Cry Of The City is a Film Noir which plays out like a 1940’s Greek tragedy. It is a poignant and powerful tale of injustice, love, the desire for a second chance and the inability to avoid the hand in life dealt to us by fate. Not only does the film make us fully support and sympathise with the villain of the piece, but it also gets us to sympathise equally with the detective who is tasked with pursuing him.
The hero and villain both developing mutual respect and realising that they are both more alike than they’d care to admit, is undoubtedly one of the oldest of the storytelling tropes, and it is put to very effective use indeed in Cry Of The City. This film takes that trope one step further than most by revealing to us that the two main characters, Martin Rome and Lt. Vitorrio Candella, had both grown up in the same crime infested slum and were friends as children. Both men went down very different paths in life. They both see the other as the living embodiment of the type of person they could easily have become had things turned out differently for them.
In many ways Cry Of The City is quite similar to Michael Mann’s Heat(1995). Both films have the criminal and the cop beginning to respect, understand and even like each other the more they interact with one another. Both films also delve far beneath the surface of their lead characters to show us the souls of both men, and in doing so allow us to see that their characters are more similar than dissimilar.
Cry Of The City is directed by Robert Siodmak(The Spiral Staircase, The Killers). Siodmak was loaned out from Universal Studios in order to make this for Twentieth Century Fox. The film is based upon the 1947 novel The Chair For Martin Rome by Henry Edward Helseth. Twentieth Century Fox purchased the rights to the novel not too long after it was published and adapted it for the screen very quickly. The film was partly shot on location on the streets of New York. This one joins the ranks of those other Noir flicks whose location work lends an almost documentary look to the finished film.
Hardened criminal Martin Rome(Richard Conte), kills a police officer in a shootout and is himself injured and taken to hospital under guard. He is visited there by shady lawyer, Niles(Berry Kroeger),who tries to get Martin to confess to a robbery and murder which were actually committed by another client of his, a fellow criminal called Whitey Leggatt, and a female accomplice called Rose(a scene stealing Hope Emerson, playing a masseuse who you really wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of).Martin quite rightly refuses to take the rap for something he didn’t do, but this then leads Niles to threaten Martin’s gentle and innocent fiance, Teena(Debra Paget, in her debut film role). Martin attacks him and is transferred to a prison hospital.
The injured Martin breaks out of prison(a sequence which is one of my favourite in any Noir film)and goes on the run. Martin must now protect his girl, find out who really committed the murder and theft Niles has tried to pin on him, and also try and evade Lt. Candella(Victor Mature), the detective who is trying to capture him. Martin has help in the form of his ex-girlfriend, Brenda(Shelley Winters in one of her key early roles) in tracking down the female accomplice in the murder and theft. While all of this is going on Martin is gradually succumbing more and more to his injury.
“There won’t be any shooting in this house as long as Mama’s here!”
While it is true that the film’s main focus is on the two male characters, there are also many memorable female characters who we focus on as well. The women in Cry Of The City not only represent the different types of women found in life, but they also serve to show us what women must contend with in the world of crime, death, heartbreak and darkness that is Film Noir.
Teena is naive to the dark realities of the life her beloved Martin is a part of. Teena doesn’t care what he has done, she only cares that they love each other and she believes they will get a happy ending. Brenda is a more worldly gal, one who is wise to the realities and accepts them and finds a way to make a life for herself within that world. Brenda also has a heart of gold and will do anything for anyone. Rose knows the realities of this world all too well. Rose is a strong woman who plays men at their own game and also rather interestingly lives a life of complete independence running her own massage business. Mama Rome represents the woman who is the heart of the home and has an inner strength which helps her survive the bad times in life. Mama is also someone who never stops loving their children, even if those children take a wrong step along their way down the path of life.
The film also focuses very heavily on the importance of family and on the personal life of the criminal. When Rome is in the home of his elderly mother(Mimi Aguglia), he leaves his dodgy activities outside the door, and it is she, rather than him, who is the boss of that home. She is everything to him. She knows what he does and isn’t afraid to call him out on what he does.
In a very poignant scene she confesses that she should have put a stop to him getting into a bad life when he was younger, but he sent her money and she needed it and accepted it without asking questions. Their relationship is the heart of the film and their relationship is tinged with sadness. She also worries for his fiancé because she knows that their relationship will most likely end in heartbreak(she ain’t wrong). Mimi steals every scene and her performance and character linger in the memory long after the film has finished.
Richard Conte delivers one of the best performances of his career as Martin Rome. He is a regular face in Film Noir and remains best known to fans for his chilling and sadistic performance in The Big Combo but this film offers him a very different type of role. Martin Rome is certainly a bad guy, but he isn’t sadistic, mean or unhinged. Martin wants to get married and escape his criminal life. He has done bad things in the past but he longs for a clean slate and a second chance. The tragic irony is that in order to seek the truth and clear his name he becomes even more of a criminal because he cannot avoid using violence, and therefore he gets dragged even deeper down into the darkness of those streets he knows so well.
I love the nuance that Richard brings to this character. Richard is tough with a “don’t mess with me” attitude one moment, and then the next he is vulnerable and shows us the man beneath the protective macho mask. He has you on his side completely and makes you long for a happy ending for him, all the while knowing full well that such endings are rare indeed in Noir.
Victor Mature blew me away in this. He steals every scene he is in and his performance is often quite subtle. Watch his eyes and body language in this because he conveys so much with both. He more than convinces as the tough and capable cop who will do what must be done.In some ways Victor has the more interesting character of the two to portray because there is a lot going on emotionally/psychologically with him. Candella doesn’t just see Martin as a criminal who he must bring to justice. Candella knows the childhood Martin endured and remembers what it was like, but Candella had the sense and strength to say no to crime and walk away, whereas Martin got sucked into that life. He sympathises with Martin in many ways, but he never pities him because at the end of the day he could have turned his back on that life and didn’t. Candella also loves and respects Mama Rome and has known her since he was a kid. He knows that whatever he does to Martin will hurt her and we know that he feels awful because of that fact.
Candella won’t give Martin a free ride because of their shared history, he will pursue him because he is on the side of the law. I also love how Candella realises he can’t save Martin, but he can try to save Martin’s kid brother Tony from following his brother into a life of crime.This subplot is very moving and you are on Candella’s side in his endeavour, even though your heart goes out to Tony for his loyalty to his older brother who he idolises. This is a good example of the power of this film, it has you rooting for and feeling for most of the characters, often all at the same time too. It is a film which packs quite an emotional wallop as a result.
Hope Emerson steals all her scenes as the deadly Rose. She literally towers over other cast members due to her size and is a very imposing and dominating figure.The character of Rose is fascinating. Who can forget that moment when you see what she is capable of doing with her hands to defend herself? While Rose isn’t in that many scenes, she becomes possibly the most memorable character in the film. She is certainly one of the most unforgettable women in Film Noir in general.
The supporting cast all deliver solid performances. Debra Paget’s performance in particular is very moving and exceptional for a screen debut. I can’t recommend this one highly enough to Noir fans. If you like a gritty, suspenseful, moving and bleak film, then this is certainly one for you. Have you seen this film? What do you think of it?