Cry of the City (Blu-ray Review)30 Jan, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Victor Mature, Richard Conte, Shelley Winters, Hope Emerson.
For all the leaps in logic that bonus-section commentator Eddie Muller rightly picks apart in this odd-movie-out from director Robert Siodmak’s stellar film noir stint at Universal in the 1940s, Fox’s 1948 Cry of the City is nonetheless an urban toughie for which he displays qualified affection, and I know what he means. For one thing, you can see Richard Conte become an instant star here by virtue of one early scene in a hospital room where the hood he plays more or less holds court with cops, nurses, crooked lawyers and the like — small change, you might say, until you remember that the more senior Conte got serious consideration to play Don Corleone in The Godfather until the powers at Paramount took a deep collective breath and elected to roll the dice on Marlon Brando. And there’s always the commanding Conte performance in 1955’s noir royalty The Big Combo — which elicited a natter-of-fact “first cunnilingus scene in Hollywood history” comment to me from a subsequent Oscar-winning director when I spotted a copy of it on the shelf behind his office desk. (Art is my life.)
In City’s case, Conte is just one more neighborhood punk hoping to hit the big time, even if a onetime childhood pal (Victor Mature) will scheme to stop him from his own vantage point (i.e. the right side of the law). Yes, this is one more of those pals-taking-separate-roads sagas in the Manhattan Melodrama/Angels With Dirty Faces mold — and in this case, the actors have enough broad physical resemblance to each other to make the alter ego concept play, without pounding it home too much. As a cop whose salary might cover a bi-yearly shoeshine while also having to endure flatfoot partner Fred Clark’s chronic dyspepsia, Vic is chagrined that all the kids in the vicinity look up to a shakedown type like Conte, who also gets all the women. In one of the era’s more compelling casting choices, the actress who plays the one neighborhood saint with potential to steer Conte right is played by Debra Paget in her screen debut. Why the big deal, you ask, given Paget’s ubiquity in 20th Century-Fox releases for the next decade? Well, she was 14 here at a time when Conte was in his real-life late-30s, which means that a) the studio publicity department had to do a hire-wire act with some fictionalized arithmetic to keep the morals brigade quiet; and b) that it still would be a while before Paget’s career got really interesting (there can’t be many performers who worked both with Elvis and Fritz Lang).
It’s somewhat odd to see the Siodmak working at Fox because, though it’s true he did The Spiral Staircase for producer Dore Schary at RKO, the director had just come off a sterling mid-’40s string of Universal noirs (with the now hugely esteemed Criss Cross yet to come) before his sudden availability. This happened in part because his home studio foolishly assigned him to make the subsequent bad-rep, late-19th-century costume drama Time Out of Mind, which I saw in 1960 during my early Ella Raines fixation but recall nothing of these days. The project broke Siodmak’s rhythm and eventually led to his City one-shot at Fox, where we can see him struggling to keep the momentum going during some lengthy indoor exposition — a feat he semi-successfully pulls off in the aforementioned hospital meet-and-greets, even though a serious ill-gotten wound that’ll come back to bite Conte later in the picture keeps him confined to a bed. Conte’s later escape from the place makes for an entertaining scene but does make you wonder which of the Three Stooges was in charge of security. This is the kind of thing that works against the picture, as does a scene late in the picture where the cops do a miracle job of rounding up suspects in record time (this one bugs Muller as well).
On the other hand, City has a couple knockout supporting performances: Barry Kroeger as a slimy ambulance chaser (a role he’d then come to own for a while) and Hope Emerson as a tough mama who gives Conte a near-fatal massage. (It’s a show-stopping performance that anticipates her Oscar-nominated classic as the sadistic women’s prison matron in 1950’s Caged — playing a decidedly non-chick who eventually adds new meaning to the term, “stick a fork in it”). Shelley Winters is also memorable in one of her first major roles as a Conte girlfriend — and one of Muller’s asides about the actress’s career ascension to the top (in terms of associations with male directors) gave me the hardest guffaw of his commentary. Muller also risks breath shortage when he tries to list all the movies that utilized (as here) Alfred Newman’s Street Scene theme — which was first employed in the 1931 screen version of, uh, Street Scene. Muller is also kind to the seriously underrated Victor Mature, who still has one of the greatest names of all time, along with Merle Haggard; ‘B’-list early rocker Ersel Hickey; Oral Grummet (with whom my best man worked one summer at a box factory); and a couple guys who went to school with my dad in an iron town: Bruce Bruce and Moldy Acres. But Mature plays it fairly straight here minus any of his frequent flamboyance or at least wink-ish self-deprecation — this about a year before he got all that religion from that stuffed lion he fought in Samson and Delilah.
Late in the commentary, Muller lists his favorite Siodmak noirs in order of preference, which means there can be no inclusion of The Crimson Pirate until some twisted academic finds a way to include it in the genre. But in the spirit of serious bonus points, it ought to be mentioned that the movie Pirates of the Caribbean lifted a lot from the film that capped the Hollywood chapter of the German-born director’s career — a reputed difficult filming that turned out memorably well and came about in unlikely fashion due to Siodmak’s The Killers/Criss Cross history with Burt Lancaster. For that matter, Siodmak also directed Maria Montez in Cobra Woman earlier in his career, though that’s another story. A story, in fact, that I wish could have found a role for Victor Mature, who would have fit right in.