“Guys like you ought to be put away.”
WWII still echoes in the 1950 noir film Dark City starring Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston. Dark City was Heston’s first major role and here he is cast against his later mould, and instead of playing General Gordon, Michelangelo, Julius Caesar, Ben Hur, John the Baptist, El Cid and Moses, here Heston plays the damaged and slightly nasty bookie, Danny Haley. Danny owns a piece of a bookie joint and looks forward to the day he’ll have enough cash to leave the city and go… somewhere else.
The film begins with a raid on the bookie joint, and as luck would have it Danny isn’t caught up in the raid but he watches it happen. While he escapes arrest, he watches as his pals Barney (Ed Begley) and Augie (Jack Webb) are carted off to jail. The group’s slightly slow sidekick, Soldier (Harry Morgan) cleans up after the raid and then Danny appears and makes phone calls. The raid wasn’t supposed to happen and Danny and his pals paid big bribes to ensure they were safe. This is the second raid in three months and it’s left Danny and his pals in a bad spot.
Although Danny owns just a piece of the bookie joint, he has a leadership role with Barney, Augie, and Soldier. Augie is a cheap thug who gets his kicks out of tormenting easy targets while Danny is the brains of the operation. But there’s something wrong with Danny, and just what that is begins to become evident when he goes to see his girl, Fran Garland (gorgeous Lizabeth Scott), a singer at local nightclub Sammy’s. Fran sings sweet love melodies to a room full of mesmerised men, she’s really just singing her heart out to Danny as he sits at the bar and listens. But while Fran gazes at Danny like a love-sick Cocker Spaniel looking for a new home, Danny continually warns Fran to give him space, not to question him, and not to expect too much. It’s clear that where women are concerned, he has a giant chip on his shoulder.
At Sammy’s, Danny runs into a pleasant, friendly and guileless stranger, Arthur Winant (Dan DeFore), an athletic director from Los Angeles who’s there to buy gym equipment, and they strike up a casual conversation about their mutual WWII experiences stationed in England. Danny spots a $5,000 cashier’s in Arthur’s wallet and invites him to a friendly little card game with Barney and Augie.
After the card game goes sour, the players are picked off one at a time in this tense noir tale of revenge. At one point, Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger), the vice cop responsible for raiding Danny’s bookie joint begins hauling Danny in to the cop shop in an effort to make him see the error of his ways. Danny, it turns out, is the son of one of those American blue blood families, a Cornell grad to boot. Garvey’s dressing down of Danny is one of the best played scenes in the film.
Heston plays a great jerk. He’s sarcastic and his superior air is underscored by a disdainful sneer. Lizabeth Scott acts her heart out as she tries to get Danny to love her, but Danny has a lot of lessons to learn along the way, and some of these come from the sweet and complex Mrs. Winant (Viveca Lindfors). The film’s moral centre is found in the characters of Mrs Winant and Soldier–with both characters tweaking Danny’s conscience. Soldier, damaged by one too many punches considers Danny to be worse than his pals Barney and Augie because he ‘knows better.’ Somewhere buried in Danny’s brain, there are the remnants of a conscience but he’d rather leave it hidden–along with his painful past.
One of the film’s severest faults is its underutilisation of Scott. Scott’s singing scenes (that’s someone else’s voice) are delivered with stiff moves. With sappy lines and a lovesick gaze, Fran isn’t given much scope beyond becoming Danny’s doormat. Although the plot hands Fran the ability and the insider knowledge to affect what happens, her fairly cardboard cutout figure role is limited to convincing Danny to go back on the straight and narrow, and she doesn’t act beyond cajoling and pleading. If Fran’s role were written differently, Dark City would have been a much better film. The plum roles here are reserved for Heston as Danny–a man who had the best start in life and proceeds to flush his advantages down the toilet, and Viveca Lindfors as Mrs. Winant, a kind, patient and understanding woman. Dark City is directed by William Dieterle.