John H Auer’s City That Never Sleeps is a bizarre mixture of realistic film noir, procedural crime drama like The Naked City and a fantasy fable like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Its such an odd combination that it has a surreal Twilight Zone-like feel, a sense of unreality persisting throughout which is at odds with its attempt to be gritty and ‘real’ (or at least as far as film censors would allow at the time).
It begins with shots of the city of Chicago at dusk, “I am the city, the hub and heart of America…” instantly instilling the feeling of a Rod Serling introduction for a Twilight Zone episode, albeit here with the casual cosiness of the Angels chatting in the beginning of Capra’s classic. We are introduced by this narrator through short vignettes to the key players in the drama to follow, and then we are off and running on a busy night in which a troubled cop, Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), has come to a crossroads in his life and has to make some life-changing choices. Gig Young himself is a piece of casting that instantly evoked Twilight Zone again, as he appeared in what was possibly its very best episode, Walking Distance, several years later.
Kelly is a career cop, albeit a career for which Kelly seems to feel little inclination, forced on him by family tradition (his father a long-time cop near the end of his own career) increasingly resenting, and feeling emasculated by, the fact that his wife earns more than him (and endlessly reminded of it by his mother-in-law who feels her daughter married the wrong guy). So Kelly feels trapped in a job he doesn’t like and a marriage on the rocks, and tonight is the night he has to make a final decision regards quitting his job and accepting the corrupting influence of crooked lawyer Penrod Biddel (a commanding Edward Arnold) whose offer of big money leads Kelly to think he can then leave town with his nightclub dancer mistress and set up a better life on his own terms.
Having prepared his resignation letter, Kelly begins what he expects to be his last night shift and finds his usual partner is off sick- replaced by an unknown Police Sergeant, Joe (Chill Willis) whose voice is instantly recognised as the narrator who opened our tale. So there is an air of the supernatural here, with Sgt Joe playing a similar role to George Bailey’s Clarence, Sgt Joe’s subtle remarks to Kelly teasing and prompting him during their night patrol about the value and nobility in being an honest cop protecting the decent people of the city that never sleeps.
Kelly is already something of a corrupt cop and certainly an adulterer, and tonight is evidently his last chance before falling into a bad life of ill repute. The film seems to paint him as inherently a good guy being corrupted by others but I have to say, I took something of a dislike to him from the start. He’s obviously been cheating on his wife (and leading along his mistress Sally (Mala Powers)) and has been working for Riddel in a minor capacity, giving him tips about police cases for some time. This almost soap opera element is the films weakest part, but that may not have been helped by me missing some points during the first third. Riddel has enlisted Kelly to rid him off an over-ambitious associate, William Talman (Hayes Stewart), and the young partner with Talman is Kelly’s own younger brother, Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who is being pulled deeper into Talman’s own schemes to ruin Riddel. So there is some extra tension there that I missed, becoming quite puzzled towards the end when Stubby and Kelly are obviously so apparently so close and familiar, and Kelly hellbent on protecting Stubby. Maybe I was distracted by the melodrama of Kelly’s wife smartly suspecting her husband of resigning from the force and going to Kellys father, John ‘pop’ Kelly Snr in an attempt to save her marriage and husbands career.
In my defence, there’s clearly a whole lot going on here- sections with Talman ruthlessly desperate to thwart Riddel, the machinations of Riddel and his own wife’s betrayal, the romantic triangle between Kelly, Sandy and her nightclub colleague Gregg who is desperately in love with Sandy. Throw in random crimes/incidents during Kelly’s night patrol with the mysterious Sgt Joe… all of it mixed up with the three seperate styles of film playing out (film noir/police procedural, fantasy fable) and its quite a curious film. I did enjoy it, but the three styles of film don’t really gel, and I actually wonder if it needed the Twilight Zone-like Sgt.Joe/fantasy fable sub-plot at all.
Almost an interesting failure, ultimately its more than a sum of its many parts, largely saved by some great location shooting, particularly in the latter section when it goes full-on film noir with shafts of light, heavy back-light and low camera angles. Its a great, tense finale and there are some genuine surprises during the film too, including what happens to Kelly’s father who begins to realise his son is compromised by Riddel’s criminal schemes. The final set-piece involving a chase through the streets and over Chicago’s famous elevated railroad track is very good indeed and quite memorable – its almost a pity when the noir aspects are finally dispelled in order to give audiences a positive, life-affirming conclusion. I’m still not really convinced that Kelly deserved it.