Cry of the City (Kino Lorber, NR)

Cry of the City embraces the darker side of humanity in a way that feels surprisingly modern for a 1948 film.

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If you spend a lot of time writing about movies, it’s easy to get all twisted up about matters like whether a plot makes sense. At such times, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s response when Howard Hawks tried to clear up one of the plot points in The Big Sleep. “Who killed the chauffeur?” asked Hawks. Chandler’s immortal response: “No idea.” Maybe that exchange took place, and maybe it didn’t, but the point is clear—if so successful an author as Chandler didn’t care all that much about plotting in the conventional sense, why should you?

That’s an attitude I often find useful when watching film noirs, whose many pleasures should not be diminished by holding them to standards they never intended to meet. Such a film is Cry of the City, whose intricate story takes you on a virtual tour of iconic film noir characters and situations, and if the plot of this film is both confusing and implausible, does any of that really matter?

Cry of the City opens in a prison hospital where Martin Rome (Richard Conte) is receiving last rites before an operation (he received multiple bullet wounds in the course of a robbery the previous night). A quick conversation between a nurse and two police detectives, Candella (Victor Mature) and Collins (Fred Clark), fills in his background as a hardened criminal whose latest exploits include killing a policeman during the robbery. Rome also receives two visitors: first, his improbably innocent girlfriend, Teena (Debra Paget), then a slimy lawyer, Niles (Barry Kroeger), who wants Rome to confess to a separate crime (a jewel robbery) in order to get Niles’ client off the hook. After Rome survives the operation, Candella and Collins return, followed by Niles; both threaten to implicate his girlfriend, and following their visits, Rome decides that his only hope is to escape from the prison hospital (which he manages with the help of a prison trusty played by Walter Baldwin, so he can find the real criminals in Niles’ case, and thus clear his name and protect Teena.

Rome’s attempts to solve the jewel robbery take him on a tour of the criminal underworld and also introduce us to a number of otherwise innocent people who we might today call co-dependents because they act as a support system in his criminal career. These include his younger brother, Tony (Tommy Cook), who would do anything for his big brother, his immigrant mother (Mimi Aguglia, who seems to have come straight from central casting), and his old girlfriend Brenda (Shelley Winters). Brenda is a showgirl (and possibly a prostitute) who does some detective work for Rome and also brings an unlicensed physician to treat his bullet wounds. And how does Brenda know this physician? My suspicion is that he also provides other extra-legal services of which a woman might find herself in need, the kind of implication you could only get away with in a B picture.

Directed by Robert Siodmak, the strengths of Cry of the City lie mostly in the strong performances (there are a lot of characters, many with only a few minutes of screen time, but each is distinct and memorable) and realistic evocation of life among the urban poor (much of the film was shot on location); both give life to a sequence of events that are neither particularly original nor highly plausible. Cry of the City also embraces the darker side of humanity in a way that feels surprisingly modern for a 1948 film.

There’s one more payoff that is in itself sufficient reason to watch this film—the appearance of 6’2” Hope Emerson as a masseuse who makes it clear to Rome that he’s no more than putty in her powerful hands. Emerson, who also performed in side shows as a strongwoman, is best remembered today for her Oscar-nominated performance as a sadistic prison matron in the 1950 chicks-behind-bars classic Caged (1950). | Sarah Boslaugh

Cry of the City is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The chief extra on the disc is an audio commentary by Eddie Muller, aka the “Czar of Noir.”

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