Directed by Rachel Samuels. Starring Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips, Izabella Miko, Elias Koteas, Jarreth J. Merz, Michael Fairman, Toledo Diamond. (2008, R, 83 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Dec. 12, 2008
Let no one ever say that Dark Streets doesn’t have the perfect title. It may not be much more than a stylized regurgitation of creaky film-noir clichés and crime-fiction conventions … but its streets are undeniably dark. As are its bedrooms, boardrooms, hallways, and power plants. In fact, the whole movie looks like it was shot through a piece of cheesecloth, as if the search for the right visual complement to this tale of urban decay, melancholy, and murder caused director Samuels to overshoot symbolic murkiness and crash-land in a world of near-comic indecipherability. Watching it, I felt like Claudius at the opening-night performance of The Mousetrap – Give me some light! – and entertained a similar notion of stomping out of the theatre. But no one ever said being a film critic would be a bowl of chocolate ice cream, so I toughed it out (with help from the film’s soundtrack, a collection of blues originals performed by legends like Etta James, Aaron Neville, and B.B. King, all of whom know a little something about spinning darkness into art) and managed, with considerable squinting, to tie together the various strands of the movie’s muddled storyline. Mann plays Chaz Davenport, the despondent son of a rich but recently deceased father living in a crime-ridden Depression-era city where gangsters have hijacked the municipal power supply. He’s in debt to loan sharks all over town, but the nightclub he owns doesn’t make any money. So, facing the prospect of an unpleasant death, Chaz does what any red-blooded man living on borrowed time would do: He drinks to excess and sleeps with as many of the club’s dancers as he can. This includes mysterious new girl Madelaine (Miko), a femme fatale with doe eyes, a seductive singing voice, and a creepy father (Koteas) who looks like Erich von Stroheim in The Grand Illusion … if von Stroheim’s character in Grand Illusion were the synthesizer player in a goth band. It’s not clear what Madelaine and her dad are up to, whether they’re looking to protect Chaz or ruin him, or if Chaz realizes just how much trouble he’s in, but what is clear is that Samuels and screenwriter Wallace King are huge Mickey Spillane fans. They happily chart their hero’s descent into the criminal underworld with that familiar brand of naked-city, private-detective, raincoats-and-fedoras, tough-guys-and-dangerous-dames, pop-existential street poetry Spillane raised to an art form but that has long since become a formula and a gag. Dark Streets may be rich in mood, but it’s less an original movie than a copy of a copy of a copy of something Hollywood once dabbled in and then forgot about, a collection of 1950s B-movie mannerisms that would have made for a great parody if only it were capable of laughing at its own hard-boiled absurdity.