b rad’s review:
or, The Power of a Great Ending.
A very atypical noir that suffers in some area - namely script - but delivers (and better yet, innovates) in most others, with a denouement that is not just technically great filmmaking, but delivers a climax that brings a catharsis that you didn't think this movie had up its sleeve and contextualises it in this brilliant way, ending with that memorable line that in many ways has eclipsed the film itself, such is how often it's been appropriated since. The film is about how these stories and events in all our lives make us lose any sense of perspective - this case has an incredible impact on a small group of individuals, but in the wider scheme of things for the average person it's just a newspaper headline, vaguely sensationalist in an abstract sense. In a city of 8 million people, what is a murder case? In an unintentionally meta way, the otherwise notable shortcomings of the film almost play into it's overall meaning - it's not fascinating, but this sort of macabre banality plays into it's function in the world of the film - it's not that interesting or notable, but it affects parents, it gives the police a way to earn their income and it sells newspapers.
The 8 million stories aren't individual strands running parallel, they're interweaving threads making up the fabric of the life of the city. When, you think about it, there are a lot of speaking parts in this all mixed up in this web - random people on trains that engage with our characters, smaller anecdotes like the brother of the villain make us imagine plot and histories of these characters outside the film - it's a very expansive plot in that regard, and reinforced by visual metaphors like the wrestlers physically tangled up in a submission hold and the constant mis-en-scene where characters will be pushed together within the frame, sitting on the same desk or framed under the same window or something. This film is about the life of the city and it's vital organs under the microscope and it's 8 million cells working together.
Visually, the film is impressive and quite experimental - it's on location documentary style gives it a free and chaotic feel that not all noirs of the era have, and not far removed from silent classics like Man With a Movie Camera or Berlin Symphony of a Great City, where New York is as central and idiosyncratic a character as any of the talking and breathing ones. There's also this strange narration that I really liked - not just omniscient, but with a discernible personality as it taunts and makes fun of the city's inhabitants not just in moments of great drama, but in moments of absurdist tedium. It's really peculiar, but I really liked that.
However that all said it's a film that I've enjoyed more thinking about than watching, and parts of the first hour are a bit laboured. On a dramatic level the ending is thrilling, but the talk middle sections not as much so - it also lacks the verbal wit that some of the noirs of the period have. Also, the acting is across the board only serviceable. So on a checklist of constituent elements of noir, on paper it doesn't add up to be that impressive, but it's almost at odds with being a noir, such is how much it subverts the traditions - it's almost always daytime, and the femme fatale is dead for almost the entire run-time. There's also cooler things going on on a thematic and visual level. So it's a film I'm having a hard (but rewarding) time reconciling my feelings on, that could have been 3 or 4 stars as well, but I do recommend it.