Film

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

These crime thrillers tell their stories via a talking city, a mechanical man, a bilious little rodent of a man, and even a soundtrack with Hawaiian guitars.


City That Never Sleeps

Director: John H. Auer
Cast: Gig Young, Mala Powers
Distributor: Olive
Year: 1953
Release date: 2013-04-23

Hell's Half Acre

Director: John H. Auer
Cast: Wendell Corey, Evelyn Keyes
Distributor: Olive
Year: 1954
Release date: 2013-03-26

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 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.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image