Cry of the City Review
In the, as always, insightful booklet included by the BFI on the blu-ray release of Cry of the City, Frank Krutnik mentions that the original title for the movie was supposed to be similar to the crime novel it is based on The Chair for Martin Rome or the alternative The Law and Martin Rome or Martin Rome; however, potentially because of a threat of legal action from a namesake attorney fearing for his reputation, or to surf on the wave of recent 20th Century Fox successes such as The Naked City, the studio finally opted for the beautiful Cry of the City which, more than the novel’s original title, sets the tone of a film bathed in the tears of Film Noir in which Shakespearean characters inflexibility progress towards their fateful destiny.
The movie tells the story of charismatic criminal Martin Rome (Richard Conte, The Godfather) on the run from Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature, Kiss of Death) after shooting a policeman and being allegedly involved in a jewellery robbery.
The tone is clearly set from the opening of the movie which shows Rome’s funeral ceremony. This scene also introduces the most interesting element of the movie as we also meet Mature’s character, Lieutenant Candella. Despite coming from a similar Italian-American background, as the movie will later show, the inspector’s relentless chase for Rome presents him entirely focused on his investigation and having no time for compassion to the point that his stubborness rapidly leads to a curious narrative sway: in the first hour of the film, he’s not the hero, but rather Rome, the attaching braggart hoodlum whose jovial bonhomie easily attracts the public's favour. If the idea is not really original, it is very clever and it constantly keeps the audience torn between the fear of seeing Rome apprehended, culminating during Rome’s escaping scene, and the little sympathy felt towards the police inspector. As in other similar movies the law impresses but it doesn’t have the class or seduction of thugs. This brilliant idea is also very well supported by Mature whose almost disembodied sobriety cannot compete in the eyes of the audience with Conte’s charm. ‘Les jeux sont faits’ and the audience have chosen the villain’s side...
But Robert Siodmak (The Killers) can then draw his second asset. As the story progresses, Rome gradually reveals another side of his personality forcing the audience to question its choice. As in many famous Alfred Hitchcock’s movies such as The shadow of a Doubt or Strangers on a Train, the audience can either root for a bland hero or the attractive, but vile, rival. This opposition between the two main characters also introduces a disturbing notion of fate as, although never clearly said in the movie, we can easily imagine Candella and Rome having been childhood friends, giving an even more interesting interpretation for Candella’s obstinacy to catch Rome.
Under contract with Universal, Siodmak was loaned out to 20th Century Fox for Cry of the City as it was frequently the case at the time. The director of Criss Cross perfectly knew how to adapt himself and his style to this new environment using the house rules: Film Noir codes, outdoor shooting, social background, semi-documentary style... This could lead to consider Siodmak only as a skilled technician but a look at his rich filmography demonstrates that Siodmak was a real auteur whose oppressive pessimism and love of the Film Noir genre here give their full extent (his career spans pre-war German cinema with movies, co-written by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), such as Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht, the story of a man tired of living, but too cowardly to commit suicide, who takes out a contract on himself but, after the contract has been sold to an unknown, changes his mind, desperately trying to figure out the identity of his would-be assassin (a film ahead of its time and a plot copied many times since), French cinema during the war (Personal Column, a serial killer movie) and Hollywood cinema).
The Italian-American background, not as common at the time as it would later become, also adds an interesting layer to the story and make it even more influential than it seems by creating a link with many of the movies of the New Hollywood directors, in particular Brian de Palma in Carlito’s Way (Rome’s character and the station sequence) or Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets. In the case of the latter, the link clearly extends to Rome whose attribute strongly remind of those of Scorsese’s famous characters. There is no doubt that Scorsese has been, even unconsciously, influenced by Cry of the City: it was shot in Little Italy, Scorsese’s neighbourhood, and it anticipates and explores some of the major themes in his cinema: gangster fascination, sense of family, dedication to the community of origin.
Siodmak also demonstrates his rare talent in the illustration of good and evil in scenes where, playing with black and white, he expresses his expressionist tendencies to create amazing scenes of tension, the most impressive being again the spectacular escape from the hospital, with its endless nightmarish tunnel and neon light creating an impressive sense of time dilation, and the first appearance of Hope Emerson (Adam’s Rib) in a long fixed shot that can be considered as one of the best character introductions in Film Noir history.
Fascinated by the duality of the two main characters, Siodmak even seems to almost neglect the rest, especially two lead female characters of uncommon blandness, even when played by Shelley Winters (Night of the Hunter) and a very young Debra Paget (The Ten Commandments) in her first role. The flatness of their dialogues and the lack of stake in their scenes confirm that Cry of the City is definitely a man’s movie. This is also reinforced by the presence of amazing supporting actors regularly relaunching the interest of the movie: Walter Baldwin (The Best Years of Our Lives) as the funny yet touching Orvy, Berry Kroeger (Gun Crazy) as Niles the sneaky crooked lawyer, Fred Clark (Sunset Boulevard) as the deadpan and dazed from fatigue Lieutenant Collins, and last but by far not least, the incredible Emerson, more virile than ever (notice her eating manners in the breakfast scene with Rome), and whose exceptional and surreal number as sadistic masseuse Rose Given constitutes one of the main attraction of this excellent Film Noir that urges to be rediscovered.
Cry of the City is released on blu-ray disc on 22nd August.
The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, with a very efficient 1080p transfer.
Although many scenes look very clean and allow the audience to fully benefit from Siodmak’s masterful use of black and white, some of the scenes, especially the outside New York location shots show less definition and a more significant amount of grain. In addition, some of the hospital scenes at the beginning of the movie also seem too bright and details on the actors’ faces, especially Mature’s, nearly disappear.
This is fortunately not detrimental to the overall quality of the viewing experience and most of the interior scenes appear very close to perfection, especially during close ups showing an extensive amount of details. Overall, the amount of grain throughout the movie is also very nicely rendered and I genuinely couldn’t spot any traces of dirt of scratches.
On the audio side, the blu-ray disc offers an English PCM mono audio track with optional heard-of-hearing English subtitles. I found the audio track admirable in its effectiveness and, again, I couldn’t notice any scratches or other disturbing noises.
On the bonus side, the BFI has included two informative bonuses.
Audio commentary by Adrian Martin
The audio commentary seems to have been recorded especially for this release by the Australian Film critic. This is, as always, an insightful track full of analysis, on every aspects of the movie, from actors to “mise en scène”, and anecdotes;
For instance, Martin mentions the, in his opinion, generic title and music of the movie, the underrated quality of Siodmak’s direction (especially ‘his visual signature made of mastershots with many levels’), the ethnic details recurrent throughout the movie (for instance the analogy between the hospital and a church at the beginning of the movie), or the social and cultural details in relation to the Italian-American background.
He also discusses more extensively the details related to specific scenes (for instance the second door or the bowl of soup during the scenes in Rome’s family apartment), the indirect swerves of the movie and the character of Rose Given.
Adrian Wootton on Cry of the City (26 mins)
In this video interview, Adrian Wootton, critic and chief executive of Film London, discusses the book which inspired the movie, the period in which the movie was made, the moral ambivalence of the characters characteristic of Siodmak’s work, their complexity and the influence of the movie on Mean Streets. He also spends quite some time on Conte and Mature’s respective careers and discusses the female characters in the movie and the shooting on location. This is an insightful and easy to watch bonus which works as a great complement to the audio commentary.
The disc contains the original theatrical trailer of the movie and, as usual, an insightful illustrated booklet with new writing from Frank Krutnik about the movie.