Robert Siodmak’s superb noir classic pits two graduates of Little Italy against one other: a crook who can deceive relatives and seduce strangers into helping him, and the cop who wants to put him out of business. Starring the great Richard Conte, with Victor Mature in what might be his best role.
Cry of the City
KL Studio Classics
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 95 min. / Street Date November 15, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Victor Mature, Richard Conte, Fred Clark, Shelley Winters, Betty Garde, Berry Kroeger, Tommy Cook, Debra Paget, Hope Emerson, Roland Winters, Walter Baldwin, Mimi Aguglia, Kathleen Howard, Konstantin Shayne, Tito Vuolo.
Cinematography Lloyd Ahern
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Richard Murphy from the novel The Chair for Martin Rome by Henry Edward Helseth
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps because of a legal or rights issue, Robert Siodmak’s terrific noir classic Cry of the City wasn’t released eleven years ago with the impressive DVD ‘Fox Film Noir’ series, but waited until 2013 to come out on a down-market made-on-demand DVD-R from ‘Fox Cinema Archives.’ Now Kino does justice to this sophisticated masterpiece, with a handsome Blu-ray. It features a smart new commentary from the reigning noir authority, Eddie Muller.
The underappreciated, overachieving Cry of the City functions first and foremost as a solid, engaging drama, fielding a cast of interesting actors in vivid, memorable parts. The story draws together a number of key crime movie themes — the immigrant experience, a comparison of cops to crooks, the parasitical, treacherous nature of criminals — without resorting to clichés or a story gimmick. Although only partly filmed on the mean streets of New York, it communicates the full flavor of the studio’s location-oriented docu noirs of the time. Most of them use the same title theme ‘Street Scene,’ that was composed by Alfred Newman back closer to the dawn of sound.
People forget that German expat Robert Siodmak enjoyed one of the best runs of success of any director in late- ‘forties Hollywood. His return to Europe in the 1950s was apparently a wholly voluntary move, as his career was doing fine. Twenty years before, Siodmak had been indirectly responsible for launching Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann as directors. He was the main impetus that put their collaborative Weimar-era experimental drama People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) into motion.
The modestly framed Cry of the City lays a strong moral foundation as it shows the full spectrum of corruption and waste caused by crime in the streets. The criminal thief Martin Rome (Richard Conte) has killed a policeman and is gravely wounded. Lts. Candella and Collins (Victor Mature & Fred Clark) visit him in the prison ward. They suspect Rome for a lucrative jewel robbery as well, and want to know who his female accomplice was. Rome claims his innocence; the cops already have another man in jail for that job. Candella puts pressure on Rome’s family to find Teena Riconti (Debra Paget), Rome’s current girlfriend. Although Rome’s father (Tito Vuolo) disowns him, his mother Mama Roma (Mimi Aguglia) defends and hides the two-faced Martin. His impressionable younger brother Tony (Tommy Cook) aggressively rejects Candella’s request for help. Crooked lawyer Niles (Berry Kroeger) tries to trick Rome into confessing to the robbery, but instead foolishly reveals that he is in possession of the stolen jewels. The resourceful Martin Rome makes plans to break out of prison, take the loot from Niles and flee the country with the naïve Teena in tow. And he’s got little Tony to run errands for him. Candella grew up with Rome and knows his family well, but is already two steps behind.
Cry of the City shows Robert Siodmak’s formidable directing talent at full strength; he makes this tightly-wound thriller look effortless. All the scenes and shots fit together like puzzle pieces. Perhaps responding to Fox’s new semi-docu ‘look’, he doesn’t push the expressionist touches as strongly here as in his Criss Cross and Phantom Lady. As is usual Siodmak makes full use of his cast, providing career-best opportunities for familiar faces. Actress Betty Garde usually plays small roles as prison inmates or guards. Here she has a showcase role as a tough nurse with a soft spot for Martin Rome. Succumbing to his charm, she no qualms about putting herself in legal jeopardy, just to please him. The same goes for Walter Baldwin as Orvy, a slightly addled old trustee who has figured out an easy escape route from the hospital prison ward. He gives it to Rome, just to get back at a hated jailer. Some viewers may remember Baldwin as the heartbroken father of the crippled sailor Homer in The Best Years of Our Lives. Baldwin is terrific — his character even gets a satisfying exit laugh. Berry Kroeger came to films from radio. He usually plays one-note slimeballs, like the crooked carnival owner Packy in Gun Crazy. In this early role he displays a broad range of abilities.
Cop Fred Clark has an amusing scene where he eavesdrops on a suspect’s phone call, only to be frustrated when the caller speaks in Italian. We know Clark mostly as a comedy foil in later TV and film work but judging by his excellent contribution here one would expect him to stay in drama. Debra Paget is an obvious standout in her first film. On screen only a minute or so, all she really delivers is a pretty face… but in this case, that’s enough. In the important unbilled role of Rome’s mother is Mimi Aguglia, a stage legend who is also the mother of Argentina Brunetti. Ten years later in The Brothers Rico they would play mother and daughter, again opposite Richard Conte. Ms. Aguglia embodies the immigrant spirit. The only ethnic mistake is young Tommy Cook. The actor projects a good punk attitude when sneaking past the cops and serving as a decoy so that Martin can move freely. But when Cook is called upon to speak Italian, his pronunciation is terrible.
Cry of the City has two more even better performances in reserve. Is it agreed that Shelley Winters’ breakout role was in 1947’s A Double Life? Here she dominates a solid ten minutes as Brenda, a showgirl who hides Martin Rome in her car and finds him a back-street doctor (Konstantin Shayne). Brenda must dodge both the cops and a drunken masher (Howard Freeman) who tries to pick her up in a bar. She delivers Rome to the film’s most original character, one too unique to be a grotesque. Performer/masseuse/burglar Rose Given is a huge woman with a hard, suspicious face, and the talented Hope Emerson plays her to the hilt. In a much commented-on expressionist shot, Rose walks in silhouette through several dark rooms to greet Rome, like a spider emerging from its lair. (top picture above.) Tough guy Martin is still nursing several bullet holes and is as weak as a kitten; one of the movie’s highlights sees Rose suddenly clasping her enormous hands around his neck as if to strangle him. Emerson makes Conte’s neck seem as fragile as the stem of a plant. Rome has been intimidating people for almost an hour, and it’s an amusing-frightening turnabout to see Rose get the upper hand, and put him at her mercy.
Progressive cops ‘n’ robbers shows set in immigrant communities often propose the notion that chance alone sends one kid (Pat O’Brien?) to the priesthood while a best buddy (Jimmy Cagney?) becomes Public Enemy #1. Author Henry Edward Helseth and screenwriter Richard Murphy discard this idea early on. Candella dismisses Rome’s self-serving excuse of a tough background, as he also grew up in the same slum environment. Personal choices and character made the difference in their lives. Latter-day crime pictures follow an equally lazy cliché when they identify thief and cop as soul brothers, opposite sides of the same coin separated only by a hazy morality or an abstraction called The Law. Cry of the City puts the kaibosh on that notion as well. Rome and Candella endure similar, parallel trials. Both are shot, and both bolt from their hospital beds out of desperation and obsession. All men are brothers, but Rome and Candella aren’t part of some half-baked theme that equates cop and crook.
Unlike James Stewart’s Call Northside 777, the movie doesn’t make excuses for the system. The very fact that corrupt attorneys like Niles and abusive jailers like Ledbetter (Roland Winters) can prosper paints a realistic picture. That Martin Rome is so charismatic only makes him more selfish and reckless, a true menace. Rome brings despair and grief to his family, and as Candella points out, ruins the lives of a whole string of misguided people that choose to give him aid.
What makes all this noir? It’s Candella’s obsessive pursuit of Rome. Candella takes his role as an agent of justice seriously. He shows no sign of mercy for those that knowingly break the law, even sentimental individuals like Brenda, or weaklings like Rome’s nurse, or the pathetic doctor desperate for money to care for his wife. Only the punk kid and the innocent girlfriend are spared: “The law doesn’t want you, Teena.” The law does want Rome, and Candella does not hesitate to act when it looks as if Rome will escape once again.
Victor Mature’s career had been rescued by noir pictures, starting with I Wake Up Screaming. Several years later he returned in the popular Kiss of Death. Richard Conte had played soldiers and hoods until he attracted special attention as the innocent prisoner Wiecek in Call Northside 777, an even more popular show. Conte carries much of Cry of the City. Despite not being a standard leading man type, he was so good that he transitioned into leading roles in a long line of pictures: House of Strangers, Thieves’ Highway, New York Confidential, The Big Combo and The Brothers Rico. Conte’s screen image was synonymous with crime noir, so much so that he carries the aura of a ‘past master’ in his supporting role in The Godfather.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Cry of the City came out weeks ago; I panicked when I thought I missed it and am belatedly reviewing it now. It gets a top recommendation as a noir thriller, with characters and situations so good, no excuses need to be made for the film’s age. Excellent cinematography shows the Fox technicians at their best, matching studio sets with real New York exteriors, and making particularly good use of multiple back projections. The very strong audio track of course highlights the tune Street Scene, covering up the fact that the movie does without a soundtrack score of its own. Fox’s use of this same music on multiple titles makes their partly-on-location noirs of the late ‘forties seem to be chapters in some unofficial series.
I shall continue to point out Kino’s changeover to an all-English subtitles policy on every disc I review, just to show my appreciation. I hear frequently from a number of readers that greatly appreciate them.
Kino doesn’t stop there — the commentary with Eddie Muller is a new squawk track and not recycled from an old disc. Eddie is in great form, his love of noir uncompromised by fame, fortune or the wearing of vintage suits and hats. He knocks us over with the detail in his opening explanation of how Cry of the City came to be made — it was initiated as something completely different, a sort of teenage crime picture. Muller’s take on the film’s creative personnel and acting talent comes across with a fine sense of humor and perspective. When he remarks that he’s not a New York person, he quotes a helpful friend that has identified all of the film’s locations in lower Manhattan. He points out a shot of the 3rd Avenue El, that tilts down to find Hope Emerson’s Rose Given walking in the sun, in a big hat and heavy coat. The word ‘iconic’ has been diluted to nothingness from overuse, but that shot still makes me shiver. It’s as striking as the all-in-one image in Kiss Me Deadly that gives us Mike Hammer, driving a brand new Corvette, under Los Angeles’ legendary Angel’s Flight.
We learn that Debra Paget was all of fourteen when the film was shot.. make that fourteen going on dreamy. Young Tommy Cook was a musical multi-talent. Muller praises Cook’s Italian-language dialogue on the telephone phone, but the Italian speakers in my household laughed out loud at the fumbled speech, especially after hearing the precise accents of Tito Vuolo and Mimi Aguglia. Muller always offers insights, not just information, and by the end of his commentary we really feel we’ve learned something. It’s the definition of ‘added value.’
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cry of the City Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: trailer, other noir trailers, feature commentary with Eddie Muller
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 30, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson