Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) makes his money by helping to run a gambling den, but naturally this attracts interest from the police, as it does today when he is approaching the premises and notices the cops raiding the place; he takes shelter in the diner across the road until they have gone, then goes in to survey the damage. In spite of the raid, Danny is confident he can get back in business fairly soon and awaits the return of his associates, but money is always tighter than he would really like, and he's always on the lookout for a fresh opportunity - or a fresh face to fleece. His girlfriend is Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott), a nightclub singer, and she might provide a prompt for another sucker to fall into his orbit...
Dark City, not to be confused with the Alex Proyas science fiction movie over forty years later, will always be known as Charlton Heston's debut as a leading man, though on this evidence the studio were seeking to place him in the mould of another new star, Burt Lancaster, or perhaps Kirk Douglas, and not the more rugged heroes he would customarily play for the rest of his career. In fact, by the end of this it's as if they were writing the script around Heston's burgeoning persona, for he begins as a heel and ends up as the character we would be more used to from him over subsequent movies, which at least renders the opening half hour interesting as he was essaying a more villainous part than you'd be accustomed to.
Danny is still an anti-hero at any rate, this being inflected by film noir's influence, but it didn't quite fit that template. For a start, Lizabeth Scott may have been the female lead, but she wasn't playing the femme fatale, there wasn't one, leaving her as something of a doormat when it came to the whims of Danny. Scott didn't have long to rein as a noir queen as the genre didn't last for enough time to be something she could build a solid career on, and when she had the chance to branch out she was hit by a scandal spreading rumours she was a lesbian, a no-no in the conservative nineteen-fifties, though ironically this did lend her popularity as a minor gay icon, whatever the truth to that hearsay. Here she was sold rather short, since there's a stretch in the middle where she disappears from the plot.
Whereupon Viveca Lindfors took over as the young widow Danny becomes interested in. Why was that? It was down to him feeling guilt over her late husband as he may have contributed to his suicide, committed when the man, Arthur Winant (Don DeFore), was pressured into gambling with a lot of someone else's money. For Danny and his partners, the corpulent, ulcer-afflicted Barney (Ed Begley) and grim, argumentative Augie (Jack Webb, playing a criminal before he was established as television's most famous police detective of this decade), this was just another scam, easy cash in a poker game of the sort they had pulled off many times before, but for Arthur it was a personal tragedy, so really the gang were culpable and we have the sense that they deserve everything that's coming to them.
That being a hulking "psychopath" of whom we only see his shovel-like hands with a distinctive ring on one finger: Sidney (Mike Mazurki, of course), the brother of Arthur out for revenge, and hanging up his victims to make it look as if they have killed themselves too. The cops, led by Dean Jagger, are aware this is not what it seems, but powerless to stop Sidney for some reason (he's not exactly the most anonymous of folks), so Danny takes it upon himself to prevent his own murder. This sounds like it should be a solid thriller, yet the further it goes on the more it runs out of steam, as if the filmmakers found their plot was not as substantial as they initially thought, and though there were plenty of interesting actors here, they were unable to bulk up the drama when it came across as so meandering and anaemic. Add in a bunch of timewasting songs for Scott to perform in her act, too many diversions when keeping things claustrophobically centered on the city would have been more beneficial to the tension, and the compensation was in Heston's nascent star power. Music by Franz Waxman.