Sunday, November 6, 2011
Cry of the City (1948)
Cry of the City is a superb example of late 40s film noir from 20th Century-Fox, enlivened by some terrific performances and directed by one of the masters of the noir style, Robert Siodmak.
The story is not strikingly original. Two kids, childhood friends, grow up in New York’s Little Italy. Martin Rome (Richard Conte) is seduced by the glamour of crime and fast living; his friend Candella (Victor Mature) becomes a cop. It’s a story Hollywood loved - two kids from the same background whose fates are very different but indissolubly linked. Now Rome is in hospital in a critical condition with four bullets in him after killing a policeman in a bungled robbery. He’s so far gone he receives the last rites. If he lives it won’t make any difference because he’ll get the electric chair anyway. We naturally expect that we’re going to get a classic noir flashback to explain how Martin ended up in this situation.
But that’s not what happens. This is not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. Martin pulls through and finds himself in the prison hospital. While he lay apparently dying he was visited by a crooked lawyer who tried to get him to confess to a jewel robbery, a robbery that ended in a vicious murder, a crime that has been attributed to another criminal who just happens to be the shady lawyer’s client. He’s also visited by a young woman, apparently his girlfriend.
This jewel robbery is a major current case. The jewels have not been recovered and only one of the robbers was ever caught. Detective-Lieutenant Candella and his partner Lieutenant Collins (Fred Clark) start to think that maybe there’s something in the lawyer’s story, and maybe if they can find the girl they can find the real answers.
Martin breaks out of prison, determined to find his girl before the police do. He’s been a notorious womaniser but this time it’s different. He really loves her. He loves her almost as much as he loves himself, which is really saying something. Martin is still in a bad way, his wounds have opened up again and he can barely stay on his feet. He gets help from an old girlfriend, Brenda (Shelley Winters), and a shady doctor but he’s still not much more than a walking corpse. But he’s still capable of killing people. His latest murder has left him in possession of the much sought-after missing jewels and he’s closing in on the person who really committed the jewel robbery, hoping to do a deal - to exchange the jewels for money and a ticket out of the country.
Martin is also being assisted by his kid brother Tony who idolises him. This is one of the major things driving Lieutenant Candella - he’s known the Rome family all his life, he’s very fond of the patents and he can’t stand the thought that Tony is going to end up just like Martin. Candella is a cop who combines toughness with sensitivity and the thought that one day he’ll be watching Tony take the walk to the electric chair upsets him greatly.
The support cast is extremely strong. Shelley Winters’ role is all too brief but she’s excellent. Hope Emerson is extraordinary as one of the most villainous women in film noir.
Interestingly enough it was originally intended that Victor Mature would play Martin Rome. There are those who think this would have produced a better picture, Mature being a more likeable actor than Conte and therefore more likely to make us care about the fate of this killer on the run. I’m not convinced by this. Richard Conte makes Martin a glamorous but rather unsympathetic character. He’s incapable of feeling any real emotions. He uses people and he kills people without hesitation. This actually makes the film better balanced. In a movie such as this you can’t help feeling some sympathy for the hunted criminal but by making Martin so cold-blooded Conte ensures that we also empathise with the dedicated cop who’s hunting him.
Victor Mature’s finely judged performance perfectly complements Conte’s. Candella is a good cop and a good man, but without being dull or sanctimonious. It’s the less glamorous role but Mature shows his quality as an actor by making the most of it. Mature has been criminally underrated as an actor. If you put him in a costume epic he’d give you an outrageously camp performance, because that what’s he thought (no doubt correctly) was expected. But if you put him in a role that required real acting he’d deliver the goods.
In fact everything about this movie is perfectly judged. The cinematography is in the classic noir style and is suitably moody and atmospheric. Robert Siodmak’s direction is faultless. The acting is superb. Everything works just as it should. This is 1940s Hollywood film-making at its best.
Strangely enough although Fox have released most of their notable film noir titles from this era on Region 1 DVD Cry of the City has not been included, a bizarre omission. It is however available nearly everywhere else. Aztec’s Region 4 DVD lacks extras but it’s a nice transfer and is definitely recommended.