After losing his company’s $5,000 cashier’s check in a crooked card game, a stranger in Chicago commits suicide. The group of gamblers, with Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) as a member, worries about the dangers of cashing the check, but this becomes the least of their worries when the head of the group is found hanged. Police Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger) concludes the hanging to be a case of homicide and discovers that the stranger had a mentally deranged brother who is out to avenge his brother’s death. Fran (Lizabeth Scott), a torch singer desperately in love with Danny, begs him to runaway with her. This classic film noir also features the stars of Dragnet, Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, as Danny’s gambling partners. Directed by William Dieterle (Rope of Sand).
Despite the admirable efforts of an excellent cast that tries its best to breathe some life into a second-rate script, the only noteworthy aspect of 'Dark City' is the Hollywood debut of Charlton Heston. The beefy, square-jawed actor receives top billing and carries the movie like a seasoned pro, but this run-of-the-mill film noir produced by Hal Wallis and directed by William Dieterle lacks the freshness, intensity, and style required to make it memorable. Like many uninspired genre entries, 'Dark City' flaunts all the elements of classic noir - a hard-boiled plot, tough guys and jaded dames, gritty urban locales, shadowy cinematography, and enough swirling cigarette smoke to choke the healthiest lungs - but can't corral them into a cohesive, captivating whole. The movie is entertaining enough, but there's no incendiary spark to ignite the visuals, narrative, and performances.
The story isn't very imaginative even by the clichéd standards of the 1950s. The strapping, 27-year-old Heston plays Danny Haley, romantic cynic and leader of an underground New York City gambling ring that also includes such cocky tough guys as Augie (a pre-'Dragnet' Jack Webb), Barney (Ed Begley), and the slow-witted Soldier (a pre-'Dragnet' and 'M*A*S*H' Harry Morgan, billed here as Henry). When crusading police detective Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger) shuts them down, Danny lures affable out-of-towner Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) into what the naïve mark believes to be a friendly back-room poker game. Arthur starts on a hot streak, but ends up losing his shirt, which includes a $5,000 check that was supposed to be used to buy athletic equipment for the club that employs him. Distraught and broken, Arthur hangs himself, and soon after, a mysterious figure begins stalking those who bilked him. When one of them ends up dead - by hanging - the others, aided by Arthur's widow (Viveca Lindfors), try to find the culprit before they meet the same fate.
'Dark City' hopscotches from the Big Apple to Sin City, but the studio-shot feature relies on rear-projection work and stock footage to denote the locales. The low-budget look, accentuated by tight close-ups and a brooding score by Franz Waxman, suits the material well, but the film never rises above standard fare. The script features some snappy dialogue, but the predictable story often gets sidetracked by a passionless romance between Danny and his doormat girlfriend, café chanteuse Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott), who constantly expresses her affection for her distant, tortured love. The unrequited display sets feminism back a few years, and too many Scott songs curtail the film's momentum. (Saddest of all, Scott doesn't even do her own singing.) Humdrum direction by a slumbering Dieterle doesn't help, and the result is an undistinguished and trite motion picture.
Heston handles his first Tinseltown assignment with astonishing ease. (It's no wonder he caught the eye of legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who quickly cast him in the star-making role of the circus manager in the Oscar-winning 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' his very next film.) Though a bit rough around the edges and sporting a hint of theatrical affectation, Heston makes a credible noir hero, and his questionable honor stands as the movie's sole complex element...even if it's ultimately and all-too-easily explained away. Scott was always considered a poor man's Lauren Bacall, and her throaty delivery and pouty demeanor often served her well in a series of tough-girl parts, so it's especiually off-putting to see her portray such an insecure, deferential character. Webb, Begley, Morgan, Jagger, and especially DeFore as the hapless victim spice up the proceedings, but their color and enthusiasm merely shine a brighter light on the material's myriad deficiencies.
'Dark City' isn't bad, just forgettable, one of a string of B-grade noirs that aspires to - but never achieves - A-level status. Heston fans will appreciate the opportunity to grab a glimpse of this magnetic actor at the dawn of his career, but noir aficionados can certainly give this stale, unfulfilling genre entry an unqualified pass.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dark City' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up. No previews or promos precede it.
Noir films can look stunning on Blu-ray, but only if they've been properly and meticulously restored. Unfortunately, 'Dark City' has not received any such makeover, so despite occasional moments of excellent clarity and contrast, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Olive Films remains decidedly mediocre.
A pleasing amount of grain supplies appropriate texture to this gritty drama and retains the feel of celluloid, but a few source material issues detract from the viewing experience. At around the one-hour mark, the image exhibits a slight jitter that soon evolves into an odd undulation. Thankfully, the effect only lasts about a minute, but plenty of age-related defects, such as specks, mild scratches, and a faint vertical line running down the center of the frame lend the picture a ragged look. Strong black levels and shadow delineation enhance the noir feel, and solid gray scale variance helps details appear more defined. Sharp close-ups highlight fine facial features well, such as Heston's chiseled jaw and Scott's tarnished beauty, and no crush or noise creep into the picture. 'Dark City' is certainly watchable, and it's a treat to see it in high definition, but it can't compete with more renowned noir titles that have received the TLC they deserve.
Not much, if any, clean-up has been lavished on the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track, which is plagued by pops, crackles, and light surface noise throughout. Dialogue is generally clear and comprehendible, although some of Heston's mutterings are difficult to decipher, and various sonic accents, such as punches and gunfire, are crisp and distinct. Franz Waxman's melodramatic music score nicely fills the room, and Scott's nightclub songs sound rich and full-bodied. I didn't expect anything more than a basic, workmanlike track, and that's just what I got.
No extras whatsoever, not even a trailer, are included on the disc.
A run-of-the-mill film noir that leaves its strong cast in the lurch, 'Dark City' is only noteworthy as the movie that launched Charlton Heston's stellar career. The rugged actor makes a fine impression, but can't salvage this by-the-numbers revenge yarn or jumpstart the anemic love story tacked on to its coattails. Olive's disappointing Blu-ray presentation, featuring lackluster video and audio transfers and no supplements, doesn't help the film, which keeps us engaged, but never sparkles.