City That Never Sleeps (1953)

Director: John H. Auer

By Marilyn Ferdinand

An event that only a lucky few in a handful of cities get to enjoy is Noir City. Held by the Film Noir Foundation—and a major source of funds for the work they do to restore noir films and make them available in 35mm format—Noir City began life eight years ago in San Francisco, the home of the FNF. Last year, FNF President Eddie Muller and noir film scholar Foster Hirsch brought Noir City to Chicago for the first time. It was a huge thrill to listen to them, especially Foster Hirsch, whose book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen holds a proud place in my home library, as they introduced the only film I was able to see last year, the superlative The Prowler. Noir City returned to Chicago this past weekend, and I had the great pleasure of listening to FNF cofounder Alan Rode introduce the double bill of Cry Danger and City that Never Sleeps.

Eddie Muller wrote about the rescue of Cry Danger for the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon that I cohosted with Farran Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren. So, it was a particular thrill to see that fantastic noir and to have the chance to announce to the audience that not only are we holding another fundraising blogathon next February, but that the proceeds will benefit the FNF. I’m happy to say that the announcement garnered resounding applause from the noir enthusiasts who filled the historic Music Box Theatre, their appreciation stoked by having just watched City That Never Sleeps. Viewing this rare noir filmed on location in Chicago and at Republic Pictures’ studios was even more special because we saw the only known 35mm print of the film, lent to Noir City by Martin Scorsese from his personal collection. The Chicago audience got a chance to see our city as it was in 1953 and hear a well-rendered script whose authentic recreation of the mental and physical geography of Chicago was itself a rarity to us.

City That Never Sleeps is an unusual picture. Chronicling one night on the mean streets of Chicago, it combines noir with a police procedural like The Naked City, with a voiceover introduction very similiar to the one used in that film. The big difference, however, is that the voice purports to be the Voice of Chicago, and it is played by Chill Wills, an actor better known for playing hicks (was that an intentional jab at our Midwest metropolis?). After introducing us to the streets of Chicago and the main players in our story, Wills shows up as a Clarence-like guardian angel named Joe who rides as the temporary partner of our main character, John Kelly, Jr. (Gig Young). Kelly is a burned-out, married cop who wants to run away to California with Sally (Mala Powers), a beautiful burlesque dancer he has been carrying on with, and find a better-paying line of work that will get him as far from the seedy side of life as possible.

Sally, an innocent who came to the city to be a ballerina, also wants to wash away the grime of her reduced circumstances, but shows Johnny the door when he makes yet another excuse to avoid leaving his wife. Johnny, feeling trapped and desperate to win Sally back, rings Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold), to say he has reconsidered Biddel’s offer. Biddel, a powerful attorney who has coopted both the high and low elements of society, has offered Johnny $5,000 to take care of a little problem he has—Biddel’s protégé Hayes Stewart (William Talman) has grown too big for his britches and needs to cool his heels in jail for a year or two to think about it. Johnny is to pick up Stewart at Biddel’s office, where Biddel has planted bait that the light-fingered Stewart won’t be able to resist, and drive him to Indiana, where he is wanted on an outstanding warrant.

City That Never Sleeps gives us a lot of action in the long night of Johnny’s soul. The cast of characters that complicate the plot includes Johnny’s cop father, John “Pops” Kelly, Sr. (the engaging Otto Hulett), who pushed Johnny to become a cop; Johnny’s kid brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who idolizes Stewart; Lydia Biddel (the magnificent Marie Windsor), the resentful former hash slinger Penrod married and turned into a society lady; and Greg Warren (Wally Cassell), an actor with a crush on Sally who has been reduced to playing a mechanical man in the display window outside of the nightclub where Sally works. Each of these characters is put in danger by Stewart as he tries to evade capture.

Windsor and Talman are mesmerizing as lovers and coconspirators against the smug molder of souls, Edward Arnold. The confrontation scene between the three of them positively crackles, with Windsor getting the best line after Arnold says he met her when he had an hour to kill at her diner: “Yes, and you used it to murder years of my life!”

Gig Young does bitter quite well, but it is hard to identify with his character; since Johnny is supposed to be more moved by others than self-motivated, he makes a rather pallid hero. Even his determination to sell out to Penrod is pushed by Sally, who threatens to run off with the sweet, dreamy Greg if Johnny doesn’t grow a pair. Nonetheless, the film builds to a thrilling climax that sees Johnny chase Stewart down the middle of the El tracks, with the electrified third rail rather melodramatically inserted before fearful reaction shots by Stewart to emphasize the danger. Despite this exciting chase and the ensuing fist fight—Talman and Young look exhausted and they really were suffering from the location shooting on the tracks in the middle of winter—the cheap looping of the same footage of police cars racing out from lower Wacker Drive to the scene of the fight almost ruins it.

Other continuity mistakes, such as when Pops is supposed to be going to the Continental Hotel and the building clearly says The Angeles above the doorway, reflect the low budget and made me admire even more how much director Auer and the crack cast were able to make this convoluted and gimmicky script—albeit with some great lines—come to life. For example, Johnny answers a call about a pregnant woman about to give birth in a taxi. He leads her carefully behind a wall as a group of passers-by stand near the cab in stony silence. When the baby’s cries are heard, all their faces soften, showing that the hardened city we’ve been watching through most of the picture actually has a heart. Auer’s camera angles in the scene between Stewart, Lydia, and Penrod telegraph the triangle—Lydia is seen in a mirror as Penrod enters the room, and their images switch places as the scene progresses.

One image that my blog partner Rod remembers—and it is indeed memorable—is when Greg sheds a tear as Sally tries to talk him out of the window, where he is a sitting duck for Stewart. As the tears roll down his silver cheeks, his humanity is revealed to the drunken couple who are leering at him from the street. Again, although its beating is weak, the heart of Chicago is glimpsed subtly in this tale of murder and corruption. Perhaps screenwriter Steve Fisher had these words from Nelson Algren’s epic poem Chicago: City on the Make in mind when he wrote this literate script:

Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart.

Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.

Yet knowing it never can love you. l

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    16th/08/2010 to 8:43 pm

    I always assumed that “The City That Never Sleeps” was about New York, not Chicago. I’ve always admired movies that take place in the Windy City — my favorite probably being The Blues Brothers.

    Chicago seems to embody all the toughness of the Big Apple without the smugness. How cool that your city was chosen to participate in Noir City and you got to see a print from the collection of Scorsese.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/08/2010 to 9:04 pm

    The booking of a Chicago-centric film was no coincidence, of course. The house was packed for the showing. Scorsese is a great film preservationist, and I’m sure he was more than happy to help the FNF with its ticket sales.

  • Duroc spoke:
    16th/08/2010 to 9:47 pm

    I recall in this site casually and this is really, really good. I wrote my movie reviews too. I’m from Uruguay, but if you know a little of spanish you can read my thing on “Inception”.

    Nice blog, really. I add it as a favorite.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/08/2010 to 10:53 pm

    Duroc – Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you like the site. I think you have a great-looking site – if only I could read Spanish!

  • Gordon spoke:
    20th/08/2010 to 12:28 pm

    That shot of The Angeles made me suspect that at least a bit of the location shooting took place back in L.A. As the camera swept down what seemed like a nearby block, I noticed a facade that was labeled “Bradbury”; but I’m not familiar enough with the exterior to know whether its was “the” Bradbury Building.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/08/2010 to 12:55 pm

    I didn’t catch that, Gordon. You may be right, though Rode said the interiors were done on soundstages.

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