‘City That Never Sleeps’ and ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ Try Unusual Methods in Their Storytelling

[7 May 2014]

By Michael Barrett

Above from City That Never Sleeps (1953)

While churning out crime thrillers in the ‘50s, Hollywood filmmakers didn’t know when they were making something the French would call “film noir”; they never got the memo, and they probably couldn’t have read it in French, anyway. Thus, the two noirs here are very offbeat variations on standard themes.

Credit for their offbeat nature must go to the scripts by pulp novelist Steve Fisher, while credit to their on-beat nature belongs to John L. Russell’s shadow-ridden photography and the iconic actors. Austro-Hungarian John H. Auer, a minor though busy producer-director at Republic Pictures, knits all beats together with his excellent B-film facility, making the films more expansive than their budgets.

The unconventional, complex, multi-character City That Never Sleeps takes place over one night in Chicago, as actually narrated by the city itself. You read that correctly. A further element of the fantastic is injected when a mysterious allegorical cop (Chill Wills) shows up out of the ether to accompany our mixed-up hero, patrolman Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), who wants to quit his job and his patient wife (Paula Raymond) because of his sweaty, sordid affair with equally mixed-up nightclub dancer Sally (Mala Powers).

In this web of misfired desires, Sally’s pursued by poor schnook Gregg (Wally Cassell), who spends the movie painted silver and pretending to be a “mechanical man” in a display window! Thus Gregg, like the city itself (and that strange all-knowing cop) sees a lot that goes on. Fisher deserves an award for the ingenuity of the “mechanical” metaphor as an insight into how everyone feels hemmed in, thoughtlessly going through the motions until it’s difficult to tell the human from the machine. One way to recognize the truly human is through the crying of real tears, and three men cry in the course of this complicated night.

That ain’t the half of it. We haven’t mentioned the ex-magician-turned-crook (William Talman, Perry Mason’s District Attorney) who still keeps his rabbit and pulls one mysterious trick that can’t be explained when he plants a piece of paper (no longer crumpled) into the safe of his employer, shady lawyer Edward Arnold. The logical way is to do it with an accomplice, except Talman hadn’t found the paper yet before any possible accomplice left the apartment. This call to magic is one more aspect of the film’s mystical undercurrent.

Also in the brew are Arnold’s trophy wife (Marie Windsor), Johnny Kelly’s fearful cop father (Otto Hulett), his mixed-up little brother (Ron Hagerthy) who gets involved with bad people, and future comedian Tom Poston as the senior Kelly’s partner. At the center of all this, Johnny is one of the most thoroughly characterized, highly pressured anti-heroes in noir, his every personal and professional relationship a shambles. No wonder he wants to get out of there.

All of the story’s men can be seen as counterparts of Johnny: his younger brother in his brush with the wild side; his father, in whose footsteps the reluctant Johnny is expected to follow (and who gets confused for his son at one crucial point); Gregg, who wants to run away with Sally just like Johnny does; even the chief antagonist, who is similarly motivated by desire for a woman and general discontent with his lot.

It’s significant that in the climactic scene on the elevated train tracks, the officers below can’t tell which of the two struggling figures is Johnny. Throughout the movie, he’s been fighting manifestations of his own shadow-selves, or night-selves if you will.

Hell's Half Acre (1954)

Hell’s Half Acre (1954)

Hell’s Half Acre comes closer to being a standard police procedural, albeit one with several left-field twists. One of the film’s chief oddities is being set in sunstruck Hawaii, a place not only tropical but topical in ‘50s culture prior to its US statehood. The black and white photography means we can’t appreciate the “tourist” aspect of lovely beaches and colorful shirts, as on Hawaii Five-O, but then the title refers to a self-sufficient slum neighborhood of Honolulu where tourists wouldn’t go. Again, Fisher’s script insists on taking several curious turns with odd characters.

Wendell Corey plays the scarfaced nightclub owner whose slinky girlfriend (Nancy Gates) opens the movie by shooting a blackmailer point blank in the forehead. While the investigation is conducted with canny calm by police inspector Keye Luke (no longer Charlie Chan’s hapless Number One Son), a woman (Evelyn Keyes) arrives from the mainland because she’s convinced Corey is her long-lost husband who supposedly died at Pearl Harbor.

Supporting characters are more eccentric. Leonard Strong plays a bilious little rodent called Ippy, who earns our disgust and sympathy simultaneously. Jesse White (best known as the lonely repairman in Maytag TV commercials) plays a sleazy drunk married to noir icon Marie Windsor, who has a hilarious drunk scene herself, and third-billed Elsa Lanchester (!) is a jolly cabbie who latches onto the heroine for unexplained reasons. Even with all the above, the film’s oddest characteristic is that it’s scored entirely with Hawaiian guitars.

There’s a genuine noir ending for some of these characters at least, while the ones who live make the best of it. The moral is that everyone has to pay for their past, or at least for somebody’s past.f

Both films are now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films, and they’re looking pretty darn good. However, there are no extras on these DVDs.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181202-city-that-never-sleeps-hells-half-acre/