The BFI resumes its Film Noir Collection with three new titles, including Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City. Richard Conte and Victor Mature battle it out in this eagerly awaited DVD.
Robert Siodmak was a first-rate director of film noir in the 1940s. Real film noir (or what would later be deemed as such), not the stuff peddled on DVD labels just because it’s in black and white and involves cops and/or robbers. Beginning with Phantom Lady in 1944 and ending somewhere around The File on Thelma Jordon in 1950, Siodmak made nearly a dozen of these kinds of pictures, even picking up an Oscar nomination for directing The Killers in 1946. In the middle of this run came the financial failure of 1947’s Time Out of Mind, a melodrama that featured no big stars and a distinct lack of noir. Presumably, that lead to Siodmak’s contract studio Universal loaning out his services to Twentieth Century-Fox for what would eventually be known as Cry of the City, based on a novel entitled The Chair for Martin Rome.
Not surprisingly, Siodmak fashioned a taut, if fairly conventional, crime thriller and gave Richard Conte and Victor Mature roles to rival the best of their careers. Mature was the bigger star, hot off the previous year’s Kiss of Death, and received top billing, but he really takes a backseat to Conte in Cry of the City. Playing men now on opposite sides of the law, Mature a New York City police lieutenant and Conte a charismatic gangster thug, the two actors bounce wonderfully off each other in the too few scenes they share, reminiscent of a lightweight Pacino-De Niro from Heat. Conte’s Martin Rome and Mature’s Lt. Candella have a murky past together, seemingly as childhood friends and probably from the same Italian-American neighborhood. Regardless, the two men were once sufficiently close that Candella feels comfortable enough visiting Rome’s mother and father at home and delivering a jar of soup from Mama Roma to her son, who’s recovering in a prison hospital.
When the film opens, Rome is receiving last rites in a hospital bed and we learn he’s accused of killing a police officer, as well as being tangled up in a jewel robbery. Instead of flashing back to Rome shooting the cop and the circumstances therein, the story moves forward, and quite briskly. A woman visits, reviving him from near-death with a kiss, but he doesn’t want anyone to see her or know who she is. His lawyer (played in a great, weaselly performance by Berry Kroeger) urges him to plead guilty and take a deal, but Rome is concerned with protecting the mystery woman he loves. He sees no other choice than to go on the run, in a nightmarish journey where he crosses paths with a wide array of interesting characters. Shelley Winters shows up briefly to aide and abet Rome by finding an unlicensed foreign doctor to perform some backseat bullet removal surgery. Debra Paget surfaces as the mystery woman and, most strikingly, Hope Emerson makes her film debut, all six feet three inches of her, as a masseuse. Emerson, who’d score an Academy Award nomination for her unforgettable lesbian prison role in Caged two years later, does a whole lot with not much screen time. She’s ferocious and has a truly commanding presence here.
Again, though, it’s Conte’s film. Certainly a limited actor, never recognised for awards or blessed with a very long career, the Jersey City native became a film noir stalwart, essentially cementing his entire legacy with these roles. He’s viciously charming in Cry of the City. Martin Rome stands in stark contrast to the psychotic depiction of gangsters seen in Kiss of Death and White Heat. When Rome’s little brother idolizes his elder sibling and sneers at Mature’s Candella, the audience sort of buys into it. Candella is boring and uptight while Rome seems much more exciting and interesting. Rome’s actions border on understandable, sympathetic maybe. His lawyer is a scumbag and even if a knife stab destined to take out both man and office chair isn’t the answer, when one of them slithers to his death it seems slightly gratifying. Other than the mandated ending, Rome’s gangster portrayal feels distinctly glamourised. Mature even wears a dark overcoat while Conte is seen, first, in a white hospital gown, and, then, in a light-coloured trench coat. Criminal and moral qualms aside, Rome comes across as the guy you’d like to be or hang out with much more than Candella.
“In the name of the law, Rome – stop!”
The end result of Cry of the City comes as little shock to anyone familiar with the Production Code in Hollywood at the time, but the way it happens may give some reason to pause. Criminals and murderers had to be punished for their actions and so the viewer knows Martin Rome, manifestly the star and hero of the film, can’t remain a fugitive. Even though I learned a long time ago that logic and criminal law had little place in classic Hollywood films, the final shot fired by Candella seems especially outrageous. Not only is Rome retreating from Candella when he’s shot, thus eliminating any necessity of self-defense, but he literally has his back turned. Candella yells the line I typed above this paragraph and then fires away, completely ignoring and violating the duty of police officers to only use deadly force when danger is otherwise imminent. He shoots Rome in the back while he’s limping away. And which one is the murderer again?
Cry of the City is the only one of the three BFI Film Noir Collection titles not yet released in R1 and, unfortunately, it’s probably in the worst condition. The R2 PAL disc seems to be progressively transferred, but is single layered and looks closer to VHS quality. There’s significant dirt and specks in the print and a distinct lack of sharpness. Blacks and overall contrast are acceptable, but not great. The image also seems overly bright at times, depriving some of the darkness and shadows so vital in film noir, and the frame frequently wobbles or shakes. Detail is disappointing too, looking a tad gauzy and soft. There appears to have been little or no clean-up work, certainly nothing close to a full restoration. It’s not so distracting as to rival the horrors of public domain releases for sure, but it’s a step down from much of the recent high profile noir output from Fox and Warner Bros. The film’s theatrical trailer shows a noticeably worse, far grainier picture quality than the feature, but I’m not sure that’s any consolation.
When trying to make a crude comparison between this DVD and the print sometimes shown on the Fox Movie Channel in the United States, I discovered two things. First, the BFI disc still looks too bright and the television broadcast quality is just as good as, and possibly better than, this new DVD. Second, I noticed a particular scene on the disc where the print clearly had more damage than other parts of the film. It’s when Brenda, played by Shelley Winters, visits a photo shop to track down an address for Rose, the masseuse. When I tried to compare the print quality between the DVD and the broadcast, I couldn’t find the scene on the television version. It’s not there, so at least three minutes are included here that do not show up when Fox Movie Channel airs the film. I don’t know why this is, as the scene shows nothing objectionable, and I can’t find anything detailing or mentioning any differences between the US and UK versions.
Like the video quality on the BFI release, the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is similarly weak, though clearly audible. When playing the trailer, I found that the audio was much stronger than it had been while watching the film itself. For the most part, it’s not a problem and levels remain fairly consistent throughout the movie. Alfred Newman’s score is unobtrusive and somewhat buried. Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included and they are white in colour. There aren’t any other subtitle or audio options.
While the other two new BFI noir titles received significant extra features, Cry of the City has only a trailer and a booklet. The booklet is ten pages and features an informative, if not completely accurate, essay by Lee Server that repeats the myth of Siodmak being born in Memphis, Tennessee. The booklet cover is a stylish reproduction of original theatrical poster art and several stills from the film are found inside. Scene selections are located on the reverse side of the DVD cover, which maintains the style of the three previous BFI Film Noir Collection releases. Just as with those earlier titles, all of which were also originally made for Twentieth Century-Fox, I would imagine BFI’s Cry of the City disc will be eclipsed once a release emerges from R1. Until then, this is a perfectly viable (if expensive) way to watch the film.
BFI’s Cry of the City release is a welcome addition to their intermittent Film Noir Collection. Unfortunately, the print used is disappointing and the disc is lacking in special features. The film is a solid noir, mostly as a vehicle for Richard Conte and Victor Mature to grin and smirk as adversaries with a common past. It’s not Robert Siodmak’s best and will probably appeal to film noir lovers more than casual classic film fans, but with the noir well slowly drying up on DVD, Cry of the City can now be crossed off the list of previously unavailable titles. If history’s any indication, just expect the eventual R1 release to trump this overpriced BFI disc.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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