share a laugh that brings down the curtain. It’s an underwhelming sendoff, frankly, as it betrays the bleak character that Heston had worked so hard to perfect. But worst comes to worst, you can just turn the film off after the 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 that’s precisely what happens during the second act. Scott, Webb, and Begley otherwise bring vitality to the table, while Heston, in his film debut, plants the seeds that would later bloom into stardom. Still, the unsung hero of Dark City, and the actor who gives the film its distinct edge, is Mike Mazurki. Though onscreen for less than a minute, his presence looms large over the other characters and their actions. 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 Film Noir Review, 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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