Movie review: City That Never Sleeps (1953)

What did you watch? City That Never Sleeps, a 1953 crime thriller about morals and values and the death of dreams.

Ooh, a crime movie in New York! What part? Chicago. It takes place in Chicago. And we all go to bed around 1am the latest.

As we’re all going to sleep, a narrator introduces us to Johnny Kelly, a police officer considering quitting the force so he can run away with his girlfriend, a nightclub dancer named Sally. His dad, John Sr, is also on the force and concerned about John’s recent distant attitude with everyone, from his fellow officers to his wife Kathy. Johnny suits up for what he thinks is his last night, and drives around with a new mysterious partner, who criticizes Johnny’s lack of interest in important police work.

Johnny is then called in by a famous and well connected lawyer, the kind who uses his legal expertise to make a connection with shady people for illegal favors to win legal battles later. One of these is a thief named Hayes, who may have pilfered material to blackmail the lawyer. The lawyer wants Johnny to pick up Hayes, and drive him to Indiana where Hayes is wanted for manslaughter, adding that not only can he improve Johnny’s career, but that he can bail out Johnny’s aimless brother, who is tagging along with Hayes.

The movie alternates between Hayes sneaking around in his efforts to blackmail the lawyer, and Johnny on patrol, dealing with lowlifes or delivering a baby, with his mystery partner offering encouragement. We also get to see Johnny’s love triangle expanded into a parallelogram as Sally is pursued by “the mechanical man,” a performer painted in silver who does “the robot” in her club’s window so passerby can guess if he’s a real person or an actual robot, and that somehow is great advertising. The mechanical man also has great dreams to start a comedy act with Sally, who dismisses the dream while a dancer who hasn’t had her hopes crushed listens to him with wide eyed admiration.

Hayes manages to sneak out of the trap set by the lawyer for Johnny to apprehend him. He has already set his own double cross in place: he’s been having an affair with the lawyer’s wife, and the two confront the lawyer so they can still blackmail him and run off. The lawyer confronts the criminal lovers, and Hayes shoots and kills him. The wife now has cold feet, but they decide to go to the club and meet Johnny Kelly, and hope they can blackmail him to help them out. The lawyer lives long enough to tell Johnny Kelly (arriving because of a call to the police) where Hayes was going. Johnny calls in to HQ to get another car to the club, and that car is John Kelly Sr.

The lawyer’s wife tries to sell out Hayes to John Sr., and Hayes tries to push John Sr. into a deal to take him to Cicero (note: no one wants to go to Cicero). John Sr. wants to book Hayes for shooting the lawyer, so Hayes shoots John Sr., and then runs from the club where he confronts the lawyer’s wife and shoots her too. He grabs Johnny’s other brother and they run into an abandoned building across the street. Johnny shows up to the club sees that his father is dying.

Since the Mechanical Man is the only person who saw the whole thing, and that Hayes doesn’t know he’s real, he heads back out into the window to perform and have people guess if he’s real, and that will draw Hayes out for another attempted murder. In what is supposed to be a suspenseful moment, but isn’t because it’s a guy pretending to be a robot, the cops watch in the shadows for Hayes to reveal himself. From there, it’s a race to the L trains, where the two fight and one of them gets electrocuted on the train’s 3rd rail.

Johnny’s brother rescued, he looks for his mystery partner, only to find his resignation letter, which he tears up. Daylight breaks in a hazy gray Chicago as he meets his wife & they embrace, and that’s pretty much the movie.

Was it noir? No, it was It’s A Wonderful Life as a crime thriller. (Y’know, because of the mystery partner.) There’s a lot of relationships set up by the narrator, and the rest filled in by everyone else’s exposition (Kathy’s mother, for instance, lets us know that Kathy makes more than Johnny, and that Kathy could have done better. I think Kathy has fewer lines than Johnny’s off camera mother in law).

It certainly sets up a dark path for everyone: I thought Johnny was going to feel responsible for his father’s death, or that more people would get caught up in the double crossing, and Johnny would take the fall. Not only would he leave Kathy behind, he wouldn’t be able to run off with Sally.

Johnny’s brother and his association with Hayes sure is an amazing coincidence. Certainly of all the hoodlums to quit your job over in hopes to…it’s not clear why Johnny’s brother hangs out with this guy. Another bit is the mechanical man: was this a commentary on being a performer? That even fake people have real dreams? Some kind of mirror for Johnny to look into, that the mechanical man is just going through the motions but wants something else?

Was it any good? I’m less disappointed in the slightly happier Johnny-gets-justice-for-his-dad ending instead of a noir path, but there could have been more between Johnny and his wife or Johnny and his brother – heck, he only runs into his brother near the end of the film. I didn’t realize they were related until then during the first viewing. I guess that’s why we needed all the narration and exposition.

I mean, Johnny’s having an affair, and is going to run off with someone. Seriously expected half of these people to be dead because of Johnny’s wishes to leave Chicago and police work, especially with the mechanical man talking about dreams and goals. That would mean no one is going to have any dreams or goals by the end, right? There are some loose ends that lead me to think there’d be a rougher. How does Johnny explain his connection to the corrupt lawyer? How does he explain to his dad’s partner how Hayes was expecting a John Kelly at the club?  What happened to Johnny’s brother, exactly? Instead the movie skims the noir surface and becomes a drama about a police officer teetering on the edge, with sacrifices to show him the right away.

There’s some good scenery. It’s 1950’s Chicago and features a few iconic buildings (such as Tribune Tower), but little else. I couldn’t tell you which train line they jumped onto near the end. The movie’s a little hazy sometimes.

Anything about the cast? Hayes is played by William Talman, and I hope you know him as Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason. Mala Powers is Sally, and was a guest defendant or surprise murderer on Perry Mason a whole bunch, so hopefully she got to reminisce with William Talman on set. Johnny is played by Gig Young, who was married five times (“you keep getting married”). He (allegedly) killed his last wife and himself. Yeesh.

You can watch this movie on YouTube.

 

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