John H. Auer‘s The City That Never Sleeps is an odd hodgepodge of a film. It crosses noir with docudrama with the guardian angel film. Its villains, Hayes Stewart, Lydia Biddel, and Penrod Biddel, are far more compelling than the lead Johnny Kelly. He’s a cop dissatisfied with his life. His hardworking wife Kathy Kelly fears he’s distant due to her higher earning potential, and that may be, but there’s a burlesque dancer Sally “Angel Face” Connors who’s stolen his attention with her shimmies, and she’s tired of sharing him. Johnny hatches a mad plan to pull one shady deal and bring in enough tainted money to run away with his honey. One side character gets drawn into all their stories, and he’s the mechanical man. He’s a great example of how a city can tear down a man, make him lose his humanity, yet offer redemption.
There’s a lot of frustration in this film. Everyone wants more than “what they got.” Sally seems like a harlot for stealing another woman’s man, but she’s not satisfied with her life, and she knows her situation isn’t right. She wants to get out of the club and be a decent girl. She once had dreams. She went to the big city to become a ballerina. She ended up a stripper. Johnny, representing law and order, must be a break from all the jerks that ogle and hassle her, but her time with him and whatever respite it offers are brief. He has to go home at some point to Kathy. She couldn’t get the career she wanted, and she doesn’t even own her own man, and she needs something to change.
Johnny doesn’t seem to realize that no good comes to men that romance women named Angel Face, and he can’t keep away from her, so Sally finally issues her ultimatum. He has to choose between her or Kathy. Johnny’s dissatisfied enough with his life to hatch his crazy scheme. He’s second generation cop, and he’s watched his father work hard for little payoff. Johnny’s wife works, and she likes it, but Johnny seems a traditionalist. He fantasizes about running off with his doll and being the one to save them from the city. Life elsewhere will be better despite how it’s earned or started.
Gregg Warren pines for Sally. He’s a failed actor turned mechanical man. He performs nightly and repeatedly in the club’s front window. Instead of portraying great or funny characters, he’s reduced to imitating an animated mannequin. The less human he seems the more successful he is at his job. He wants more than that. He dreams of stepping out of his glass coffin and onto the stage with Sally. He’ll save her from bumping and grinding by putting her in his comedy act, and she’ll save him. He doesn’t seem to have enough confidence or desire to do it solo, so he’ll hitch his star to Sally to get the gig. While she provides the pulchritude and presence, he’ll provide the brains behind the routine. Sally repeatedly turns him down. She prefers Johnny.
Warren doesn’t realize it, but a third triangle will affect him. Penrod Biddel is a corrupt lawyer, and he’s getting antsy about his number two, Hayes Stewart. Penrod thinks Hayes is getting too big for his britches, so he wants him out of town. Penrod hires Johnny to take care of his problem. Hayes can cool his heels in jail in another state where there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Penrod doesn’t realize his wife Lydia’s been romanced and won by Hayes. Mirroring Johnny and Sally, the two of them are planning their own new life also funded by Penrod’s money. Then their plans go awry.
Gregg is completely oblivious to their drama until he gets to view the second act. He witnesses a murder from his window box. All he can do is be as robotic as possible to save his own life. He needs to keep the murderer thinking that Gregg’s not a real man. The aspect of his job that has dehumanized him the most is what saves his life temporarily. He keeps performing until he can take a break. Meanwhile the murderer isn’t one hundred percent convinced that a dummy was in the window, and he’s going to hang around until he finds out.
The murderer causes more trouble in the club, and this act hits close to home for Johnny. He’s angry, and he needs to catch the criminal now. Gregg isn’t willing to help until Sally explains what has happened. Then Gregg, who’s been the chump of the film until now, commits his act of heroism. He will resume his performance in the window and become live bait for the killer. Gregg needs to commit the best performance of his life in order to keep his own.
Sally finally realizes that Gregg is a good man, and her feelings for him surface. She freaks out about Gregg risking his life. She begs him to stop, to get out of the window, and to save himself. She offers to join his act. Gregg wavers between exhaustion and exhilaration. Sally cares for him! He’s overwhelmed, and he breaks character in one small, but important way. He lets tears fall down his face. His tears are noticed by a couple, and when they comment on them, the murderer overhears. He has to get rid of this witness.
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