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Charlton Heston began his Hollywood film career in a leading role with this moody film noir. Noted star-making producer Hal Wallis clearly saw big potential in the actor from the Midwest with the broadest shoulders in town, and envisioned Dark City to be a breakout crime thriller in the same vein as Mark Hellinger's The Killers. That 1946 hit had propelled Burt Lancaster into instant stardom. Wallis even produced a short subject to promote his find, Introducing Charlton Heston.
With an assist from Ketti Frings, novice screenwriters John Meredyth Lucas and Larry Marcus' original story begins with three gamblers suddenly put out of business when their bookie parlor is raided. Danny Haley (Heston) and associates Augie and Barney (Jack Webb & Ed Begley) sucker ex-flyer Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) into betting and losing a great deal of money not his own. Danny learns only later that Augie used a marked deck; when Winant unexpectedly commits suicide the gamblers can't agree on whether or not to spend their shady earnings. The money becomes a lesser issue when Winant's violent brother Sidney, an unseen presence, proceeds with a campaign of revenge murders. Nobody knows what this Sidney looks like. To learn more about the man who wants to kill him, Danny goes to Los Angeles and gets close to Arthur Winant's widow Victoria (Viveca Lindfors), pretending to be an insurance investigator. But not even Victoria has a photo of her brother-in-law. His deception unmasked, the troubled Danny relocates to Las Vegas and avails himself of aid from "Soldier" (Harry Morgan), an old buddy who wanted no part of the swindle back East. Singer Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott) follows, too much in love with Danny to hide her feelings for him.
Dark City certainly displays a wide streak of bleak noir moodiness. Its characters move in drab surroundings and drift through dark night streets as if looking for a non-existent exit to a better life. Larry Marcus orchestrates a selection of ex-G.I. losers and users lacking a higher purpose. Only the slow-witted Soldier expresses doubts about taking the guileless Arthur Winant to the cleaners. Disillusioned by a wartime tragedy involving his wife and his best friend, Danny Haley's only interest is making money. He helps fleece Arthur Winant with the same non-committal attitude by which he strings along the shamelessly loyal Fran.
Although Charlton Heston contributes an impressively mature performace, the character he plays is essentially an amoral jerk. Haley sets up his mark Winant, even allowing the man to think he has a romantic chance with Fran. Although he stands up for the passive Soldier, Danny shows little remorse for his actions and has no sense of duty to the law, here represented by a rather anemic policeman on the case, Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger). The main motivator for Danny is fear of being strangled -- the phantom stalker Sidney Winant's murders are frighteningly efficient. Danny also sees nothing wrong with dating the emotionally distressed Victoria Winant and attaching himself to her small son. Dark City accepts Danny's actions as just another necessary chess move in the effort to evade the law and save his own neck.
What's more, by transferring the onus of guilt onto the maniacal Sidney Winant, the film never requires Danny Haley to fully face his culpability, beyond mailing some money to Victoria. He instead softens his outlook and accepts Fran as a real partner in a new honest life. Charlton Heston's personal debut is a standout, but Dark City is a not a strong star vehicle.
Producer Wallis put a lot of production oomph into Dark City, which was just one of six feature films he produced in 1950. Cinematographer Victor Milner provides the noir mood lighting and Franz Waxman's dynamic score makes a positive impact as well. Sensitive director William Dieterle elicits a moving performance from Don DeFore and skilfully handles the supporting personalities. Viewers will appreciate the contributions of Jack Webb (caustic & selfish), Ed Begley (nervous, ailing) and Harry Morgan (feeble but loyal). Making a late, brief appearance in an action scene is the immediately recognizable Mike Mazurki, a memorable noir fixture from Murder, My Sweet and Night and the City. After suffering through a weak part in Warners' Backfire, Viveca Lindfors seems equally out of place as a widowed war bride housewife. Ms. Lindfors' brief Hollywood career was plagued by parts unsuited to her talents.
In a bland "girlfriend" role, Hal Wallis' earlier discovery Lizabeth Scott doesn't fare much better. Fran Garland repeatedly throws herself at Danny's feet, no matter how poorly he treats her, and follows him across country like a faithful puppy. She has little function in the story except to be there when Danny finally decides that he needs her. Ms. Scott sings several nightclub standards, but the dubbing by singer Trudy Stevens is distracting, and the musical interludes stop the story cold. Dark City walks and talks like a hardboiled noir, but it plays as a compromise.
Charlton Heston's career certainly got off to an enviable start, but real success wouldn't arrive until Cecil B. DeMille gave him a lead in his overblown circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952. The quality of his films improved through the 'fifties until DeMille tapped him again for The Ten Commandments. Heston so distinguished himself as the perfect actor for larger-than-life historical & Biblical characters, that he won the lead in 1959's Ben-Hur almost by default. No other Hollywood actor has had a career even remotely resembling Heston's.
Olive Films' DVD of Dark City is from good but not perfect Paramount source materials. The image can be a bit contrasty. Light shrinkage mars a middle section for a few minutes, but not enough to become overly distracting. No extras or special features appear, and there are no subtitles or closed captions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dark City rates:
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