A real crackerjack noir with unusually rich characterizations, Dark City (1950) was also Charlton Heston's Hollywood movie debut and from the very start he delivers an unexpectedly polished, nuanced performance belying his newcomer status. Given its cast of soon-to-be-famous film and TV stars as well as noir stalwarts like Lizabeth Scott, it's surprising that it took an independent DVD label, Olive Films, to get this Paramount-owned title released to home video.
Clearly, this new label knows what they're doing. The titles they've sublicensed have been carefully chosen: their summer slate is an intriguing cross-section of cult favorites and unjustly obscure treasures film fans have been wanting to see for years. The video transfer on Dark City is generally excellent despite a few minor imperfections. There are no extra features, but otherwise this is a handsome release that bodes well for the company.
Broke after their bookmaking racket is busted by the cops, shady underworld types Danny (Heston), Augie (Jack Webb), and Barney (Ed Begley, Sr.) lure war veteran Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) into a backroom poker game after Danny spies a $5,000 cashier's check on Winant's person, money his brother has entrusted him. Winant wasn't born yesterday, but without Danny's knowledge Augie has marked the cards, and after a careful set-up the pigeon is plucked: Winant loses everything.
The next day Danny, Barney, and Danny's slow-witted assistant, Soldier (Harry Morgan), are shocked to read in the papers word that a despondent Winant hanged himself. This makes cashing the check next to impossible but, much worse, the gamblers gradually become aware that Winant's psychotic brother - until the climax the camera shows only his huge, gorilla-like hands - intends on avenging his brother's tragic suicide.
Directed by William Dieterle and written by John Meredyth Lucas and Larry Marcus (from the latter's story, "No Escape"), Dark City is tense, exciting, and somewhat unusual in that most of the drama involves the internal struggles of the gamblers (and Soldier) coming to terms with their complicity in Winant's suicide. Typical of the film's fine characterizations, everyone has a slightly different reaction. Danny at first dismisses but can't shake his guilt. "He was willing to take our money when we lost," he argues with his girl, nightclub singer Fran (Lizabeth Scott). Soldier is shaken but moves on. Sadistic yet cowardly Augie, whom Danny insists picks on only the old and weak, doesn't give Winant's death a second thought, while Barney, sweating bullets with a bleeding ulcer, is on the verge of a complete nervous collapse.
Danny is an intriguing character because, as Police Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger, very good) points out, he doesn't fit the usual criminal mold. In a backstory only vaguely explicated, Danny had been court-martialed but acquitted for manslaughter after killing his best friend, an officer, apparently after his affair with Danny's wife was discovered. The disintegration of his marriage drove Danny to Chicago's underworld, but the bitterness and cynicism he retreated to is rattled by guilt over Winant's suicide, compounded by a basic decentness to do right by Winant's wife, Victoria (Viveca Lindfors, introduced an hour into the story), and her son, Billy (Mark Keuning). There's also another largely unstated theme running through the film, of veterans of the Second World War turning on one another in a postwar world where nothing seems to be going the way everyone expected it would.
Heston is extremely well cast. He projects an almost-but-not-quite cocky self-assurance yet, at 27, is also outwardly callow and even pimply. He's adult enough to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut around the police, yet in one scene is so immature that he yells at a telephone to "Stop ringing!" and in other scenes resembles a puppy that's just been swatted for peeing on the rug. Possibly his experiences acting before the camera in two non-professional, almost experimental films for director David Bradley, Peer Gynt (1941) and Julius Caesar (1950), help explain his extraordinary Hollywood debut. Rare among neophytes, Heston is almost completely at ease onscreen, never over- or underplaying for the camera, normally a difficult transition for stage-trained talent. His Danny is a complex, subtle, and assured performance. He gets both top billing and an "Introducing..." credit, highly unusual but solidly earned. Of course, he'd soon find a niche playing larger-than-life historical and religious figures, but in his middle age Heston would return to thoughtful, misanthropic cynics along the lines of his character here.
Purely by coincidence, I happened to watch Dragnet (1966) immediately before this, the TV movie that served as the pilot for the Jack Webb-Harry Morgan series that immediately followed its production. Imagine my surprise when they turned up later that evening in Dark City, sharing scenes as two-bit hoods. Webb has the juicier part - indeed, one of the best of his entire career - playing the unscrupulous, amoral Augie, whose growing panic as Winant's brother closes in is captivating. I've seen Morgan's Soldier described as a pug, an ex-boxer who it's implied fought one round too many, but with a name like that how could he be anything but a war veteran like Danny and Winant, who maybe lost his edge on the battlefield? In any case, Morgan's atypical characterization is likewise interesting.
The film generates a lot of suspense as Winant's brother moves in for the kill, especially after his (very well-staged) violent murder of one of the gamblers early on. The constant close-ups of his big hands is ingenious, establishing the character's spatial relationship to the others (and his constant presence) at all times, while the audience nervously wonders what kind of scary face might accompany those oversized hands. For noir fans, there's an "Of course!" moment when his identity is finally revealed.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original full frame, 1.37:1 aspect ratio, for the most part Dark City looks terrific. Around the 57-minute mark there's some pinholes in the print that give Webb's character a pierced ear for about 30 seconds, and then around 1:02 the film gets awfully warped for about half a reel, which is like trying to watch the film through a fish bowl. But these are minor distractions and don't damage the viewing experience too much. The mono audio, English only and without subtitles, is adequate. There are no Extra Features.
Were it not for the lack of extras this would get a DVD Talk Collector Series recommendation, but still rates Highly Recommended as a noir that deserves to find a bigger audience. Rich characterizations and fine performances, including one by Charlton Heston in his professional film debut, make this a winner all the way.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.