Directed by John Auer for Republic Pictures in 1953, The City That Never Sleeps takes place not in New York City as you'd probably guess, but on the seedy side of Chicago, Illinois. Advertised with a salacious one sheet showing dancing girls, a passionate kiss, a murder scene, a sneaky cop and a fight on an aboveground subway line, it's a fast paced movie with a great cast that tells a solid, suspenseful story with a few fun twists.
The central part of the storyline revolves around a man named Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), a cop who is really having some serious difficulty dealing with the stress of his job. Johnny's pretty much ready to throw in the towel and return his badge, and if that weren't enough he's unhappy with his marriage to Kathy (Paula Raymond). In fact, Johnny would love nothing more than to take off with a foxy burlesque dancer named Sally Connors (Mala Powers), a woman referred to as 'Angel Face.' Sally's life is no bowl of cherries either, she's tired of her job and wants more out of life though she seems to enjoy the company of fellow entertainer Lydia (Marie Windsor). Madly in love with Sally is another entertainer at the club she works at, a guy who paints his face up and stands in the window facing the street and works as a 'mechanical man.' He wants to do a husband and wife comedy routine with her and dreams of hanging out on the beach with her while he performs day in, day out.
In order to improve his lot in life, Johnny is debating whether or not he should take the offer made to him by a corrupt district attorney named Penrod Biddle (Edward Arnold), who sees in Johnny the makings of a right hand man. Johnny just wants some easy money though, enough to get out of Chicago and start over. Also in the picture is a tough thug named Hayes Stewart (William Talman), he's power hungry and isn't afraid to kill in order to get what he wants. Biddle wants to pay Johnny to help get Stewart across the state line without the cops nabbing him. Trying to keep Johnny grounded through all of this is Sgt. Joe (Chill Wills), seemingly the only honest cop in town and a man who believes that maybe, just maybe, there's hope for Johnny.
Narrated by the city itself, this one moves fast and hits all the right notes. Early in the film the pictures sets up enough interesting characters that we're onboard and in it for the long haul, be if the cop debating what to do with his life, the killer who has an unusual affinity for his pet rabbit or the beautiful stripper unsure what to do with herself. The plot twists and turns, as plots are apt to do in good film noir, while the shadowy cinematography shows off the seedy side of early fifties Chicago beautifully. The film is incredibly effective in exploiting its location photography, be it the scenes that take place outside the club, with our mechanical man performing in the window visible from the abandoned warehouse across the street, or be it on one of the above ground subway lines in the area. With the city literally a character in the movie (in this regard the movie feels a little bit like The Naked City) it makes sense that Auer would emphasize the danger and darkness of Chicago the way he does here and the movie is all the better for it.
Performance wise, we're in very good shape as well. Gig Young, who some of us will instantly associate with a certain Twilight Zone episode, is a solid lead. His Johnny is a man full of conflict, a man wrestling with not only issues or morality but of identity as well. At one point we can assume his job meant a lot to him, and when we meet him it's obvious the shield he wears no longer carries the importance it once did. Young plays this part well, we get under his skin and into his head just enough to ensure we want to know how and where his story will end. Mala Powers steals the show as Angel Face, a gorgeous woman who is just as messed up and torn up as the married man she's seeing on the side, while a great supporting performance from one of the greatest bad girls of noir of all time, Marie Windsor, is also a welcome addition. Arnold is good as the sleazy D.A., while Talman makes for an imposing heavy and brings to the screen a palpable intensity.
Though some unusual logic gaps and unexpected elements of dream like ambience sometimes feel at odds with the gritty cops versus killers angle that the movie finally settles on, The City That Never Sleeps is fast paced, entertaining and suspenseful. It might not rank up there with top tier efforts but this is solid B-picture entertainment through and through, an underrated picture that fans of the genre really ought to appreciate.
For a movie made on a modest budget in 1953, The City That Never Sleeps looks pretty good on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.33.1. There's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it. Texture is good and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail. There are some scenes that do show more than other parts of the movie do and there is a consistent amount of small specs and scratches present throughout - this could have been cleaned up more than it has been, but it still looks pretty good and it offers a reasonable amount of depth.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in the film's original English language, no alternate language or subtitle options or offered. The audio is clean and clear and easy to follow, the dialogue easily discernible and the score dramatically strong without overpowering anything. There are no issues here with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout the movie. Range is obviously limited by the age and format of the source material but the movie sounds just fine here.
Aside from a static menu and chapter selection, there are no extra features at all on this Blu-ray disc from Olive Films.
Olive Films' Blu-ray debut of John Auer's The City That Never Sleeps doesn't offer up any extras and would have benefitted from a bit of restoration or cleanup work, but all in all it looks pretty good in high definition. The movie itself, however, is a good one. Some nice mystery and suspense, some solid action, interesting characters, snappy dialogue - a really enjoyable and underrated film noir well worth rediscovering. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.