Before the plot of The Sleeping City (1950) gets underway, actor Richard Conte delivers a prologue by introducing himself to the motion picture audience and stating that though City was filmed on location using the facilities of NYC’s famous Bellevue Hospital…the story is fictional—it didn’t take place at Bellevue or any other city’s hospital, for that matter. (I half-expected him to get down on his knees and beg “For God’s sake, please don’t sue us.”) The reason why Dick must assure us that this is all make-believe is that the Big Apple’s then-Mayor, William O’Dwyer, was torqued off that City’s filmmakers reneged on their agreement not to mention Bellevue in the publicity material. (O’Dwyer also believed the movie painted Bellevue in an unfavorable light, which is why Conte does a little groveling by gushing about the institution and the fine men and women who work there.)
I suppose you can’t blame Hizzoner for getting his mayoral undies in a wad. In the opening scenes, a doctor named Foster (future Lassie dad Hugh Reilly) is shot point-blank in the head by persons unknown, and this is never good news for any hospital. A team headed up by Inspector Gordon (John Alexander) is brought in to investigate the killing…but Gordon and his men are getting nowhere, and when desperate circumstances require desperate measures, you bring in (music sting) The Confidential Squad! (I swear I am not making this up; the movie’s working title was Confidential Squad at one point, as well as Web of the City.) The C.S. (well, I’m comfortable calling it that) is an elite unit of undercover detectives who are specially trained to work on the inside…and since one of those men, Fred Rowan (Conte), has a couple of years of pre-med under his belt (as well as experience in the Medical Corps during the war), he’s the perfect candidate to impersonate an intern and try to crack the case.
As Fred Gilbert, Rowan’s application is accepted and he goes to work in the Traumatics section of the hospital, working in tandem with ward nurse Ann Sebastian (Coleen Gray). Fred’s roomie is Steve Anderson (Alex Nicol), a bitter intern who very much wants to earn the fundage to start a private practice…but most ambitious young medicos must marry into money for such a thing to happen, and Steve has the misfortune to be in love with financially-strapped nurse Kathy Hall (Peggy Dow). An eccentric elevator operator, “Pop” Ware (Richard Taber), offers young doctors a chance at riches by innocuously placing bets on horse races for the interns…but when Steve commits suicide, Rowan learns that Ware is involved in something far more sinister than a casual “playing the ponies.”
This will give you an idea of how long it’s been since I watched The Sleeping City: I caught it on the old American Movie Classics, in those heady halcyon days when cable could support two classic film channels. So when I got a heads-up from ClassicFlix that City was going to be released as part of Universal’s MOD Vault Series (along with several other noirs including An Act of Murder  and A Woman’s Vengeance ) at the end of January, I e-mailed CF’s associate editor Kristen “K-Lo” Lopez to see if it would be possible to secure a screener (I would write it up for my “Where’s That Been?” column, natch). Sadly, the screener fell through…so I was forced to rely on my own mettle and look elsewhere; I tracked down a copy (at a substantially discounted price, I might add) that not only looks positively pristine…I’m not entirely convinced it’s not a copy of the DVD. (I will not publicly reveal where I got this…because snitches get stitches.)
The feature still holds up well; it was scripted by Jo Eisinger—whose other noirs include Night and the City (1950) and Crime of Passion (1957)—and directed by George Sherman, the B-western veteran who sat in the chair on a lot of Republic’s Three Mesquiteers vehicles (George became good friends with John Wayne, and helmed the Duke’s Big Jake in 1971). Richard Conte is a favorite noir icon here at Rancho Yesteryear—Call Northside 777 (1948), House of Strangers (1949), Thieves’ Highway (1949)—and along with another TDOY Dark City fave, Coleen Gray (Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley), was borrowed from 20th Century-Fox to make this solid docu-noir. Conte was great at playing both heroes and villains (The Big Combo), and he’s first-rate here; he has two standout scenes—one in which he temporarily freezes in fright when Coleen’s nurse informs him of a patient who’s gone into insulin shock (Conte’s “doc” isn’t sure he can help the patient…and that admission will blow his cover) and the other when he comes to a sudden realization as to who else is involved with ‘Pop’ Ware’s shady operation. I also thought both Conte and Gray had a nice chemistry; there’s a laugh-out-loud moment when Ann asks Fred about his family and he reveals he has two sisters.
“Girl?” she asks further. “Yes, both of them are,” he replies. (Well, I laughed at it—she’s asking him if he’s attached to anyone, of course.)
Richard Taber is a standout as “Pop,” who seems like a harmless old man at first…and then is gradually revealed to be a most menacing presence, responsible for the deaths of two men. John Alexander effectively plays against type as the top cop on the case; no matter what I see him in I always think of him as the batty Brewster who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace. Character great Robert Strauss is unbilled as a detective named—Andrew Leal is going to love this—Barney Miller (that’s what the [always reliable] IMDb says; the AFI says his character’s name is Marty Miller…but I’m pretty sure I heard “Barney”) and if you’re quick you’ll spot James Daly as an intern (I’ll bet he’s “Dr. Lochner” from Medical Center) and TDOY fave Michael Strong as the doctor who gives the new interns a guided tour of the facility.
I felt that though The Sleeping City is a little poky coming out of the gate it gradually builds up nice momentum…the scripting is tight and the cinematography (by The Phil Silvers Show’s William Miller, who, if the IMDb is to be believed, is still with us at the age of 124—make of that what you will) outstanding, the perfect complement to the movie’s on-location backgrounds. The New York Times’ legendary Bosley Crowther (after shooing some kids of his yard) dismissed City by remarking “there is little about The Sleeping City to distinguish it from any thriller film.” (If I ever reach the point where I am that unhappy watching movies I want you good people to put me out of my misery.)