Movie Review: Dark City (1950)

With multiple reasons to see 1950’s film noir, Dark City, I watched at home with expectations for a mid-range movie. This is about what was delivered, too, as the Hal Wallis production starring Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston is a slice of romantic-tinged crime. I recommend Dark City as a taut, biting caper. It’s an uncomplicated movie and it’s easy and compelling to watch.

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Dark City‘s best asset, besides great costumes by Edith Head, music by Franz Waxman (Captains Courageous, Rear Window) and good direction by William Dieterle (The Story of Louis Pasteur, Love Letters) is its lesser-known cast of actors in atypical roles or movie stars and performers such as Ed Begley and Lizabeth Scott (Too Late for Tears), both of whom make a distinct impression in generic roles, Miss Scott as a nightclub singer in love with Heston’s card shark.

As the square-jawed cad, Charlton Heston is curiously both blank and damaged, which adds to the suspense in this Las Vegas-driven movie about an attempt at redemption. Though Heston would go on to star in Will Penny, The Big Country, Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man and Ben-Hur, Dark City is his motion picture debut. It’s easier to see with this role why and how the good-looking, upright leading man type generally became smaller and smaller until being wiped out in the late 1960s, as the downcast, anti-hero with a broken nose became bigger and bigger on the screen. What Jack Nicholson did with campy, scenery-chewing abandon in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, one of the most preposterous movies ever made, sort of begins with and owes to Heston’s muted hero type. Heston would become known as the semi-deranged, teeth-grinding white male acting out against the dying world in ever more embittered and misanthropic ways. Strangely yet undeniably, that prototype begins here; Heston’s low-life hustler, as handsome as he is, hasn’t much going for him. His washed out gambler greases Hollywood’s slide toward the modern anti-hero archetype.

Add to this his character’s long-suffering muse, played by Lizabeth Scott as alluring and man-worshipping Fran, who puts on a show like she’s modeling Marlene Dietrich but with less cynicism. Also add a widow played by Viveca Lindfors (The Way We Were,Playing for Time, Stargate), a boy, a mysterious murderer, Scott’s frequent co-star Don DeFore (TV’s Hazel, Too Late for Tears, You Came Along) as the honest Southern Californian who gets conned and Henry Morgan (TV’s M*A*S*H, The Shootist, High Noon, Inherit the Wind, TV’s Gunsmoke) as a simpleton named Soldier who’s one of the gang and Dark City‘s a constantly moving surprise. What’s more, Morgan’s partner Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet, Jack Webb, plays a scrawny villain. And, while it’s a small role, Dean Jagger (Executive Suite, Elmer Gantry, Bad Day at Black Rock, Twelve O’Clock High, Forty Guns) as a policeman gets an excellent and decisive scene at the movie’s climax.

Other perks and rewards in Dark City, which is mostly a well-made B-movie with a good script partly written by TV screenwriter John Meredyth Lucas (Ben Casey, The Fugitive, Star Trek), add up, too. Watch it like it’s something you’ve stumbled upon and enjoy; Dark City provides a preview of coming distractions and a showcase of outstanding Hollywood talent.

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