Just as newborn cities played the role of blackguard in all types of westerns as untrustworthy places, ever perched on the precipice of corruption and self-immolation, middle-aged cities were the absolute core of the noir genre. From the tacitly assumed, but sometimes spelled-out, perspective of nearly all of these movies, the city was always, and would always be, a mass of coal, a structure whose toughness comes from the long, ceaseless compression of decay, where all permissions were long ago already granted. In a way, the noir is the western’s nightmare finally come to life.
Republic Pictures, sidelined at their height in the national-awareness game by the deeper pockets of mega-name studios like Warner, MGM, and Fox, specialized in both. One of their mainstays, Hungarian émigré John H. Auer, worked in each genre, but also had an unsweaty knack for staging production numbers, directing romance and melodrama, the whole kit. His 1953 crime picture City That Never Sleeps is as disgusted by the urban cesspool as any other genre specimen, but Steve Fisher’s script attempts to raise the boilerplate material to a slightly higher plane. In benignly eccentric fashion, it quickly becomes clear that the film is clothed in a kind of secular Christian piety—a mild case of Capra-corn.
With a voiceover by Chill Wills, who soon appears as a policeman/guardian angel to mentor Gig Young’s fed-up beat cop Johnny Kelly, who remains unaware of his sergeant’s supernatural origins, the film offers its view of the city as a proving ground for the righteous. Many of the script’s tropes that would ordinarily be a routine matter of Storytelling 101 (trauma and suffering leading to the realization of purpose) take on a divine light: Sodom, Chicago, other places of wickedness and vice—they’re just a small part of the big plan, after all. The allusions Mercedes McCambridge makes in Johnny Guitar to what would eventually devour her Shangri-La-like vision of the west—“new people from the east,” like Jews, the Irish, blacks, and so forth—are the unnamed locus of what’s really eating Johnny from the inside, as well as what leads him to keep on truckin’ after the plot machinery comes to rest.
If the preceding suggests an overly pious, slightly hard-sell/soft-head message picture with occasional bouts of cute fantasy, Auer never seems interested in anything of the sort. Some 11th-hour illustrations of Christian sacrifice are blunted of their potential on-the-nose-ness as Auer frames the action in creeping near-stasis, a series of slides in rotation, the whole world on a stakeout. Lacking the deep-dish, rich personality of auteurs from the same period who’ve since been raised to Olympian stature (Fuller, Ray, Mann, even Fleischer and Siegel), Auer’s get-work-done-go-home style is gently even-handed, allowing miracles to appear in the woodwork. A cop-delivers-baby scene that appears halfway through, predictable in concept but surprising in execution, is in its humility—the scene is told through the wordless reactions of jaded onlookers—worthy of Rossellini.
Crisp and grainy. Olive Films has procured and spiffied up strong, worthy materials for John H. Auer’s 1953 noirsterpiece, a movie one tends to find only on YouTube and the Internet Archive these days. The often muttered dialogue sometimes loses in competition with the foley tracks, which hurts more when proto-method Gig Young takes to the mic, as opposed to naturally occurring boomers like Edward Arnold and Marie Windsor.
Not their department.
A hard-ass noir softened not so much by the sight of gams-centric cheesecake as its quasi-mystical poaching and repurposing on The Naked City’s turf, City That Never Sleeps arrives on a spiffy Blu-ray courtesy micro-auteur-fixated Olive Films.