Written by John Meredyth Lucas and Larry Marcus
Directed by William Dieterle
Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) calmly walks along the big city sidewalk towards an as of yet unknown destination as the opening credits role. His serious gaze surveys the surrounding area. Moments later the viewer discovers what might have been troubling him as a police convoy raids a nearby building, smashing an illegal betting operation in the process. Danny successfully found refuge across the street, but he and his partners in crime Barney (Ed Begley) and Augie (Jack Webb) are out for the count as far as making quick cash is concerned. Down and out, that is, until they make the acquaintance of army veteran Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) who looks to be loaded and ready to spend big bucks while in town. A fixed card game sees the unsuspecting Arthur hand over a sizable sum via check…before hanging himself shortly thereafter. Local lounge singer Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott) is not the only one rustling Danny conscious over Arthur’s death however: the latter’s mysterious brother also wants to settle the score and starts picking off Danny’s cohorts one by one…
Williame Dieterle’s Dark City’s standing in film noir lore is generally viewed as mixed at best. It is cited as having a mediocre script but, on the other hand, serving as a welcome introduction for Charlton Heston, who gets his first ever starring role in a motion picture. True enough, the overall plot to Dieterle’s film, conjured by the screenwriting duo of John Meredyth and Larry Marcus, stretches things out a bit too far and for a bit too long, yet there is nonetheless a fair amount to relish in this truly seedy and at times dastardly twisted thriller about a con man with little to no scruples essentially trying to save his own skin and not much else. Dark City capably blends a host of genres and plot devices, ultimately producing a nasty little piece of entertainment that, in many ways, definitely stays true to the thematic principles of film noir, most of which dedicate themselves to the grotesque side of humanity.
Unsuspecting viewers seeking out the movie for the first time should be forewarned: just as anti-hero Danny Haley has long ago shed off any pretenses of morality to achieve what he has at the start of the picture, so should the audience upon entering the film. For whatever discipline the script may lack in plotting, it avoids no expenses at depicting the severity with which the central character will ploy his way to either saving his own skin or making a quick buck. Danny Haley, as portrayed by Charlton Heston, is a very handsome and magnetic personality. He exudes the kind of polish that colleagues in crime Augie and Barney lack. With no actual criminal record, police captain Garvey (Dean Jagger) cannot pin anything on the fellow, yet no one misunderstands Danny for a choir boy. Even singer Fran, who has her heart set on the troubled but unmistakably dashing con man, is fully aware of at least some of his malpractices. She frowns upon certain of his stealthily laid out operations, most notably the one that eventually sees Arthur Winant take his own life rather than live in shame. Her pretty eyes and advancements do indeed attract Danny, but the latter shields himself from getting in too deep with Fran for personal reasons that go unexplained for a good portion of the picture.
A dark romantic past during a stint in the army has encouraged Danny to relinquish the possibility of a happy ending with anybody. In fact, the protagonist’s moral decay has stooped to such a galling level that an excursion to Los Angeles that aims to find Winant’s widow (Viveca Lindfors) for help in identifying the deceased’s maniacal brother eventually leads to Danny wooing her, all the while Fran clings the hope that perhaps Danny will choose her some fine day. By all accounts, Danny is a scumbag, deserving of every woman’s scorn and a good punch to the face. Heston, however, lends the character an extra bit of charm that prevents the viewer from ever truly despising him. This is the essence of so many leading characters in motion pictures of this ilk. They possess the qualities that get a viewer to side with them all the while making it abundantly clear that their moral compass is out of whack and really should not earn any support whatsoever. Dark City is a prime of example of how accomplished a leading man Heston could be. Roles in Planet of the Apes, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments earned him worldwide recognition, his legacy forever tethered to those films. They are showy roles however, whereas Dark City’s Danny Haley forces Heston to internalize a lot more, not to mention showcase some of the worst male qualities woman rightfully cannot stand.
Director William Dieterle’s movie also juggles a lot of interesting genres in its 97-minute runtime. There is the drama that unfolds at the start of the picture during which time Danny and company have to figure out how they are to pick themselves up after the early police operation. Afterwards comes a more psychologically driven bit of drama as the trio of con artists takes poor Arthur Winant for a ride. This is followed by a section of the story that, for all intents and purposes, plays like a slasher film, as Arthur’s dangerously vindictive brother stalks the perpetrators, murdering them one by one. These instances are captured on camera employing techniques that would fit perfectly in any horror film of the era. Then comes the section during which Danny sets off to Los Angeles, impersonates a insurance representative and slowly grows feelings for his victim’s widow (this is arguably where the movie’s rhythm takes a bit of a hit), finally concluding with a rousing, tension filled finale pitting Danny, last con man standing, against the Goliath-like brother whose insatiable rage pins the endangered protagonist against the ropes. For the most past Dieterle accomplishes the task of mixing and melding such wildly differing styles with aplomb, forging everything together in a package that, while not perfect, leaves the viewer with the sense they received a lot of bang for their buck.
The best compliment anyone can award Dark City therefore is, even though it tip toes in a multitude of disparate styles, it ends up representing a lot of what most people think about film noir. Apart from the absence of a true femme fatale, a lot of what fans come to expect is on impressive display. The sequence in Los Angeles dissipates some of the earlier tension that had been built up, which works to the picture’s disadvantage unfortunately, but on the whole Dark City is a good example of just how morally revolting such films can get. As is often the case, the more pitiful or dastardly the characters, the more fun there is to be had.