Cry of the City – “A film that, despite its 1948 release, has thoroughly modern principles…”

Remember Barzini? The old-crone who was taken out on the steps of the New York Supreme Courthouse in The Godfather? An unforgettable face in Coppola’s masterpiece, he is [spoilers for The Godfather…] the mob-boss behind Sonny’s murder and the powerful force that manages to convince Tessio to give up Michael Corleone. Actor Richard Conte demands our attention, and carries the menace that could rival – but not overpower – the Don’s empire. It goes without saying that Conte wasn’t plucked from obscurity and was chosen carefully by Coppola. He had an unforgettable career in noir thrillers, including one of his earliest, stand-out roles in Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City.

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Running through April and May, the BFI are dedicating a season to Robert Siodmak, and it is Cry of the City that is on extended run. It’s direct, immediate and snaps along like the rat-a-tat-tat of a tommy gun. Akin to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, it begins after the caper as Marty Rome (Richard Conte) is laid out on a hospital bed. His girlfriend, Teena Ricante (Debra Paget), visits him. He has few words to say, and she only speaks of her love for him. A lawyer, Niles, questions Marty, but he can barely speak. A cross between Orson Welles and Peter Lorre, Niles is slippery and in our initial introduction, we’re not sure who to trust. Police Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature) lurks alongside. In the shoot-out that took out Marty, a police officer was killed and Candella wants justice. Marty begins to recuperate, and as he speaks, we realise those loving words shared in the opening may be for a villainous criminal. He tries to kill the sneaky lawyer when in hospital; he sneaks out of prison; he kills others in cold blood. Candella, friend of the community, knows Marty and his family – even referring to Marty’s mother as ‘Mama’ – and he’ll stop at nothing in ensuring Marty is behind bars.

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Subtitled, ‘Prince of Shadows’, the Robert Siodmak season at the BFI has chosen a cracking film to get an idea of his accessible oeuvre. Darkly lit, and filmed on location in New York’s Italian communities, it pre-dates Martin Scorsese’s accurate-locale of Mean Streets. Indeed, it’s a simple story, but told and structured in an innovative and unique way. Cry of the City not only manages to tell a tale of gangsters and cops, but manages to hint at a darker subtext on the streets. In one memorable sequence of events, a doctor who cares for his wife is contacted to help Marty. This doctor needs to survive, and it is only through a drunken-flirt that he is found out. Who is the real criminal? The doctor who cares for his wife, or the lecherous alcoholic? Marty’s brother, Tony (Tommy Cook), looks up to his elder brother. When he sees Marty’s true colours, even he realises how corrupted his brother has become. The impoverished streets, and the thrilling role model of Marty, are what led him astray. Writer Richard Murphy (with help from an uncredited Ben Hecht) clearly argues how people can change. An unjust society breeds crime, and the doctor and Tony Rome are victims in this cruel world.

The final act is worth the wait. Cry of the City delivers on the confrontation between Candella and Marty. Marty reveals how malicious he really is – and Candella provides evidence of his own urban-upbringing in the way he handles a nifty knife. Even the true villain; the one pulling the strings, is a powerful, intelligent woman in Rose Givens (Hope Emerson). This is a film that, despite its 1948 release, has thoroughly modern principles. In a corrupt world, criminals come in all forms. Cry of the City tells us nothing is as simple as ‘bad’ and ‘good’. The good are lucky; the bad didn’t have a chance.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 17th April, 2015

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