Director: John H. Auer, writer: Steve Fisher.
City That Never Sleeps (1953) begins with a voiceover by Chill Wills telling us about some of “his citizens” in Chicago. The city, described by one character as the melting pot that melts you good, will figure prominently in the lives of the performers, police and crooks whose lives intertwine when a big life decision by a cop sets in motion a series of disastrous events.
As the evening begins, police officer Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) is at a crossroads. He’s unhappy in his marriage, nagged by his mother in law, reluctantly pushed into the “family business” of policing, and keeps a mistress but has cold feet about leaving his wife. Sally “Angel Face” Connors (Mala Powers), Johnny’s nightclub dancer girlfriend has had it up to here with his pathetic rut and his broken promises, and hates herself for wasting her time and potential waiting for him to make up his mind. This night, Sally threatens to run away with Gregg (Wally Cassell), a fellow performer currently playing the mechanical man in the club’s window, which gets him some sidewalk spectators and makes him a witness to a murder later in the film.
Wills’ narration introduces us to more key players. Johnny’s wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) is sweet and thinks that her higher paycheck is the cause of all their troubles, and goes to Johnny’s police sergeant father John “Pops” Kelly (Otto Hulett) with her concerns. Brilliant, corrupt attorney Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) loves to remind everyone that his hobby is building persons up and tearing them down. He gloats about all the big, proud, dignified deals he’s made out of ordinary people he found in the trash heap of life, citing both his wife Lydia (Marie Windsor) and criminal protege Hayes Stewart (William Talman) as examples of his successful projects. Hayes is a former magician who’s become an ambitious nuisance by fooling around with Lydia and blackmailing Penrod with stolen documents. Hayes’ young accomplice is none other than Officer Johnny’s little brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), which sets up a Kelly family showdown, but as with most of this movie, things won’t play out quite the way you expect.
Once introduced and lined up in their various states of pain and desperation, these characters start falling against each other like a row of dominoes when Johnny finally decides to quit the force and do a job for Penrod. With calm certainty Johnny writes his resignation letter and starts patrol, but instead of his usual partner, he gets a talkative, inquisitive and philosophical new one, Sgt. Joe, played by Wills. Putting a face and name to the voiceover raises questions about whether Johnny will survive the night physically and/or spiritually, otherwise why should Joe know and see all, and be the one narrating? Joe soon becomes more eerie than curious as he displays saintly patience with Johnny’s obviously suspicious activities and precisely diagnoses of all Johnny’s problems.
The errand Johnny agrees to do for Penrod is to grab Hayes during his document heist tonight, kidnap and deliver him over the state line where he’s wanted for manslaughter, and where imprisonment will reduce him to needing Penrod’s “rebuilding” services again. Johnny’s reluctance to run this errand while still in uniform is another reminder of his decency, but he’s persuaded anyway. Hayes is infuriated by a mocking note Penrod leaves for him in place of the incriminating papers, raises the blackmail demand and reveals Lydia’s infidelity, which deflates Penrod’s hot air and malarkey and provokes him to violence. When Pops Kelly is mistaken for Johnny, he learns about his son’s deal with Penrod, and several killings ensue, putting Johnny and Hayes on course for a showdown, and Johnny face to face with his guilt. It ends with an exciting chase through the streets and along the ‘L’ train rails.
This is a noir about building pressures and boiling points, unrealistic demands and poor decisions, fatal mistakes, power shifts and pivots due to chance and something much higher, whether you take it to be spiritual or supernatural. The events are grounded in docu-noir-style urban reality through a series of Weegee inspired images, vignettes of small time criminals, citizens needing help and onlookers watching police activities. In each instance Johnny does a good deed with an endearing mix of weary cynicism and genuine caring, and usually comes away feeling unappreciated. “It’s a big responsibility looking after the public,” Joe says, pointing out to Johnny the many rewards of the job and the need for a potentially chaotic city like this to have order kept by the good guys. Joe doesn’t actually participate in anything, and seems to go unnoticed by anyone other than Johnny, making him Johnny’s conscience or a greater “voice” sent to guide him through the night, a unique and memorable fantasy figure to find in a noir.
City That Never Sleeps is full of clever and impressive visuals, memorable faces and moments: sparkly lettering for the opening credits, nightclub stage music that swells during Johnny and Sally’s kiss, nice shots capturing the police force at roll call, Hayes running down a skyscraper stairwell, officers framed at low angle against the Silver Frolics neon marquee, Penrod finding his mocking note returned to his safe, Tom Poston as Pops’ partner. Talman may play the magician but Marie Windsor brings as much magic to her every scene. During a romantic moment, she purrs, “the black magic of Hayes Stewart…give me the magic,” delights in leaving lipstick marks on his face and laughs at his sudden show of panic and conscience. Talman and Windsor are a riveting and sympathetic couple, until she becomes unwilling assistant in Hayes’ famous magic act about a disappearing girl. It’s a strange and fascinating mix: the ghostly ride-along partner, the crying mechanical man in the window, the showgirl who ends up loving the tin man and his dream, the crook with a rabbit in his hat, and the cop with an angel on his shoulder trying to get through this dark night of the soul in Chicago.
This is an entry in The Republic Pictures Blogathon, a celebration of the studio’s incredible talent roster, wonderful output and lasting legacy. It’s hosted by 50 Westerns From The 50s and The Hannibal 8– see all the contributions here.