Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) is a vet suffering the after-effects of his wartime experiences. But it wasn’t the fighting that got to him. He had a good war. What caused his fall was a woman, a woman whom he married and whom he caught in bed with a fellow soldier from his own squadron, his best friend. He killed the friend, was court-marshalled for it, and let off lightly due to his wartime record. His life is like a ride on the Styx, on his way to the underworld, and he’s never been able to trust a woman since. He’s going out with Fran (Lizabeth Scott) and she’s crazy about him but he can’t commit. The past is a darkness he carries throughout the film.
Danny has fallen low. His father was a West Point man. He graduated from Cornell. As the film begins he’s lucky to escape a police raid on a gambling joint he’s got a share in. Danny and his friends hustle Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) out of a 5000 check and Arthur commits suicide as a result. But it turns out the mark has a psycho brother, recently in from Montreal, who’s discovered the cause of his brother’s death and is out to kill each of the people involved in the hustle, one by one.
The story is rather hackneyed and the device of showing the murderer only by a ringed hand (see above) until the end is worse than that. But this is a film that vibrates with longing and disappointment. It’s Charlton Heston’s first Hollywood film. He gets an ‘Introducing’ credit. But his is the leading part and he comes off as a star from the first: the handsome face, the deep voice, the huge height softened by an endearing duck waddle of a walk. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther declared him a new star: ‘tall, tweedy, rough-hewn sort of chap who looks like a triple-threat halfback on a midwestern college football team…He has a quiet but assertive magnetism, a youthful dignity and a plainly potential sense of timing that is the good actor’s sine qua non. (p.47).‘
Heston is very good, an indication of the actor he could have been had he not seen himself as an exceptional person destined to tower over ‘great’ roles, by which he usually meant merely historical personages. He’s down and out here, anguished and troubled. Young still with a potential future ahead of him; and though he’s burdened by the past, he´s not yet been done in by it. Heston is all brooding intensity here, always present in relation to other actors, and capable of exciting bursts of action.
In his biography of Charlton Marc Eliot writes that Heston himself didn’t really like the film: ´Dieterle was a good director and I gave him a good performance, if no more than that…’ With the passage of time, however, Heston grew less kind about his first film outing: ‘I don’t think Dark City is a good film…It’s like The Movie of the Week, strictly a television movie….after you’ve done six or seven films, you can survive a mediocre one. But when a mediocre one is your first film, it’s a little dicey (p.48).’
To call this a television movie is indeed to disparage just how much Dieterle does for the film. The opening sequence (see stills above) is rendered dynamic by the moving camera, the canted angles, the close-ups of things like microphones when the police barge in. Look at how beautifully Dieterle deploys film form in the clip below: the close-up on the mark, the camera moving backward to encompass everyone around the table; the choice of dissolve to edit with to convey the passage of time; the interesting choice of angles, often keeping the cards within the frame, and so on.
I resent Heston´s statement because he´s incapable of noticing or appreciating just how much the filmmakers are doing for him personally, that he comes across as a star in his first Hollywood outing is not entirely due to him. See in the clip above how the light favours Heston in almost every instance. Even when it´s sidelight it´s to show him to advantage (see how the light hits his lips below and not his friend on the left)
Even the narrative is designed to favour him. Lizabeth Scott is given some great songs to sing: ‘I Don´t Want to Walk Without You’, ‘A Letter From a Lady in Love’, ‘That Old Black Magic’. ‘I Wish I Didn´t Love You So’, ‘If I Didn´t Have You’. Whilst she constantly demeans her own skill in singing, she´s actually not bad. She sings her feelings for him in the nightclubs, and it´s all unrequited. He doesn´t want her to crowd him, fence him in: for him, it´s a casual affair. But note that in their conversations, she´s given the job of recounting plot that usually befalls supporting or even bit players whilst he´s given the star´s job of reacting, feeling. The narrative favours him in lighting and even in the shadowiest of composition.
I´m sure the filmmakers didn´t intend to do in Scott but her June Allyson haircut is definitely not to her advantage. Also, for all her fame, Edith Head isn´t doing her any favours here. That ridiculous thing glued to her chest in the third picture below, the way the top falls over the skirt in the second, the bunched up stuff on her right shoulder in the first. Mind you Scott is playing a simpering masochist of a part, and the songs are great. But she´s not filmed with half the attention Heston is.
The movie has many pleasures, including a brilliant bit with a cat (see below):
Dark City has a great supporting cast, including Viveca Lindors playing the part of the mark’s ex-wife, and a metaphor for what might have been for Danny. It also has a great noir look executed by cinematographer Victor Millner (see below):
Dark City is not a great film but it’s a very enjoyable noir with an intense performance from Heston made more brilliant by its setting: achieved by creating an underworld he can travel through, positioning him amongst two pulls (Scott and Linfors), enveloping him in a cloud of torch songs sung to and for him, and shining a light on him throughout. Ingrate.