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Daily Archives: March 5, 2012

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: City That Never Sleeps

“…from the Honky Tonks to the penthouses…the creeps, the hoods, the killers come out to war with the city!”

– Original tagline for City That Never Sleeps

Longtime readers of this blog know that prior to the rise of Hollywood, Chicago was the unlikely center of American film production in the early silent era. Unfortunately, in the decade following the U.S. Justice Department’s 1915 dissolution of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, when powerful Chicago studios like Essanay and Selig Polyscope closed up shop and moved to California for good, my fair city went from being the nation’s movie capital to a veritable cinematic ghost town. Then, the arrival of “talkies” helped the major Hollywood studios to consolidate their power and location shooting (i.e., shooting outside of southern California) became virtually unheard of in the early sound era.

It wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that a gritty new documentary-style aesthetic would become popular in American cinema, spurred on by the success of the massively influential New York-shot film noir The Naked City in 1948. Soon afterwards, Hollywood crews came to the Windy City for evocative crime films like Call Northside 777, which is often cited (with some justification) as the best “Chicago movie” of all time. I recently however stumbled upon a more obscure, lower budget Chicago noir from a few years later that, for me, easily takes that title from under Northside‘s nose – the 1953 Republic Pictures production of City That Never Sleeps directed by one John H. Auer.

I had heard of the title for years but was unaware of its significance until a piece in Film Comment by Dave Kehr last year offered a reappraisal of Auer as a forgotten auteur and cited City as his “masterpiece.” After tracking the film down on a dubiously legal DVD (the transfer I saw had a television station logo pop up occasionally in the bottom right hand corner), I can only concur with Kehr’s assessment. Aficionados of Chicago movies and/or film noir cannot afford to miss this small, quirky B-movie gem, whose tight budget and extensive use of real locations (which, judging by reviews from the time, may have seemed a liability) only serve to add an impressive feeling of authenticity as well as a certain oddball charm when viewed today; City That Never Sleeps is a genuinely strange combination of documentary realism, stylized noir visuals and a subtle, inspired tinge of the supernatural (it is strongly implied that one character is a guardian angel not unlike Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). Somehow it all works.

The story concerns one long night on the beat of veteran Chicago cop John Kelly (Gig Young), who is suffering from burn-out when the film begins. Kelly is basically a good-hearted guy who occasionally works the other side of the law by doing favors for corrupt attorney Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold). Kelly is also unsatisfied with his marriage and is involved in a tryst with a stripper known as “Angel Face” (Mala Powers). Like Kelly, Angel Face is a former idealist (she moved to Chicago with the dream of becoming a professional ballerina) who has since become beaten down and made cynical by the ravages of time. Steve Fisher’s script, ably assisted by Auer’s taut direction, details Kelly’s attempts to make some easy money off of Biddel by illegally escorting a crook across state lines. Kelly figures this will enable him to quit his job and run off to California with Angel Face in the morning. But, this being a true film noir, things don’t quite work out that way.

Like the horror film, noir is one of the rare genres (or historical movements, depending on your point of view) that is arguably more effective on a smaller budget and without the presence of major stars. The most memorable low budget noirs from Hollywood’s studio system era often relied on surprising, personal and quirky touches to elevate them above the other standard issue programmers of the day; City has all of these qualities in spades. Like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour or Jack Bernhard’s Decoy, City conveys an atmosphere of sordidness, sleaziness and rank desperation precisely because of its limited budget and resources, qualities that Hollywood’s major studios couldn’t have replicated if they tried. After Kelly endures a tragedy late in the film he angrily laments that he feels like he’s “in a cement mixer being slowly chopped and pounded to death.” Noir protagonists don’t get much more bitter than this.

For Chicagoans, the film has much added interest as it provides a look into the Windy City of a bygone era. John Kelly spends most of his free time hanging out at Angel Face’s place of employment, the “Silver Frolics,” a legendary Chicago strip club that plays itself in the film. Many of the movie’s most memorable exterior scenes take place in front of the Silver Frolics’ mammoth neon facade and in the surrounding north Loop environs. We also get several views of the Wrigley Building as well as evocative shots of back alleys nearby. As the plot progresses and Kelly’s situation grows more and more desperate, these nighttime exteriors are shot with increasingly high contrast lighting and canted angles that make downtown Chicago look like the Vienna of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

As Kelly chases the chief antagonist, killer Hayes Stewart (William Talman), through this urban jungle, the action reaches a memorable crescendo on the ‘L’ tracks. Both characters end up on the platform of the Merchandise Mart stop where Stewart momentarily loses Kelly when he climbs onto the tracks and, in an impressive stunt, disappears between two trains traveling in opposite directions. Although the Merchandise Mart is close to the movie’s other downtown locations, the decision to shoot there may have been pragmatic – that particular stop had been renovated only the year before. According to chicago-l.org, “the most significant alteration during this period was the installation of a 70 foot moveable platform at the south end of the northbound platform in 1952. The purpose was to extend the platform to allow longer trains to berth.” The expanded platform would have more easily accommodated the film’s crew and equipment and greatly facilitated shooting.

One of City‘s most intriguing aspects is a minor character named Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell), who has the unusual job of performing as a window display “mechanical man” to draw attention to the strip club where Angel Face works. Warren’s job consists of covering his face in silver paint and moving about in a robotic fashion; he is so convincing at playing this role that passersby frequently debate if he is a real man or a robot. Like Kelly, Warren is also in love with Angel Face and the love triangle between the three of them leads to a surprising climax that is as poignant as it is clever. I won’t give it away except to say that, like the irresistible death scene of “Mr. Memory” in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, it is precisely the bizarre nature of the Mechanical Man’s job that threatens to cost him his life.

Dave Kehr sees the Mechanical Man’s station as a metaphor for Auer’s own entrapment. In his Film Comment piece, Kehr asks, “Was this how Auer came to perceive his own position, as a filmmaker of ambition confined within a commercial system? If it was, he found his way out much as his protagonists did: by accepting his situation – and turning it into the stuff of his art.” Amen.

Works Cited

1. “Chicago ”L”.org: Stations – Merchandise Mart.” Chicago ”L”.org – Your Chicago Rapid Transit Internet Resource! Web. 28 Oct. 2011.

2. Kehr, Dave. “Further Research: Inside Man.” Film Comment 47.4 (2011): 22+. Print.

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