Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gig Young, Mala Powers, William Talman, Edward Arnold, Chill Wills, Marie Windsor, Paula Raymond, Otto Hulett, Wally Cassell, Ron Hagerthy, James Andelin, Tom Poston, Bunny Kacher, Philip L. Boddy, Thomas Jones, Leonard Diebold
Written by: Steve Fisher
Directed by: John H. Auer
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English
Running Time: 88
Date: 23/04/2013

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Night and the 'City'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Decades ago, Martin Scorsese drew up a list of his 100 "guilty pleasures," which was published in Film Comment magazine. On this list was John H. Auer's City That Never Sleeps (1953). But unlike any of the other items on this list, this movie came with a footnote: "or any Auer film." That intrigued me. But information on Auer was hard to come by. He's not listed in Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema, nor David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film. What I could dig up said that he was born in Hungary and was a child actor there. He came to Hollywood at some point and directed mostly "B" movies. City That Never Sleeps seems to be the one people consider his masterpiece.

I won't dispute it. This is an incredible film. It begins with some narration: the city of Chicago itself is telling the story. Taking place over the course of one night, it introduces us to several of its citizens, starting with cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young). Johnny is fed up with being a cop, and he's fed up with his wife (and especially his nagging mother-in-law). He loves a dancer in a sleazy nightclub, Sally 'Angel Face' Connors (Mala Powers), and he's considering running away with her.

While on duty one night, a corrupt attorney Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) offers Johnny a job, helping catch an ambitious underling -- and a former magician -- Hayes Stewart (William Talman) who plans to rob Mr. Biddel. Meanwhile, there's Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell), a washed-up actor who now performs as a "mechanical man" in the window of Angel Face's night club. Gregg loves Angel Face, and seems to be around whenever Johnny isn't. Then there's Johnny's old man, who also works as a cop and seems to be the reason Johnny joined the force in the first place. Finally, there's Johnny's partner for the night, Joe (Chill Wills), who may also have an agenda of his own.

The screenplay is by Steve Fisher and it's a tight package, weaving in and out of its narrow passages with ease. But Auer gives the movie a true sense of sadness and longing that seems unquenchable, even unknowable, within the city's cruel walls. It's technically a film noir, but the difference is that it contains a measure of hope against all hope. City That Never Sleeps is a little miracle, and one that deserves to see the light of day once again.

The great Marie Windsor appears in a small-ish role as the attorney's unfaithful wife. Cinematographer John Russell (Welles' Macbeth, Ulmer's The Man from Planet X, Hitchcock's Psycho) turns in some extraordinary work, and Young, who already had an Oscar nomination, gives an appealing, desperate performance. Olive Films released this film on DVD and Blu-ray in 2013, with no extras, but it's an essential item.

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